If It Ain't Broke, Don't Break It


My 1963 Dodge Dart convertible has three heater controls. They're big round knobs. They're easy to find, and I can tell them apart even in the dark. Nearly 30 years of technological progress brought us the 1990 Buick, which uses 14 buttons to accomplish essentially the same functions. The 14 buttons are all exactly the same size and shape, and they're all perfectly flat, so as to be indistinguishable by touch. It seems to me that any control in a car that requires that I look at it is inherently wrong.

Unfortunately, these kinds of mistakes seem to be the rule rather than the exception. I test drive 50 to 100 new cars a year, and I am struck by the incredible proliferation of blatant ergonomic errors. I've been pondering this situation and I suggest the following taxonomy of blunders that designers succumb to:

1. Using a technology not because it's appropriate but "because it is there" (the Sir Edmund Hillary School of Ergonomics).

2. Being different at any cost.

3. Reinventing whenever possible.

4. Copying nothing, not even good ideas: it's embarrassing to admit that you didn't think of them yourself.

5. Just plain stupidity (otherwise known as the Ted Williams Theory; he once advised a not-too-bright teammate: "If you don't think too good, then don't think too much").

6. Too many cooks.

7. Oops! Where the hell are we going to put this?

Consider these examples. A couple of years ago, I climbed into a mid-size American sedan with power everything. The seat controls were in the traditional location on the left side of the driver's seat. But when I reached down to adjust the seat, my hand did not fit between the door and the side of the seat--I had to open the door to adjust the seat! The was a category 6 mistake--too many cooks: the designers of the inside door panel evidently didn't talk to the group designing the seat controls. No big deal, I thought--they'll fix it next year.

And fix it they did. Sort of. The following year, the power seat controls consist on nine identical flat buttons, a category 3--reinvent everything--error.

But where to put those nine buttons? Well, the car has a console between the bucket seats and they put the buttons on the vertical plate at the back end of this console, toward the rear of the car (category seven--where the hell...). Are these controls awkward to reach? Try touching the back of your chair you're sitting in with your fingers.

It gets better. Which button to press? To see the hieroglyphics printed on the buttons, I must not only take my eyes off the road, but I must look toward the back of the car. This clearly qualifies as a category 5 (just plain stupid) and a category 2 (be different).

This seat-control debacle is especially sad considering that about 10 years ago, Mercedes Benz designed the ultimate in power seat controls; it will surely go into the Ergonomic Hall of Fame for beauty, simplicity, and pure elegance. "If you want to control a seat," the Mercedes designers must have said, "why not make a control that's shaped like a seat!"

Can you do any better than that? Should you even try? Ford, to its credit, immediately copied this truly brilliant design. But Chrysler? Volvo? Even the Japanese, who built their reputations on copying? No, no, and no. And General Motors? Buttons. Indistinguishable buttons. It's a classic category 4 error (copy nothing).

(Despite Mercedes' brilliance with the seat controls, even they are not immune to plain stupidity. The $70,000 300SE that I recently tested has a heater control with a 1-by-1/4-inch LED temperature readout in the center of the dashboard. We're supposed to read these tiny numbers while driving . Not only that, but the adjustment knob is so sensitive that I can barely "control" the temperature within 10 degrees as the vehicle is moving.)

Just how far can designers take their obsession with indistinguishable buttons? The answer comes from GM. "why not," they must have mused, "put the controls for everything on a touch-sensitive screen." This touch screen takes the multibutton philosophy to a totally new level of stupidity. It can display thousands of buttons with no discernible edges at all. Can you feel a pixel? GM used touch-screen technology not because it made sense but because it was there.

Another part of the car that is rife with technology run amok is the radio. Ironically, the best ergonomically designed radios are available from GM--but only if you buy the cheapest one. More money gets you technological overkill, like a graphic equalizer that displays the sound frequency spectrum so you can fiddle endlessly with the controls and watch the lights to get exactly the tone you want. A graphic equalizer? In a car? Now really. In my wife's Volvo, the radio has six buttons in a space about equal to the surface area of your fingertip. Since these buttons all do something wonderful, the designers must have responded, why should you care which one(s) get pressed? Lighten up! Take a chance.

What, I ask, is wanting in a radio with two large round protruding knobs, like in my father's 1951 Dodge? And the 1956 Oldsmobile had a "seek" feature that could be operated with your foot! Do we really need more than this?

The car industry is guilty too often of technological excess and change for the sake of change. But elsewhere in our daily lives we encounter a machine--the refrigerator--that is an ergonomic failure for precisely the opposite reason: the newest one's aren't much different from my grandmother's. Maybe some of those GM engineers who can't keep their paws off something that works should get jobs at appliance companies, where they can fix something that's truly broke.

Think about it: I open the freezer about once every 15 or 20 times that I open the main refrigerator compartment. So which one is at eye level, easy to see and reach? Right, the freezer. The other 15 or 20 times I have to bend over or get on my knees to find things. Doesn't it make sense to do it the other way? Yet I've found only two refrigerators with the freezer on the bottom.

For the past decade, refrigerator manufacturers have been diligently working to improve energy efficiency. As though it makes any difference. Where is the inefficiency of a refrigerator, really? Don't these people have any kids? Haven't they ever watched their kids standing in front of the fridge with the door wide open, trying to decide whether to have the chocolate-flavored Kool-Aid or the 90-percent-water "fruit juice," or maybe a hot dog--and then finally wander off to play Nintendo instead?

In the interest of true energy efficiency, then, how about making a door that the kids can see through? Grocery stores have had them for years. Move the light switch to the outside so you can inspect the contents without opening the door. I figure that a transparent door would be held open for less time and would therefore save more energy than a super efficient motor possibly could.

Here's another idea. Most of us operate our refrigerators on the LIFO system--last in, first out. We put stuff in the fridge and the next time we put something in we push back the stuff in front of it. The food that is "lost" at the back of my refrigerator would feed a family of four (not my family of four--by the time we find the stuff it doesn't qualify as food anymore).

Why not have rotating shelves? Just stick a big axle in the center so that each shelf becomes a rotating disc. I can hear the manufacturers objecting already: round shelves wouldn't work because things would fall off the edge into the corners. Well, why does the refrigerator have to be square? As if we didn't know. Because it has always been square. Well shape up! We're paying almost a thousand bucks for an empty box with a motor and a compressor that Thomas Edison could have made in his garage 100 years ago. The least they can do is spend a few minutes thinking about how people use it.

Cars and refrigerators happen to be my own personal pet peeves regarding ergonomic stupidity. I realize that in the case of refrigerators, this just results in inconvenience; but the consequences are much worse for cars (and therefore much more inexcusable). In fact, I have already instructed my heirs to sue the manufacturer of the car I'll be driving when I go to the big Junk Yard in the Sky. Because I know the accident will have occurred while I was equalizing my graphics.

This article was originally published in the October 92 issue of Technology Review.