UX Papercut :scissors:: Lights!

The headlight stalk on the 2017 Honda CR-V annoys me more than something so simple has any right to annoy anyone. On the surface it follows the well worn path of headlight stalks, and indeed wiper stalks, across the car industry that has become standard for years. You turn the end of the stalk to select what level you want the headlights to be at, you move the stalk up and down to indicate, and forward and back to use the highbeams. So far so good, all is fine.

The issue I have is with the shape of the stalk which has a very pleasing rounded triangle cross section. Upon first viewing this design is very nice, it allows for slightly easier reading of the words and symbols on the stalk, and it feels nice in the hand to use. I’m sure the person who designed it has a picture of it on their wall and I’m sure they’re happy with their work.

I suspect also, that this person has never actually owned a 2017 Honda CR-V.

Designing for the common state

The problem arise when you look at one of the words printed on that slightly-more-room-than-if-it-were-round stalk. It says “AUTO” and it activates the cars light-sensing automatic headlights. The feature is great, its not too aggressive like others I’ve seen on the road, turning the lights on when going under even the smallest of bridges, and its not too lax in its duty. If it were either of these things there is a simple sensitivity adjustment that can be made to tweak the system.

The awesome thing about a system like this, when it works well, is its a very simple matter of turning the switch to Auto seconds after leaving the dealership and then never adjusting it every again. In fact you can probably even forget that headlights are a thing that needs manual control, though I wouldn’t recommend it if you are in charge of a different, less capable vehicle, with any sense of regularity.

When the headlight stalk is set to Auto the last two inches of the rounded triangle cross section is rotated at an angle that produces just the right offset as to have one point of the triangle protrude, and generally form a lumpy looking stalk.

Strong opinions, weakly held, about trivial things

Yes, this is a silly thing to complain about. No, this is not really that ugly, nor should it put anyone off buying the car. No, nobody else has probably ever noticed it, and certainly not the regular driver of the car where I most often observe the abomination.

The real problem is simply knowing that the designer(s) in question fell into that classic trap, at least classic in my realm of software design, of thinking about only the desired state and not the states or actions that real users will be in, or perform.

I’ve observer many a peer review of a new feature where a developer will use their own software and simply gloss over, or not even see, some of these types of issues. Forms that only work if filled out in the right order, non existent user help because the developer already knows what to do, having to perform extra unnecessary clicks or moves, that the developer has long internalized over the hours of testing. The list could go on.

To truly create a good user experience you have to put yourself in the users shoes, and all that entails. I don’t think you can deign a piece of a car if you don’t drive the car, in all conditions. Likewise I don’t think you can design a part of a piece of software, unless you use the software in question, including navigating through to the specific thing you want to test, and all with realistic test data and all that that entails.

Clear your mind of assumptions and biases

Removing assumptions and biases from your thinking is extremely difficult, but as they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step. Don’t assume the user knows what to do. Don’t assume they’ll navigate in a logical order. Don’t assume they know what you mean when you say “click to continue” if your button isn’t labelled “continue” etc. And don’t assume that all drivers will manually control their lights.

The first step of design, be it software or cars or anything else, is to understand your users and try to inform yourself appropriately so that you may adopt their world view. Only then can design be more effective, and you’ll avoid ugly misalignments in your headlight stalks.

Written on April 2, 2018

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