Intuitive. Simple.

Two words used most often when one talks about User Interface design. Because an intuitive and simple user interface delivers the most satisfying user experience. While this mantra is true on most occasions, I’d like to talk about a notable exception: the car.


Per se, there’s nothing wrong in the way a car’s controls are designed and located. In a relatively short period, even a person with an average level of dexterity will be able to train his legs and hands to maneuver the vehicle. What fascinates me, however, is this: why hasn’t the interface seen drastic changes since its inception in the 1920s? After all, each of the existing controls (gear stick, clutch, accelerator and brake) can easily be replaced by, say, push buttons. Such innovations have already happened to some extent in super high-end and F1 cars. But why hasn’t this phenomenon been mainstreamed?

Perhaps the reason for this lies in the subculture we have built around automobiles. In many societies, especially in the West, the ability to drive a car is the surest sign that a boy or girl is entering the elite circle occupied by adults. For years, the adolescent has craved for this privilege. He or she has fantasized about exploiting the freedom that a car provides. And since the transition is so important, won’t the adolescent be disappointed to discover that the process is ridiculously easy?

Mercifully, the stick-shift car offers a few obstacles to make the learner feel challenged and rewarded. One has to learn the subtle art of synchronously operating the clutch and accelerator. One also has to learn to shift gears in a desired direction without ever looking at the gear stick, even as one smoothly handles the steering wheel. These challenges, minor as they appear to the trained driver, make the process fulfilling.

As for the trained driver, he is quite satisfied with the user experience. He has learnt the ropes and has no reason to view the controls as cumbersome. In fact, he might revel in the opportunity to get more dextrous and be seen as an ace exponent of this complex-easy craft.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that this enjoyable learning experience is the reason why the automobile industry hasn’t changed the basic design of the car’s controls. But it might explain why the users aren’t clamoring for change.

Which brings us to an important question: if there is some merit in this theory, does it add something to our understanding of User Experience?