Essays & Articles


Cockpit Complexity

Originally published in InteriorMotives.

I learned the art of design in the world of high-technology products. There, I championed a method now known as human-centered design, where people who will use the products are observed at all phases of the process. (Notice I did not use the terms “interview,” “survey,” “questionnaire,” or “focus group.” Observation is the key.)

There are several deadly sins of technology design, but the major ones result from too much attention to technology and features and not enough on people. One sin has an accompanying disease: “featuritis.” Controls proliferate. Complexity reigns. The hapless driver has to take courses on how to work the insides of the car. It is the worst of all possibilities.

BMW, to select an easy target, correctly determined that the proliferation of controls on the dashboard had gotten out of hand, but attempted to solve the problem without any understanding of the long history of research done by the human-centered design community. The result is, to be polite, perfectly horrid: a system far more difficult to master than the typical computer, moreover, one intended to be used by a driver whose attention (and hands) should be occupied with driving, not with reading displays and trying to recall menu structures.

Here is how the major American consumer magazine put it: “the (BMW) 530i’s biggest drawback is its needlessly complicated multifunction iDrive.” Yes, said the magazine, it is easier than the original iDrive in the 745, but, they concluded, “even after spending a lot of time with the car, we found the iDrive to be tedious and distracting.”

Hey, folks, what ever happened to simplicity as a virtue? Of course, one of the most difficult things in design is to make things simple. It requires focus, dedication, and a clear goal. It means eliminating needless features, using dedicated controls rather than multipurpose, modal, complex menu-driven ones, and it requires the development of a clear conceptual model carried throughout all aspects of the design.

The automobile industry has taken on all the sins of the early computer industry — even as that industry now practices superb skills at understanding the needs and abilities of their users. Now that the autos are getting ever more complex, now that the cockpit serves as a family entertainment center, living room, and office, with all the comforts imaginable, it is time to put social scientists on the design team, to take advantage of what the human-centered design community has learned.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. He lives in northern California at