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Your thoughts on Information Display Design in Dynamic Environment

As an industrial designer in the automotive industry, I often see the industry's effort and attempt to redefine information design/display in a dynamic environment.

And especially in recent Detroit autoshows, we notice growing number of items listed below in production vehicles.

* Information displays
* Navigation systems
* Multicontrollers
-joystick-type controller to navigate through information on everything from current car-status, weather, map, radio, A/C...
* Displays for Integrated Cellular phones and Web-accessible PDAs

I would like to know what your thoughts are on this topic of Information design in Dynamic environments, where one has a very limited time for attention.

Where, how do you draw the line and limit information available for driving safety?

Is current, automotive instrument cluster, a well-designed example of information design?

et cetera.....

Just curious on how "non-automotive" minds are thinking on this subject.

Sangwon Choi

-- Sangwon Choi (email)

As it turns out, I am friends with a number of local car enthusiasts and I posed this very question to them. Here are some thoughts:

Digital versus Analog: For the most part, our group prefers analog to digital displays, under the reasoning that you typically want to see quickly what isn't the case (too fast, too slow, no fuel) rather than what exactly is the case (62 mph, 3225 rpm, 6.3 gallons). There are some exceptions: interior and exterior temperature could be exact, miles till empty, and the like, but these are relatively minor indicators.

Telematics (the catch-all word for gizmos): these are, for the most part, distractions. Several manufacturers are providing complicated, integrated systems (BMW's I-Drive, for example), and while gizmo fans may enjoy them, drivers do not. The I-Drive has been universally panned, with some commentators going so far as to say not to buy BMWs so equipped (BMW has announced that I-Drive will be a standard feature of all its cars in the future, meaning that the Ultimate Driving Machine may transmogrify into the Ultimate Distraction Machine). Porsche and Chrysler are providing navigation aids that are part of the speedometer cluster (in the Cayenne and Pacifica, respectively), and these may be more successful. Studies are inconclusive on the effect of DWY (Driving While Yakking), but manufacturers are trying to integrate cellular telephony into the vehicle systems. DaimlerChrysler's UConnect is a step in this direction.

Vision and parking aids: Cadillac's Night Vision (an infrared camera) has been a disappointment. Park Distance Control, a sonar-based parking/obstruction alert available on many cars, has been successful. For parking aids, it is important to distinguish both the direction of and the distance to the obstacle. Some manufacturers are using a combination of lights and sounds, which seems to work.

Heads-Up Displays and Night Driving: Several GM cars have Heads-Up displays available. The designs, if unobtrusive, can be a helpful, redundant reminder of the displays on the dashboard. An improved version of Cadillac's Night Vision may be more effective, but increasingly, manufacturers are adding more powerful headlights and Adaptive Lighting, in which a secondary light up front moves with the steering wheel to provide additional illumination around curves and corners. This, by the way, is not new: both the 1948 Tucker Torpedo prototype and the Citroen DS/SM models of the 1960s and 1970s had lights that swiveled (although the light was fixed on the brief production run of the Tucker). Saab, which also makes aircraft, had a feature adapted from its fighter planes where a driver could "black out" all gauges but the speedometer at night (the gauges would re-light if there was a problem).

If I were designing a dashboard, I think I might be inclined to look to the avionics industry. There is a move towards Multi-Function Displays, which show a variety of measures on a single screen. Some replicate the dials digitally, others have all-digital readouts.

Finally, a pet peeve: as described recently in The New York Times, there is a growing aggravation with the "Check Engine" light. It is both alarming and non-specific, making it impossible to determine whether the car is safe to drive. Mostly, the "Check Engine" light alludes to some fault in the emissions control system, but it could also indicate a more serious problem. An enterprising manufacturer might consider separating warnings for maintenance from warnings for failures. A pilot faced with a "Check Engine" light would abort the flight immediately; a driver (apparently) need not do so.

-- Claiborne Booker

I agree with Claiborne Bookers comments about analog vs. digital displays in automobiles. I would add that their efficiency is their main asset; the radial spread of numbers against which a clearly visible arm moves across is the best 'at a glance' device to date. Being able to establish range (+/- volts, E-F for gas, etc.) and present status on a single gauge is very easy to see quickly, allowing a driver to keep their eyes where they belong, ahead, where the most critical decisions have to be made. It's why all single engine and most twin and jet aircraft still use them. As for the newer designs in cars today, the rule of less is more has been forgotten, and the resulting distractions away from the important task of driving safely are only putting all drivers at greater risk. Having photographed autos for many years I think the displays in some recent cars look suspiciously like arcade games, with in dash stereos, cel phones, guidance displays and environment status lights all competing rather insistently for the drivers' attention. It seems ironic that the designers who's very successful effort to reduce car owner maintainance and responsibility by building well designed engines that need almost no attention have also propagated this excess of poorly designed displays that demand so much.


-- David Bishop (email)

DWY (Driving While Yakking)

At least one new study has shown that drivers who use a cellular phone, even with a hands-free design, suffer from a kind of tunnel vision that endangers themselves and others. The study was led by David Strayer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah, and published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. The finding adds to earlier studies, including a 1997 New England Journal of Medicine report that found talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident.

"People, when on a cell phone compared to when they weren't, overall their reactions were slower, Strayer said. "Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cell phone, you are not as likely to see it.

Tests showed such inattention did not affect drivers who were listening to music, to audio books, or talking with a passenger.

-- Tom Dennehy (email)

Main reasons why analog gauges are challenged by digital displays are SPACE and COST !! and temptations to load the IP with more information/data are difficult to avoid, even impossible.

Although the motors that drive the needles in an analog instrument cluster are significantly smaller than past, it is still a relatively bulky and costly part compared to LCDs....I'm not exactly sure by how much more, cost-wise, but at least in terms of packaging space, flat LCDs are wonderful. We are talking millimeters of space, which we fight over as if our life depends on it. LCDs are simply very friendly to package within the tight space of an Instrument Cluster.

Therefore, if displays become digital LCDs, designers are asked, let me rephrase that, "ordered" to add more features to it..."justify and take advantage of the new technology"...after all, "more features that doesn't cost anything" are always welcomed in any industry. With some graphic cosmetics, information transforms into marketing/sales feature....

I don't think anyone doubts the effectiveness of needle "analog" gauges. But they're slowly being replaced to a more cost-effective, flexible, package-friendly flat display panels, or some sort of hybrid between analog and digital, unless you're buying Maybachs, Rolls and Bentley - luxury vehicles can have anything they want :)

And If this change/shift is inevitable, and let's say that we'll soon have digital displays only....

what kind of design criteria are there for digital information design?

How should we limit the amount of information available at any given moment?

What kind of digital graphic layout is effective?

Do you think the analog gauge cluster is THE ULTIMATE design?

Is analog-look graphic design in digital display just as effective?

Should we simply strip down to bare minimum information display? How would consumers perceive this? - Cheap look? or Safe design?

I'm not seeking for an exact answer, some of these questions are far outside the scope of Information Design, so if my questions are too irritable, please ignore. But I thought I would throw it out there anyway...

Thanks for your responses, BTW. They are certainly all interesting comments.


Sangwon Choi

-- Sangwon Choi (email)

Certainly there are savings and efficiencies in the replacement of analog devices with digital ones, but this raises several questions that should be considered. First, savings..... for whom? Clearly the development of integrated gauge clusters is a substantial cost reducer to the manufacturer but this puts a disproportionate burden of replacement cost on the end user, as anyone who's had to replace an entire instrument cluster because of one gauge knows. As for longevity, the flat panel lights used to backlight displays are supposedly superior to incandescent bulbs, but we'll have to wait another 30+ years to determine that. In the meantime the spare bulbs for backlighting the gauges of my 1972 BMW 2002 are still waiting to be used. :)

And yes, LED displays do take up less physical space, but to what gain? If you assume a less is more approach to visual information about the status of one's car when driving then there's no appreciable bonus to extra space in the dashboard directly behind the steering wheel. The dominant design consideration for that area of the car is the drivers' legs, leaving an abundant amount of space between the steering column and the firewall separating the engine compartment from the interior space. Secondary information such as oil temp and pressure, voltage, vacuum, tire pressure, and fuel economy can (and should) be placed in the drivers peripheral field of view. The more recent popular (and dangerous) demand of internet/stereo/navigation/cel phones should also be relegated to the periphery outside the drivers immediate visual area. These are not essential features, they are not needed to improve driving safety or efficiency and should be placed accordingly.

It may be true that, as you state, designers are inclined to add more features to take advantage of digital technology but hopefully this will be a short lived trend. I would hope the direction of design for car interiors would move in the opposite direction, with a minimalist approach; that technology would be applied in a way that would enhance a drivers awareness of their surroundings rather than distract them from it.

Some ideas: If a speed gauge were to indicate a drivers speed at any given moment and also indicate whether or not they were within the legally allowed speed limit for that stretch of road. It implies a broadly placed transponder technology, but that's here already and not too much more difficult to implement. Illuminants and sensors that display infra-red information with visible light for increased visibility in adverse weather conditions (rain, fog, snow are all transparent to IR). A bit more sophisticated but again, a technology that's here now. Warning displays for speed/distance to next car calculations that include an awareness of road conditions that effect braking distances. Spoken commands for peripheral devices. Phones, stereos, etc. should all be controlled by voice recognition. If these devices are all inevitable, as the marketing guys say they will be, then they should at least make them safe(r) by not allowing them to interfere with the drivers visual attention.

How would consumers percieve this? Watching the trend in auto designs over the last twenty years I'd guess they'll probably hate it. But if I'd asked my four year old daughter for her permission to take her to the doctor for a booster shot, well.....


-- David Bishop (email)

Here's an interesting take on the instrument panel discussion:

-- Claiborne Booker

In regards to the "Drive While Yakking", Marshall McLuhan said that the phone required more attention then talking to a person who is beside you. From Understanding Media:

The telephone demands complete participation, unlike the written and printed page. Any literate man resents such a heavy demand for his total attention, because he has long been accustomed to fragmentary attention. [...]

Many people feel a strong urge to "doodle" while telephoning. This fact is very much related to the characteristic of this medium, namely that it demands participation of our senses and faculties. [...] Since the telephone offers a very poor auditory image, we strengthen and complete it by the use of all the other senses. When the auditory image is of high definition, as with radio, we visualize the experience or complete it with the sense of sight. When the visual image is of hight definition or intensity, we complete it by providing sound.

An interesting theory/hypothesis.

-- David Magda (email)

The Car Talk guys put it another way: "If you are doing something that required both your hands, your brain should be in on it too!"

-- Sean Owens

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