I love the automotive metaphor for UI Design.


I saw this message posted on one of the User Experience blogs.


This is the new Mercedes Benz SCL600
No steering wheel, you drive it with a joystick. No pedals either.

Can you drive with a joystick? Your kids and grandkids probably can.

The influence of video games in our lives has really arrived, wouldn’t you say?

The author’s observation about the mainstream “arrival” of the videogame UI is a good one, but I’d like to focus on the challenge surrounding the acceptance of new UI models:

“Age has nothing to do with it, my dear.”

Consider the current, universally (or at least “globally”) accepted metaphor for the personal vehicle in its historic context:

The Legacy

When the auto-mobile first appeared on the market around the turn of the 20th century, the dominant model was animal-powered devices: saddled horses, ox-carts, carriages, plows, etc. The driver’s control yoo-eye (UI / “user interface”) was straps held in both handsreins.

  • Turn Left: Tug on the left strap.
  • Turn Right: Tug on the right strap.
  • Stop: Pull back on both straps (maybe also pull back on a friction lever on a wagon).
  • Go faster: Snap ’em.

Doesn’t sound like the conventional automotive “user interface”to me.

So – How did we get there?

In fact, early auto designers tried a variety of UI models (sticks or straps or handlebars) to allow control of the turning motion, acceleration & braking of the new machine. Ultimately, the system that really worked (i.e. gained popular acceptance) used a combination of other metaphors as well as some “new”, alien models.

Steering: The “steering wheel” comes directly from the nautical model. (Arrrrgh… matey) Hardly an obvious metaphor. Large ships (small boats don’t use ’em) don’t really operate like land vehicles (the steering mechanisms are at the back of the ship) – and very few people really had any experience using a “wheel” to steer. Yet itworked and quickly became THE visual and practical metaphor for “driving a car”.

Braking: “Push on a pedal”. This metaphor already existed in some of the more sophisticated horse-drawn vehicles, but was compromised somewhat by…

Acceleration: Also “push on a pedal”. No real existing model here. Exactly the same action for exactly the opposite purpose. And the gas pedal is located right next to the braking pedal. Hmmmm….

Clutch: Also “push on a pedal”. This is a moderator function that eases the engagement of a geared shifting mechanism. Must be used in concert with the brake, if you don’t want to stall the engine. Totally different purpose than either of the other two pedals, but employing the exact same control mechanism. Confusing…no?

Many of us remember – with fear, amusement and shame – exactly how horrific “learning to drive a stick” could be: Grinding gears, embarrassing kicks, jumps & stalls. In many ways, the initial automotive interface was a confusing kluge of inconsistent – even contradictory – interface control models.

Yet, as a global society, we learned them, accepted them and soon embraced them as “the norm”.

As regards the question posed above: “Are you too old…?”

“Apparently not.”


LinkedIn : January 29, 2015 – Feb 29, 2016 : 262 Views, 6 Likes



(c) copyright John Vaughan / The Communication Studio



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