Today, i am saving the world, one mile at a time. You see, i’ve got a long journey to make and i hired a Toyota Prius, the eco pioneer vehicle of choice, with it’s ground breaking ability to run on battery or engine, depending on circumstances. It looks smart, new, quite ‘sci-fi’ with it’s Head Up Display and sophisticated diagram showing animations of power flowing around the system.
Only i’m not actually driving it. I got the train instead whilst it’s sat on my driveway, because i couldn’t figure out how to start it.
As regular visitors will know, i am not particularly mechanically minded, having a tenuous grasp of how to change the oil or pump up a tyre, but i would like to think that i can manage most of the day to day tasks that the world throws at me, like making coffee or driving to work. And indeed, most days i can, until the Prius came along.
So there it was, sat on my driveway, and i thought that, as it was an early start next day, i’d give it a test run. I opened it, sat down, adjusted the mirrors and pressed the big green glowing button called ‘start’, at which point the engine did impressively roar into life. Screens booted up, motors whirred and chirped and dials started to glow. And an quite annoying beeping noise commenced, coming from somewhere near my left knee. Which was pretty much as far as i got. I put it into reverse, i put it into drive, i pressed the parking break button, all of which caused various lights to come on and off, assorted frantic animations to start playing on the screen and, at one point, the air conditioning to start sounding like a Harrier Jump Jet on final approach.
At various points the car tried to lurch forward or backwards, with various groaning and churning noises. It was quite alarming, especially as they had dropped it off about about one inch from my front wall and i had images of previous headlines where elderly ladies had written off similar cars through rapid engagement of drive.
The Prius has an engine management system whereby the motor turns on and off apparently randomly, with batteries taking over the rest of the time, adding a new and unwelcome element whereby the car lurched and creaked whilst ostensibly turned off.
And after ten minutes or so of fruitless activity, that was the end of that. I looked in the glove compartment for a manual, then i gave up.
So my point is this: if you’re going to spend millions upon millions of pounds creating a car that is going to save the world, and if you’re going to equip it with all sorts of gadgets that don’t behave the same way as every other car on earth, then why not spend a few grand writing a short notice that you stick on the dashboard saying ‘how to start this car’. Because i’m fairly sure that, incompetent as i may be, i’m not the only person who couldn’t figure it out.
Usability is central to many things: driving cars or any learning solution. We have two options: stick with known schemas, whereby people will come to a situation knowing how things work, or invent new ones which people have to learn.
Take turning a page. We all know how to turn the page of a book, so on the iPad, you can use the same page turning concept and it works. That’s intuitive. You could put a button on the bottom right saying ‘next’. That’s pretty intuitive too. Or you could create a control panel at the centre in the top with a little dial that you rotate to turn pages. That’s not intuitive. That’s quite ‘Prius’. It’s new: i would have to learn the concept before i could carry out the action.
There’s nothing wrong with creating innovative solutions, it’s just that we have to make sure we include instructions, or else we’re all going to be sat on the train, which may save the world, but it’s going to get crowded.