Essays & Articles


Dashboards for the Passengers

Originally published in InteriorMotives

Drivers have dashboards. But what about the passengers, both in the front and rear seats? Why shouldn’t they too have dashboards?

The thought arose late in the evening while my fearless editor, Ryan Borroff, and I were sampling exotic Chinese food at a Japanese-named restaurant in the heart of Soho, London. After all, we surmised, rear-seat passengers increasingly wants to control their temperature, the music they are listening to, the video game, show, or movie they are interacting with. Why not dashboards?

I was in a friend’s car recently as he drove me across town. I watched as he took his Treo cellphone/PDA out of his pocket and plugged it in to the suction cup holder affixed to the front windshield which transformed the Treo into a navigation system, compete with satellite antennas. I noticed a row of wires from the unit going down to floor level, where it plugged into a strip of power sockets.

“Why so many sockets?” I asked.

“Because of all the stuff I have to plug in: The Treo, my computer, my iPod, and other stuff.”

“Where do you put all that stuff?” I asked, looking around the front seat.

“That’s a problem,” he said. “I used to put them on the dashboard, but they always slip off. So I put them on the passenger seat whenever that’s empty, but even then they fall off. If I have a passenger, I put it on the floor, and then they end up all tangled, usually trapped under the seat.”

Passengers have more and more choice. Entertainment, individual temperature controls, individual video and audio controls. Cell phones, music players, video games. Lights. Where do they put all that stuff? Where do they plug it in? Years ago the need arose for places to put drinks: coffee for the adults, and canned or bottled drinks for everyone. It took years, but finally most car manufacturers obeyed the request, adding a wide variety and quantity of drink holders. (Some recalcitrant manufacturers still resist.) Today, we need places to store and plug in a wide variety of devices: music and video players, game machines and controllers, earphones, cellphones, and computers. Each needs a safe, secure place to be docked, each needs electrical power, and some need to be networked to one another. Someday soon many will need internet connections. And the same facilities have to be provided separately for everyone: the driver, the front passengers and the rear passengers (and in larger vehicles, the third-row passengers).

“But,” I can hear the automobile purists complaining, “you are confusing the automobile with the family room.”

Yup, that I am. Deliberately. Today’s vehicles are not just for driving: they are for living. And living means work and play, fun and entertainment.

We need places to store the multitude of devices, places to secure them safely while in use, and places to plug them in. What better place than a dashboard in front of each passenger, complete with temperature and volume controls, plugs for power, internet, audio and video input and output, and computer networking. Compartments for storage. Perhaps a secondary display screen so that they can interact with the navigation system, looking at the route, exploring alternatives, and examining local points of interest, restaurants, and service stations – all without disturbing the driver.

This observation is hardly new. Some cars, especially those meant for families, have already started to add some of these features, with special compartments to hold stuff, extra power outlets, and various controls for entertainment and multiple screens for the rear passengers. BMW has even added an i-mode control for the rear passenger, perhaps so they can empathize with the driver.  So the first start has been made. More is needed.

Yes, passengers need dashboards too. One dashboard for each passenger.

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].