Needed: Consistent User Interfaces for High-Tech Cars

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Until last week, I’d never driven an Audi in my life. But when I got to try the new Audi A7 for my latest Technologizer column over on, I didn’t have to learn anything new to drive it–everything from the gear shifter to the brakes to the turn signals were similar or identical to the ones in dozens of other cars I’ve driven. The whole experience was instantly familiar.

Okay, there was one big exception—the A7’s super-fancy MMI infotainment system, which provides Google Earth-based navigation, iPhone integration, Bluetooth connectivity, a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, and scads of other features.

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It was neat. But it was also significantly different in many respects from the Sync system in the Ford Focus I drove a few months ago, even though many of the features were roughly comparable. I had to spend time with the manual to figure out what the knobs and buttons did.

I got confused by the fact that the display showed turn-by-turn directions with the next instruction at the bottom of the display rather than the top. I didn’t notice my favorite feature—the ability to enter text by drawing characters on a touch pad with my finger tip—until I read about it on the Web.

None of this was all that painful—and once I’d learned how to accomplish tasks, I found the A7’s way of doing things to be reasonably efficient. But it’s the way of user interfaces to get more consistent over time. It’s been true of cars for decades. It’s true of Web browsers—if you know how to use Internet Explorer, you pretty much know how to use Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera. It’s why Windows 7 and OS X Snow Leopard are—pssst—way more similar in some fundamental respects than Microsoft and Apple will admit.

Ambitious in-car information and entertainment systems are still a very new idea, so it’s not surprising that the companies that design them are still figuring out how they should work. But I wonder how long it’ll be until you can sit down in front of one and instantly be able to use it without going through a learning process?

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