Monday, August 18, 2008
Check out this control setup in a new Ford truck in which I was recently riding: Ford has, thankfully, gotten out of ovals everywhere design, and seems to have replaced them with circles everywhere. Note the five actual dials below the radio controls. The far left one is the drive system (various 2 and 4-wheel settings) the center are the HVAC controls, and the right is... what? Seriously, I wasn't sure at first. 12v is the only position labeled. So I try turning it. No movement. Pretty rapidly it becomes clear it's not a dial. Tug on it (carefully, in case I am wrong) and it's a hole, a power port. In the past, this was the cigarette lighter, but now it's a power port. The only hints it doesn't turn are a little depression to the right, and a lack of an indicator line pointing to the "12v" setting. But the overall style embodies the "rotary switch" meme. What am I supposed to think this item does? I know exactly how this happened, too. For pretty much my whole career I have had to deal with the same issues. I don't know what it's called in industrial design, and even within interactive, names vary. "Visual design" is the most common, I think. Visual designers are tasked to add a style to the product. Usually, one that reflects the overall corporate brand, but always their mantra is aesthetic and consistent. My problem is when they try to common, universally-understood, design language with another set, in the name of consistency. This is a great example. Aside from communicating "rotary switch" vs. "hinging cover," I would consider there already is a design phrase for "power port." It's a particular knobby style, descended from the auto cigarette lighter itself. Within interactive, the most common cases are trying – or needing – to replace standard controls, like scrollbars or form elements. Either a stylistic change is desired, or something like Flash is used to create a large portion of an interactive element, and the design is proposed with non-standard checkboxes, or scrollbars that don't work by click-to-position or dragging. I have actually sat behind the mirror and watched such items fail users. For any designer, of any interactive element, consider the value of your design contribution. Is consistency of visual look more important than instantly communicating interactivity, and meeting user expectations, through use of well-known elements?