Essays & Articles


Complexity of the Modern Automobile-Isn’t Progress Wonderful?

Originally published in InteriorMotives.

“You grab the crank like this and push till she catches. See how my thumb is turned down? If I grabbed her the other way with my thumb around her, and she was to kick, why, she’d knock my thumb off. Got it?” … “Now,” he said, “look careful. I push in and bring her up until I got compression, and then, why, I pull out this wire and I bring her around careful to suck gas in. Hear that sucking sound? That’s choke. But don’t pull her too much or you’ll flood her. Now, I let go the wire and I give her a hell of a spin, and as soon as she catches I run around and advance the spark and retard the gas and I reach over and throw the switch quick over to magneto- see where it says Mag? – and there you are.” (John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

When my limo arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport I got into the rear seat and did my customary scan of the design features. “Hey,” I told the driver, “ your clock is an hour off.”

“I’ve had this car a year now,” said the driver, “bought it used: no owner’s manual. I’ve tried to figure out the clock. I gave up.”

I studied the digital readout, embedded in a complex set of audio controls. No label seemed even vaguely related to time. “Sometimes you have to push several buttons at once,” I suggested.

“I’ve tried everything,” said the driver. “Maybe my next car will be better.”

Shortly afterwards, a friend gave me a ride in his new Toyota Sienna. I put my luggage in the rear and started to shut the door. “No,” shouted my friend, “Let it do it by itself.”

I sat in the front passenger seat: controls to the front of me, above me, to the right, to the left, behind me. “What does this do?” I asked.

“I don’t have any idea,” said my friend. “I looked at the manual, but – have you ever seen these manuals? Huge.”

I looked at the heating controls. One for the driver, with temperature setting nicely displayed. One for the front passenger, also with temperature. And one marked “Rear Temp.” Impressive, I thought, playing with it. Nothing I did caused a reading to appear. “We haven’t figured that out yet,” said my friend.

“What’s that do?” I asked, pointing to a button with an obscure label in the center ceiling.

“Don’t know.”

I looked over the clock display: I could find no relevant label. “How do you set the clock?” I asked.

“Oh,” said my friend, “you have to read the manual.”

Today we can start the car with ease. But our intrepid automobile interior design teams have compensated for that simplicity. Now you have to learn how to open the doors, how to operate the temperature controls, how to change radio stations. We used to have to take classes to start the engine. Today we need lessons to set the clock. Isn’t progress wonderful?

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 “Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things.” He lives in northern California at Write him at [email protected].