Usability? No Thanks, I’m A Motoring Correspondent

Car & Driver, who are usually quite sensible, betrayed a distinct, glaring flash of silliness when they complained about the size of the gear lever in the new Buick Lacrosse.

2017 Buick Lacrosse interior:
2017 Buick Lacrosse interior:

This is what C&D wrote about the interior: “Outside is a handsome exterior; inside, the cabin is vastly improved over the old model’s. With a simple, flowing design and much nicer materials, the Buick’s innards are spoiled only by the oversize, BMW-style electronic shift lever. It is the only interior component seemingly still geared toward geriatric users (look at the size of an outgoing LaCrosse‘s dashboard buttons and you’ll know what we’re on about here). Otherwise, the Buick is lighter, sweeter, and we’re looking forward to driving it.

This kind of thing makes me want to shout. Usability is an essential element to the design of any object intended for use by humans (that includes cars). Humans come in a range of sizes and with a spread of abilities. If Buick is going to exclude some of those users in the name of styling that makes it questionable design, bordering on the unethical.

The implication one gets from reading C&D’s odd comment is that they want small buttons and fiddly controls. Every other aspect of cars is judged on fitness for purpose: engine, suspension, steering and accommodation. It’s inconsistent to look for and to praise a design that makes the secondary controls smaller and therefore less useful and less safe than they could be. It’s a very nicely shaped dashboard and there is lots of space there to have larger buttons – and all this without making them look unsatisfactory.

C&D betray a rather noxious dismissal of older users which would be unacceptable if directed at other slices of society. Choose a minority of your own and think of a way to exclude them – would that go over? This small piece of their article also betrays a general disconnection between motoring writers and the large base of consumers who use these machines on a daily basis.

Here’s the outgoing car’s interior. Those buttons and controls don’t look all that huge either. These aren’t buttons the size of beermats.

2014 Buick Lacrosse inteior:
2014 Buick Lacrosse inteior:

From this I draw the general rule that it’s a bad idea to sneer at various user groups on the basis of non-discretionary traits. Industrial designers produce solutions for diverse slices of society and large spectra of user capabilities. Motoring writers – some of them – seem only to judge a car by the way it satisfies their own needs.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Usability? No Thanks, I’m A Motoring Correspondent”

  1. I often feel that car interiors are designed with switches far too small and with complication designed in.

    1. Absolutely. Early this year I flew to Texas, rented a Ford Fiesta and drove to a memorial service for an old friend. This last is something we old curmudgeons do. Young idiots, sorry, automotive journalists and their friends will, of course, live forever.

      The Fiesta’s dash was ugly and tiled with incomprehensible apparently unmarked tiny buttons. What an insult!

  2. is your shifter critic. He was probably struggling for an angle to fill out the Buick Lacrosse entry in his motorshow listicle photo gallery caption thing, because he had a mounting backlog of German premium manufacturer press releases to repackage for the C&D newsfeed and his editor expected the listicle to go live 5 minutes ago.

    1. Yup, it’s a bit “automatic writing” in tone. Still, isn’t being a good writer about having the capacity to step back for a second to reconsider such thought burps before hitting “send”?

    2. Please don’t get the impression I have a positive or sympathetic opinion of the scenario I mentioned. It’s a high pressure environment that rewards speed and a bit of opinionated commentary from the ‘writer’ on the way to the viewing public but readers don’t really learn anything. What’s the point? Entertainment?

      Loudest Common Denominator tends to win these days so while I can imagine a worthwhile feature where a motoring mag asked a usability designer to rank the interiors, in less time than that took to build you could probably earn the same amount of advertising value in site traffic with pithy listicles of sexiest cars, ugliest spokesmodels, wierdest CEOs, most significant celebrity endorsements etc.

  3. Nice piece of cheap looking black plastic on the tunnel around the shift lever and up to the dashboard… such a shame. About the buttons: add a small chrome bezel, they will look smaller and richer.

    1. That plastic looks okay to me. It’s not shiny. Would you put wood across the whole way? You could – it might look okay or perhaps excessive for certain colour/material options.

  4. Just stating the bleedin’ obvious: it’s an AUTOMATIC gear shift. Of course it’s for the geriatrics. And women. The bigger the better then.

    1. I’m truly sorry to disagree with you, but this geriatric whose car has manual transmissions thinks that automatic transmissions are for ignorant children. My wife is slightly older than I am. Her car also has manual transmission. I don’t mean to insult you directly, but if I did, well, that’s unfortunate.

    2. I think Sam was being ironic.
      For four years I lived and breathed universal design so I know this professionally- I come to this with the idea that discriminatory design is first unethical and second bad business. Fred’s Fiesta buttons are a case in point. Ford made a lot of money and sold a lot of cars with good interfaces designed on UD principles. They should know better than to have chosen such an inadequately conceived layout as in the successor. Shame on them. Designers who can’t work to the conditions should stay at home and stick to self-expressive fine art.

  5. Mark- indeed, it’s true speed is of the essence to a greater or lesser extent everywhere. Car and Driver could be expected to be a little more thoughtful though.

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