Are touchscreen displays a good idea in cars?

tesla dashboard
© Tesla

"If a touchscreen must be used, it should be embedded alongside a set of fixed, physical buttons that support muscle memory and single actions."

When I wrote about the interior design of the Tesla Model 3, I admired the touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard, noting that in a modern car it’s probably fine not having a button for everything, since everything from wipers to headlights to temperature can be automatic.

This has turned out not to be the case, as basic functions like cruise control are handled by the touchscreen. Consumer Reports reviewed the Model 3 and noted that “very often our drivers found themselves turning their gaze away from the road to check for speed, range, or time, and many of the displays are too small to see at a quick glance.” Maybe touchscreen controls aren’t such a good idea.

Dashboard closeup© Tesla

Author and “design advocate” Amber Case makes a strong case that touchscreens are a really bad idea in The hidden cost of touchscreens. She writes:

Physical interfaces are crucial for automotive usability. Operations rely on a simple glance or muscle memory. Touchscreens, by contrast, force drivers to look. Because buttons are not fixed to specific locations, screens inhibit muscle memory and findability. Touchscreens compete for attention with the driving process, adding to the dangers of distracted driving.

This is something we have complained about before, the dangers of distracting dashboards. Case explains that in some cases touchscreens are really useful, particularly in service industries, where “they’re not meant to be used in moving vehicles!” She also makes a great point about the design of physical buttons: you have to really think about it and get it right.

Will we see a return to analog interfaces? I certainty hope so. While analog interfaces aren’t applicable to every situation, they do force designers to make permanent decisions. And because specific choices must be made for physical button placement, it’s harder to design an unusable analog interface. And design decisions must be final. Software interfaces can be quickly changed and deployed without the same process — and the world is filling up with nested, mystery-meat menus and confusing user flows.

Apparently built-in touchscreens aren’t enough for some drivers, and they add their own to complicate and distract even more. Perhaps it is time for some standardization, some regulation, a few more buttons and a few fewer screens.

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