How Many Ergonomic Flaws Can One Car Have?

The Avensis tested here is now out of production. This appears to be a 2014-2015 model. The user-interface proved so troubling I had to make that aspect into a separate article. 

2014 Toyota Avensis 1.8

The rest of the review comes later. The controls are divided into two sets, the driving controls and the auxiliaries. I will deal with the auxiliaries in this article. Overall, the Avensis is riddled with odd choices and evidence of poor decision-making. It exemplifies a number of user-interface principles, but negatively.

The problems started when I tried to

set off and could not find the parking brake at all. I looked left of the wheel and found a large drawer that could hold an iPhone (or two biscuits). There was nothing on the centre console and no obvious lever to my right. Eventually I had to ask the staff at the car rental firm.

2014 Toyota Avensis steering wheel. It´s got something to hide.

They showed me a small lever to the right of and totally obscured by the steering wheel. Operating the control is by pulling and pushing the lever and I could never remember which. The thing operates automatically but if you want to do a hill start you’ll need to remember which way to press it. Not being able to find the parking brake control and discovering it hidden where it was pretty much set the tone for my impression of this car. Bear in mind there is a 250 ml space left of the wheel devoted to holding an iPhone (or two biscuits). It’s a flock-lined tray, though. Oooh.

That little switch controls the parking brake.

The next thing you’ll experience with the Avensis is that the HVAC is fiddly and unintuitive. When you turn it on it is always set to recirculate so turning it on means always dabbing the recirc button to disengage it.

2014 Toyota Avensis centre console. Note the tiny labels, not illuminated. I didn´t.

The temperature controls are marked with non-illuminated labels which I did not notice when on the move. I did not absorb the meaning of the labels until I stopped and stared at the panel for a bit. Instead, the two dials are prominently labelled “auto” and “dual”. The labels thus inform us of a secondary level of function. Usually, the user wants to first change the temperature and then select auto or dual. Usually they want to do nothing. The hierarchy of information need is not respected. The general problem with the HVAC is that the controls for heating, air flow volume and direction have been separated and scattered. Direction is controlled by a button that forces the user to scroll through the options and also look at the display at the same time. Volume is controlled by a “more/less” button which means repeated pressing of the button might be necessary. Fitts’ Law and all that: not adhered to or acknowledged. The whole thing is turned off with a single button when the volume dial could do that job. That’s an example of a function split which should be in one control. If Toyota designed a light switch it would have two buttons: one to start operation and another to vary the light level.

2014 Toyota Avensis volume controls: left right for up down and up down for across.

Above is the audio control on the steering wheel. The volume is controlled by left-right movements when intuitively the physical mapping should be up-down. I frequently changed tracks on the CD when I meant to change the volume level. To change tracks or tune the radio there is a left-right button with graphics showing up-down arrows. I would contend such a change in state is more horizontal. In this instance conceptual mapping was not respected and there is no clear reason for this. Two up-down buttons (left side for volume) would have been possible. Volume is altered more often than tracks or stations so should be easier to reach.

2014 Toyota Avensis centre console. The CD slot is not illuminated.

The display screen (above) tells you “audio off” by means of a tiny script and a pointless graphic. The volume can be controlled using the left side dial which has a wobbly, coarse action and the system responds slowly.

Notice the hazard warning light button. This does not flash or illuminate when the hazards do. It’s nearly flush to its surroundings so it is harder to feel. If it is dark and you wish to turn on or off the hazard warning lights you must peer into the dark to guess where the control is located. That’s a quite serious demerit on a basic, essential function.

Album name or track title? “CD” and a picture of two CDs.

When the CD is engaged you are shown another absurd graphic (above) which takes up space that would be used to show the entire (or more) of the album name: “Oscillons from the Antisun”. The album name should be listed first, not the track title. And why give the track name uppercase letters? Any idea what the crossing over graphic might mean, third symbol from the left?

It´s nice to use that space to show diagrams of CDs.

When you adjust the volume the wedge-shaped blue form widens (above) to the left and the right symmetrically but there is a line going from the left side of the screen to the form. That tells you nothing. And volume is best represented (again) by vertical scales not a horizontal scale. Semantically, a widening shape is not meaningful. Does one experience or think of sound as widening in this way? Again, space is wasted with two twee images of CDs.

This is shorter than your lower arm. Find the USB port. Go on.

We’re nearly at the end. The USB port is located at the bottom of the centre console storage bin, top left in the image above. The lid of the bin gets in the way of your elbow as you struggle to insert the jack. This is quite difficult until you realise that the jack has to be inserted with the USB symbol facing down not up i.e. upside down. To the right is a movable cup holder. That was positioned to the left (i.e in the forward location) when I opened the bin, obscuring further the obscure USB port.

Actually, to find the port I had to look in the weighty user-manual.

To summarise, the ancillary user-interfaces of the Avensis are remarkably poor. It would be revealing to know exactly what sort of research backed up this design or if there was any at all. While some aspects of the Avensis are creditable, the user-interface is so inadequate that I can only conclude by saying this car is one to avoid, unless you are an ergonomist looking for examples of bad design.

I asked at the start how many ergonomic errors can a car have. I count twelve without having gone anywhere near the sat-nav or radio functions.

[The 2015 Avensis has a new interior but carries over the parking brake and  HVAC panel unchanged.]


Author: richard herriott

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

19 thoughts on “How Many Ergonomic Flaws Can One Car Have?”

  1. “Any idea what the crossing over graphic might mean, third symbol from the left?”


  2. Yup, awful. These issues would drive me insane. Our family Honda has a better thought out control interface than this, but still contains elements of unintuitive design that distract and annoy me every time I drive it. Ergonomics and controls should be an area where car design gets better and better. Instead, it seems that Toyota have delegated it to recent graduates or low achieving employees.

    1. There is no obvious explanation for the marked deterioration in user-interface design. I keep banging on about the 406 that I drive again and now: it’s simply military grade compared to the Avensis.
      So, who is in charge of this design – a supplier? Toyota’s own specialists?
      Thanks for reading the article. It’s a list really. Better though to give it its own space than let it distract from the rest of the Avensis’ positive attributes.

  3. Gosh, those really are some pretty awful mistakes. It’s hard to believe that at this point in the development of the automobile such well understood concepts are ignored by one of the biggest manufacturers in the world. The steering wheel buttons and HVAC controls in particular would be unacceptably poor from a Chinese manufacturer making their first ever car.

    When you consider how many of these bland boxes will be rentals the need to refer to the manual is even more problematic!

    1. I am available to help Toyota if they want to improve their interfaces.
      For the HVAC I think something technical drove the distribution of functions. That’s a rotten excuse as they could design an electronic interface that functioned like a mechanical one.
      The volume control staggers me.
      And hiding the parking brake control right there.
      It would take months of emails to get answers to these questions were I to try and get a response from Toyota.

  4. Poor. Ancillary controls often have their own quirks from marque to marque, but here Toyota are being almost wilfully haphazard. The confusion of left-right and up-down flies in the face of audiovisual interfaces refined since the 1970s.

    Placing the parking brake out of sight and with such tiny labelling is downright negligent. I am often bamboozled when first setting off in automatic cars as there seems to be no standard interface for the parking brake. Sometimes it is a foot operated peddle, sometimes it is a button located (at best) near the transmission or (at worst) randomly placed on the dash. JLR products utilise an odd little lever operable with a hooked finger on the transmission tunnel that I have christened the “tickle flap”.

    BTW, I think the twisty arrows indicate that the CD tracks are shuffling. But judging by this car, it could also mean the car needs oil.

  5. My Subaru Forester has a similar appalling HVAC system that you have to look down at to change fan speed or mode; I see the latest model has reverted to three simple rotary dials. My radio also helpfully informs me that it is “Off”, however the volume/track change buttons on the steering wheel do operate in the appropriate directions. To add to the lack of ergonomic thinking some of the dash and door switches are illuminated at night, others aren’t. Is this more of an issue with Japanese cars than European ones? Any thoughts on touchscreen radio/CD/aux systems?

  6. Why can’t designers leave anything alone? I see nothing wrong with a mechanical parking brake with a reassuring ratcheting lever.

    1. Packaging: it’s easier run wires from 3cm cubed box than from a mechanical arrangement. The silly part is in making the operation of the new system so counter-intuitive.

    2. You’re right of course, I should have made it clearer my question was meant rhetorically.

  7. As i read the title, i thought you were kidding, Richard….. You were not!

  8. This article reminds me of the ergonomic failures I found in my C6. It would be enough to fill another article, especially if compared to the CX which was highly unusual and hard to understand for motoring journalists and Germans (not to speak of German motoring journalists), but where I didn’t find so many fundamental flaws.

    1. The CX makes sense: the orbital controls, for example, and the steering principle.
      What’s the C6 like?
      The XM is pretty good apart from two or four minor buttons partially out of sight under/by the steering wheel.

  9. HVAC design is in decline and has been for years. One could blame added functionality, but that does not wash. This could be a monthly theme all on its own.

    You ask of the C6? The HVAC is poor, as are the Infotainment and Telephone connection controls – standard PSA items from the era, also found in 407s for example. Heating control is via an up- down, flush fitting rocker on each side and direction via a horizontal rocker, passing through a menu displayed on the well sited (if cack-handedly integrated) 7inch screen. Volume is via a small twist knob. The major sin is that aircon is switched on/ off via a menu on the screen, itself controlled by a small, flimsy, glittering plastic knob which protrudes horizontally from the dash. It’s really naff.

    The Mazda 3 looks rather like the Toyota’s set up, commits fewer sins, but needs one to look down to select direction via icons on a small screen. It should be better.

    Both of these are put to shame by the family Xsara Picasso of which I wrote some weeks ago. Three, high mounted, well labelled, well sized, easy to manipulate knobs control volume, temperature and direction, with simple push-push buttons for aircon and heated rear window, and a slider for recirculation. Simple, intuitive, ergonomic, functional.

    1. Yes: it’s pretty simple to get right. Three dials and two switches do the job and if necessary they can be mechanical or electronic. Someone thinks buttons look more modern, I suppose.

    2. As SV mentioned, the HVAC on the C6 isn’t a strong point, as is the central console in general, with its host of near-identical, tiny buttons – neither from an ergonomical nor from an optical point of view.

      A detail I find quite irritating is the brightness regulation for the instrument panel and the central screen. This is done by two buttons at the right side of the screen, which in an LHD car is hard to reach for the driver. The buttons on the nearer side are for adjusting the inclination of the screen, something you typically touch once and then let it as it is. But there is more to the brightness. The screen’s luminosity can also be regulated via a menu, independently from the instrument panel – well, not quite… As soon as you touch said buttons again, the independence is lost. Frankly, I never really figured out how exactly it works. The CX had a separate regulation for the ‘bathroom scale’ instruments and for all the rest of the panel. Two small turning knobs in reach of the fingertips did this job – it could be so easy.

      The stalk behind the right side of the steering wheel controls the audio functions. After some learning, I find it quite intuitive to operate. It controls volume and audio source and lets you change CD tracks or radio stations. What’s odd is that it has a small scroll wheel to choose albums from the internal jukebox. To choose the next item you have to scroll down. Not too bad, but if I want to go to the next track, I have to press the UP button. Thus, these two functions work in an opposite way.

      The last might be a non-issue for most drivers, but as a long-time Citroën driver, I still sometimes use the left stalk if I want to honk – resulting in the car beeping and being ready for speech input. There should be a way to re-program this button.

  10. @ jacomo

    “Instead, it seems that Toyota have delegated it to recent graduates or low achieving employees.”

    Rather like the styling of most recent Toyota and Lexus products then. An excellent deduction on your part, and one that had not even crossed my mind stuck in the rut of assuming basic professionalism.

    I had developed a theory their recent designs had been performed by people using up a stash of decades old acid, or alternatively suffering from Fukushima power station radiation fallout. This Avensis is inoffensive, rather like the Corolla we are saddled with, but the new Prius is laughably amateur and indeed offensive to many people’s eyes, while Lexuses have a front visage reminiscent of feelings engendered by food poisoning and three hours on the khazi.

    For the ultimate in piggy schnozzes, the Toyota Yaris we now get is this incredible creation, which is actually a Mazda2 that Toyota let its apprentices practise on:
    Other views are less flattering, such as the profile where the obvious inspiration was an anteater recovering from running into a concrete wall at a brisk gallop.

    So, not content to design indecipherable interior controls, Toyota now seem intent on ruining their exteriors as well and blighting the landscape to the detriment of all forced to gaze on them.

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