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A Stab in the Dark: The Touchscreen Cataclysm

Chris Haining November 21, 2016 All Things Hoon 14 Comments


An article recently hit those newstands that stock the Sunday Times; “s”

Well, This!

As somebody who never quite made it into a design career, I nevertheless can appreciate the worth of sound ergonomics, both from the perspective of a designer and, of course, as a motorist. Over the years considerable progress has been made in this area, especially by the Germans and the Scandinavians. Ideally you should be able to into a car, any car and be confidently driving in a few minutes, having familiarised yourself with the basic controls, and maybe a few of the less fundamental ones.

In my mind, this should include those key to the enjoyable operation of the car, not just the functional aspects. And as soon as the small step of fitting touchscreens to the centres of dashboards all over the world was taken, ergonomics took a huge leap backwards for all mankind.


Sitting here in my living room I know that, were I in my Audi, to change CD track I would press the 2nd button in from the left at the top of the head unit. To change discs I would press the top right hand button. The volume control is dead easy; it’s a rotary dial in the middle of the unit. This is the magic of the ‘Concert’ radio that was standard fit on hundreds of thousands of late ’90s Audis – you could operate it by feel and feel alone.

The same is true of a huge number of other OEM stereo head units. You could operate virtually any function without taking your eye from the road; and in many cases – including on my old A4 – the screen on the instrument cluster will relay that of the head unit. Brilliant. And totally un-invented as soon as touchscreens arrived.

I doff my cap at those makers who never disappeared down the touchscreen rabbit hole. BMW with the originally maligned iDrive, Audi’s MMI and Mercedes’s hybrid of the two. Each of those systems use controls that you can, with determination, navigate from memory – though admittedly nowhere near as quickly nor as instinctively as reaching out and pressing a button.

There are now more and more features hidden away in touchscreen menus with no independent controls. In a Honda Jazz, for example, you now have to use the touchscreen to adjust the cabin temperature. We all love our massage seats, but to change the massage function you can bet your ass that you’ll need to reach forward and tell the screen just how vigorously you want your spine prodded. Once upon a time you could reach down and press a button on the side of the seat. Those days were great.


Yeah, OK, there’s voice control for any number of complex operations, but having once woken my soundly slumbering passenger by demanding “Enter “, then following responding to the computer’s bossy options with “Destination from memory” and then “Home”, I know there are occasions that voice control won’t cut it. Ah, but what about gesture control? Well, we’ll see. It could be that gesture control is the interface answer to the increasing feature count of the modern car; we need to play with it and find out.

BMWs used to have buttons below the screen that you could assign to frequently used functions, perhaps they still do. At any rate, this still seems a decent halfway house to me. Just give us some way of finding the features we want to use, with our fingertips rather than our eyes.

(All images (except topmost, stolen from driverpulse.com) and opinions, are the author’s own. Copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2016)

  • Manic_King

    Well, I wonder if we are now in situation where having to work the touchscreen with the ‘wrong’ hand (90% of people are right-handed also in the UK and other RHD countries I guess) will add unnecessary layer of risk too. That screen on the first photo is complete mess UI-wise.

  • bv911


    Too bad only we care…

    PS: no, you _can’t_ take my clutch pedal away, thank you very much!

    PPS: driverless car? Why on _earth_ would anybody want a driverless car??

    • Maymar

      The only thing more infuriating than an hour (or more!) of stop and go traffic is an hour or more of that heavy traffic that’ll quickly go from 65mph to less than 40 and back again, over, and over again.

  • My favorite is the Techno Wheel as used in the various incarnations of the Movitron Teener. Turn signals, lights, horn, hazards, wipers, pretty much you name it and it’s controlled by a spot on a membrane in the middle of the steering wheel. This combines an absence of tactile back with a set of critical functions that all change position as the wheel is turned. Truly the best of both worlds.

    • Rover 1

      Don’t tell us that you’ve bought one of these.

      • My university had four of them until a few months ago, but no, my only interaction with them was helping to push all four into a semi-trailer for their return to the manufacturer for new batteries. I haven’t seen them since. I’m beginning to suspect they’re not coming back.

    • Sjalabais

      In the event of a fender bender, pressing all buttons at once with either side of the face will unlock a game of Pacman.

  • ptschett

    1st image is a Chrysler uConnect 8.4 system. Redundant dash buttons/knobs for everything important (climate/comfort: defrosters, cabin temperature, fan speed; audio: volume, tuning, mute, toggle radio band or media source.) Leaving climate in auto is the right call almost every day of the year. What are these ‘discs’ of which you speak?

    • I must confess I was struggling to find a truly relevant lede image, but I think it illustrates how difficult it is to navigate certain touchscreen UIs without looking. Many cars don’t have the redundancy of duplicated ‘hard controls’.

      I may one day end up installing an AUX socket in some future car so I can still rock CDs.

    • Manic_King

      Single seat heater button on that screen, I thought heaters and buttons always come in pairs, for the front seats at least. Well, maybe it is rear seat heater button.

      • Ross Ballot

        I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that if you tap that button it opens a “pop-up” screen which then allows you to choose the specific seat and level of heat you want

  • outback_ute

    “We all love our massage seats”

    I bet I’m not the only one who has never ridden in a car with massaging seats?

    I still believe that touch screens are a poor interface to be operated in a vehicle traveling at speed where you need to look to ensure you are getting the correct control, and deal with bumps that may ‘bounce’ your finger at the wrong time. Not to mention smudges and in the longer term wear of the screen surface. I’ve never heard mention of screen protectors for this application. Perhaps they might be the mythical “lifetime” component?

    • I’ve been in several cars with seats that aren’t firmly attached to anything. I assume the experience is similar.

    • Yeah, and in a used car the thought of a touchscreen where other folks nasal pickings might well make with the interface totally yucks me out