The above picture is the keyless remote for my car rental this trip: A Nissan Maxima. The car itself is superb: sporty, comfortable, and with such an involved set of controls that I actually had to pull over and find the “quick start” guide (about 40 pages of tiny print listing the different controls) in order to get the phone synched up with my Galaxy S8 and get navigating to my hotel.
I’ve noticed that different product classes tend to reward different styles of interface design. Appliance design, for instance, seems to have seen two major design trends in the past ten years:
- Remove as many status indicators as possible, while adding exponentially more cycle settings. My dishwasher, for instance, shows only a single LED on its entire stainless steel face, although it does change from a tasteful white to a tasteful blinking white, to an alarming red (I thought, signalling an error–turns out it merely meant it was drying), and finally to a restful blue.
- Playing ever-longer long tunes to signal their pleasure at having completed their assigned duties, or alternately a slightly sadder aria if something went wrong somehow. (I first saw this trend on the office printer/fax, which would play an opening tune that was virtually identical to the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. Every time I turned it on, it would do its “Doodle-ooddle-ooo…” to which my brain would immediately reply “bwa-bwaaaa-bwa!” Talk about ear worms!)Now, ten years later, my new Samsung washer and drier each have multi-stanza theme tunes, as does my Whirlpool washer (of tasteful blue light fame). I figure it’s just a matter of time before LG licenses Inna Gada Da Vida, keyboard solo and all, for its water softener.
On the other hand, car design–once the field where good designers would turn up in once they’d lost all will to live–has seen an absolute explosion of graphical eye candy in this age of tablet-driven Teslas and the proliferation of cheap, bright, touch screens.
My Maxima, for instance, features alternate driving consoles including a red-limned “Sport” design featuring an imposing “Power” gauge, as well as a perfectly skeumorphic “Standard” console for more “around town” driving, complete with–I kid you not!–wood grain accents behind the gauges.
Beyond that, virtually every car these days interfaces with some version of Apple’s or Android’s car interface, giving access to navigation, a variety of audio sources, as well as phone integration. For the most part, these are decently usable, although there seems to be no end to stability issues for Android audio, no matter what device it’s paired with, which cable I’m connecting with, or which car I’m driving. Clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement on the QA front here.
What the Fob?
The physical part of the car interface, however, is another story. Gone are the days where you could hop into any rental car and instantly know how do to everything from adjusting the seat position, turn down the air conditioning, or to turn on your windshield wipers. The more these functions have become computer controlled, the harder it has become to find and operate the associated physical controls.
And then there’s the issue of that most basic of controls: the key fob. Folks, we gotta talk…
Somewhere along the line, it was apparently decided that it would be really neat if instead of getting out a lowly set of car keys, that you could do everything by keeping a magic key fob on your person. Then, instead of turning the key to start the car, you could simply push the start button on the console.
OK, neat enough, I guess. After almost a week of driving the keyless Maxima, I’m still unsure what problem this solves, but it has given me a new set of counterintuitive juggling motions to make to find the tiny key fob so I can lock the car when I leave. The worst part, however, is the physical design of the fob itself.
Turn back to the picture above, which, at least as close as I can do right now, shows the approximate real size of the remote on my MacBook’s screen. Now picture the same remote with sun glinting off it in the hot Vegas sun. See any problems? For that matter, can you see anything at all?
In addition to some dodgy icon design, the fine folks at Nissan decided that they were going to do the remote for their car in the ever-popular “monochromatic” style, rendering the shiny silver icons all but invisible in anything but perfect lighting.
And, since everyone knows smaller is better, they further decided that the entire remote should be in the form of a tiny, orthogonal lozenge, giving you no way to operate the remote without taking it out, carefully orienting it so that the red button is on the bottom, then remembering that the button right next to the one which activates the shrieking alarm is the one you push and hold to open your trunk, the middle one unlocks the car, and the one above that locks.
And what’s the icon at the top, the one which is identical to the refresh icon on web browsers? In Nissan’s case, it’s the remote start button–a cool feature for those who live in cold climes, but represented with some confused iconography.
Physical Design Matters
Key fobs are like doors: absolutely common objects which should never make you guess about how they operate. If you’ve ever found yourself pushing on a door which needed to be pulled to open, you’re not at fault: the designer of the door is.
In my daydreams, that there’s a special 10th circle of Hell, populated entirely by people constantly smashing their heads into doors which should have opened inward, and setting off car alarms when they tried to open the door via their key fob.
And of course, this special little design hell would be reserved for the sorts of folks who design telephone voice menus… or hardware like the Nissan Maxima key fob.
- Contrast is Good. The silver-on-silver design of the Nissan remote may be trendy, but it’s unusable (and frankly, completely illegible to my 50 year-old eyes unless I put my reading glasses on and get the remote to a place out of the direct sun. Other than style, it’s difficult to think what Nissan was thinking here: they clearly could spare the cost of some red ink for the panic button–how about some black paint to trace the outlines of the other buttons?Bonus Pro Tip: Have any of these engraved mono-chromatic devices in your life? Try taking a suitable Crayola crayon and coloring really hard over the indented portion. Then, wipe down the whole thing with a cloth. The colored wax will remain in the indented area, colorizing the icon and giving you far better visibility.
- Key Remotes should be navigable by feel alone. The key fob should have a unique directional shape (like the GM or Ford remote fobs shown below) which allows you to instantly orient the fob properly and use muscle memory to use the two most important functions: locking and unlocking.
- Smaller isn’t always better. Beyond a certain point–probably a couple of inches long by an inch or so wide–making the remote smaller just makes it harder to use and easier to lose. Remember: the key fob is the primary interface for the vehicle when the user is outside of it. Worse, the most common place to store the fob will be at the bottom of a cluttered pants pocket or handbag. You’re not helping when you make it so tiny the user has to waste time searching for the fob.If you do want to watch space, concentrate on thickness, not length or width. It’s also incredibly common to attach these to a set of house or office keys, so your users will appreciate it if you don’t make the key fob overly thick.
Postscript: And Then, There’s Tesla…
Here’s their remote:
Yup, it’s a toy car.
In case you’re wondering, here’s a helpful diagram which actually explains the thing:
Uhh… points for playfulness, definitely. Also, it is descriptive in its own way: you press on the part of the car you want to operate (mostly). Still not sure how to lock the thing, but then again, if you own a Tesla, this sort of mystery may well be part of the charm.
You guys keep doing you.