Blog: Design Musings and Other Nonsense

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Ooh, Shiny!

This past Sunday I got home for a week-plus long trip down to S. Cal. The sun, in a word, was awesome, and it was a great trip. However, there was one experience that still sticks out in my mind. It is an In-Real-Life (IRL) UX issue, one of those issues that just make you mutter “what, the, what??” every time you come across it. That experience had to do with a button. A button that starts a car.

One of the parts of travel I could do without is the rented car. I guess between my stockpile of muscle memory, and being a curmudgeon about poorly-designed things (e.g., things that don’t make sense to me, and probably only me), I always find rental cars to be, well, odd. Maybe I am just used to a certain type of car, and anything that works differently is wrong (or, more often, dumb), and I find myself scratching my head at all of the counter-intuitive things that go into the experience with a modern car, often wondering if I am just backwards, or if they just don’t test these things with real people.

Engine StartAnyhow, one of the “features” of this car was a start/stop button. This is my first time coming across this, and I was perplexed. Ostensibly, there is a neat-o factor having a start/stop button in a car (it sorts of reminds me of a missile launch, or other important sort of button). But, to me anyway, this “feature” is without any practical function whatsoever. At least in the car I was in, I still had to (oddly) insert the entire key-fob into a receptacle (which, curiously, looked a lot like a larger sort of keyhole). I mean, if they are going to innovate, go all the way. Put an RFID tag in the key and have the button be activated when the FOB is within a certain proximity of the car. Bonus points for unlocking the driver door when I walk up.

Let me be clear. I can see why car companies do this. There is, I suppose, a futuristic/techy sort of feel for this sort of feature. But, after pressing it a couple of times (and, for me, even after the first time), I was left scratching my head, wondering why this thing should even be. It is not any easier (in fact, it is harder because you have to insert the “don’t call it a key” thing AND push a button, taking something that was formerly one step and making it two).

I mean, is inserting a key AND twisting it really that hard, or broken? It sort of reminds me of the start of every infomercial, you know the one, where someone is frustrated with something (usually a kitchen/home item), and exclaims, “there has to be a better way!!!”. Are there ways to innovate the ignition key? I am sure there are. Fingerprint readers, voice recognition, something Jarvis would do, etc. But, in practical use, this thing was beyond stupid. It was taking something simple, making it harder (adding complexity for no function), and doing so just for the sake of appearance, or to meet some (possibly imaginary) consumer whim. You know, the same reasons almost all of the horrible design changes that have ever been made were based upon.

I love innovation, and I love it when designers riff on the mundane and find some delight that can extracted. But this, this was just dumb. It was a bright, shiny object that made the experience worse. Even after 10 days, I still found it harder to start the car than if I had used a key.

I don’t know, maybe I am just a usability crum-bum that gets perturbed when things don’t work exactly how I think they should. But I have to think I am not alone. I love great design. And to me, great design is about solving a problem, in a really smart way, with a certain point of view. I may not agree with the point of view, or the solution, but I can respect people taking a stab at solving a problem. This, on the other hand, is solving an imaginary problem, all the while, making the process worse. To me, that is the worst, most gratuitous type of design, which makes this Grumpy-Gus put keys to keyboard and ask why. Why does this exist, who thinks this is important, this is worse. Maybe someone knows, but to me, it is a mystery.

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