Automobile dashboards are a great counter-point to the notion that only software developers suck at user-interface design. While the major features - steering wheel, gear stick, accelerator, breaks and maybe cluctch have become standardized, after over a century of cars the fine details of the dashboard are still evolving, sometimes in confusing and unhelpful ways. I was particularly amused to hear about a usability enhancement from SAAB on the usually-savvy signal vs. noise blog which I have been on the pointy end of - the “blackpanel” feature in the SAAB 900. Blackpanel is one of those features that sounds great on paper, but in reality was really, really annoying. My blackpanel never worked the way it is described/shown on Wikipedia - my blackpanel just blacked out the whole dash. No illumination as required, just black. This left one of the pieces of information I really care about - my speed - unknown. It was the kind of feature that initially made you think that the fuse to the dashboard had failed, but then you realized it was that stupid blackpanel feature, because if you looked at the dash really closely you could see that the speedometer and RPM dials were both pointing to zero (this was really hard to tell at night). If access to this dangerous and confusing feature had been squirreled away somewhere inaccessible and difficult to activate I would probably have never come across it (it’s certainly not the kind of feature I would go looking out for), but the SAAB engineers obviously thought it had a big future, and prominently placed the BlackPanel button right beside the radio, which meant it could accidentally be bumped on without realizing.
We, the Software Development community have made own fair share of UI mistakes but we’re not alone, as the likes of Don Norman are often pointing out.