The “check engine light” considered harmful January 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent Wired.com article discusses why the check engine light on modern cars is, at least, lame. As most readers already know, the check engine light is a little glyph somewhere on your dashboard that lights up whenever your car’s onboard computer detects some sort of engine fault. As Jason Torchinsky argues, to have a generic light that comes on when something goes wrong is rather uninformative. In this respect, it is like getting an “invalid input” error message after entering text into a field in a computer app or Web site. Since you do not know what the nature of the error is, the message is merely frustrating.
Of course, as Torchinsky admits, the driver could buy a special scanner to plug in to the car’s diagnostic system in order to read the error code and find out what the problem is. However, as he points out, not many drivers are likely to want to keep such a scanner around, or even feel confident about using it correctly.
In a way, the “check engine” light is worse than the “invalid input” message. In the case of the input message, the frustration comes partly from not being told how to correct the problem. The “check engine” light does, however, suggest a course of action: Take the car to the dealer. Torchinsky objects that this setup puts car owners at the mercy of mechanics:
By failing to provide this information to consumers, regular drivers — that is to say, those who aren’t going to ferret out the codes themselves, and then fix the problem — are beholden to dealerships and mechanics for information readily available in a product they’ve paid for.
The commercial purpose of the “check engine” light is, then, to create anxiety in drivers that can be relieved only by purchasing information from a professional.
Torchinsky points out that there are alternatives. Many cars today incorporate video screens into the dashboard. It would seem to be a simple matter for the designers to use those screens to display the diagnostic message that would otherwise appear on the special scanner.
Torchinsky’s complaint reminds me of a similar issue raised by Matthew Crawford. In his book Shop class as soulcraft, Crawford argued that automotive designers, in particular, cultivate a sense of learned helplessness in their customers. A new model motor bike, he points out, has a light that comes on when the engine oil needs to be topped up. The light is supposed to prompt the owner to take the bike to a dealer for remediation. Replenishing engine oil should be a snap for any bike owner, Crawford scoffs, so this design feature is merely a craven ploy to substitute a kind of passive consumerism for basic mechanical savvy among owners, to the benefit of dealers.
I suppose that one could argue that a “check engine” light, like a “change oil” light, is consistent with the tenants of user-friendly design that is much promoted today. The lights impose as little as possible on the car or bike owner, while directing them to take some appropriate action when a problem occurs. Crawford’s response is that designs should sometimes impose on their users; it is an opportunity to teach the user how their gear works. To miss this opportunity is to deprive the user of the dignity that comes with command of their gear.
Torchinsky’s objection falls into the consumer protection category. The “check engine” light simply places the car owner at a disadvantage:
Information is power, and by denying you this information, automakers are denying you power. If you’re driving along and that damned check engine light comes on, you have no way of knowing if it’s a minor problem — the gas cap is loose, for example — or you’re at risk of imminent engine failure. A generic check engine light also makes it easier for dishonest mechanics to take advantage of unknowing customers.
Maybe. Of course, most owners will not need assistance fixing a loose gas cap. However, many owners may simply be confused by a detailed error message such as “Secondary air injector: incorrect flow”, which is displayed in the picture in Torchinsky’s article. As cars get more complex and computerized, they will only become harder for most owners to understand.
So, I suspect that the situation needs more thought. Torchinsky is right that the “check engine” light is an inadequate design for today’s car. However, most drivers will derive little benefit from a technical description of some engine fault appearing on their dashboard. Instead, designers need to think about a model of the car’s systems, an idealization of some sort, that owners can understand and that will help them to take appropriate action when a problem occurs. In that way, owners can be educated as far as is possible, and saved from the machinations of their mechanics.
Modernism and public taste June 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Today, I want to continue the item that I discussed in the previous blog. It concerned Henry Dreyfuss’s argument that industrial design has elevated, not decreased, the level of good taste in the general population.
Besides his problematic argument about attendance at art shows, Dreyfuss makes another argument for his case based on a comparison of goods from the 1930 and 1955 Sears Roebuck catalogs. Pictures of heaters, toasters, chairs, weight scales, sewing machines, and stoves from each era are shown side-by-side for easy comparison. I cannot reproduce the figures here but I will put up similar pictures below.
(A reproduction 1930s-style toaster; image courtesy of Cfrederico via Wikimedia Commons.)
(A reproduction 1950s-style toaster; image courtesy of Donovan Govan via Wikimedia Commons.)
So, is the modernist toaster below aesthetically superior to the earlier one above? One thing you have to give the later design is that it looks safer. With the earlier design, the user had to open the side doors of the toaster in order to flip the toast around manually, if both sides were to be toasted. That maneuver meant that the user’s hands were exposed to the heating elements in the middle, which could result in burns or, at least, discomfort. The pop-up toaster protects the user from the heating elements and thus is much more inviting. A similar point could be made for the sewing machines that Dreyfuss displays: The older one has more of the mechanism exposed, presenting more opportunities for the sewer’s fingers to get caught (or stabbed) than the later, better encased model.
Dreyfuss also contrasts two chairs from each catalog. The first is a wicker rocking chair whereas the second is a simple living room chair. Have a look at the examples below.
(A reproduction wicker rocking chair, courtesy of Amazon.com.)
(1950s style chair, courtesy of Justin and Elise via Flickr.com.)
Like the modernist toaster, the newer chair model is much simpler and less fussy than the wicker chair. However, it looks less inviting to me. It is just too severe. Also, the back is too low and would not support the upper torso of a taller person. The rocking chair appears to have better padding, and the rocking motion is allows can be quite soothing and welcome.
Finally, compare the two electric stoves below.
(1930s electric stove, courtesy of kthread via Flickr.com.)
(1950s electric stove, in the right corner, courtesy of m kasahara via Flickr.com.)
Note that older stove is much more spread out and includes a large empty space under the stove top. The newer model, by contrast, is much more compact. Also, as you can see in the photo, the newer model fits in with the kitchen counter top, whereas the old model would place the oven right in the way. Having said that, an advantage of the older model is that the oven is at eye level instead of knee height. I would have to agree that the newer model is better looking, if only because it seems more organized and less haphazard.
So, is Dreyfuss right? The argument, as stated, does not really work. At most, the catalog comparison shows that styles have changed, not that they have gotten better (or that they have improved the public taste). However, as I noted above, the newer designs appear mostly more convenient and safe, which is certainly in their favour. Also, it should be added, the items from the 1955 catalog would not look so out of place in a contemporary house, whereas the older ones mostly would. With the exception of some limited retro fads, people have not returned to the older designs.
Of course, the endurance of the 1950s style could be due to lock-in. The stove with oven beneath is preferred because stoves have to fit in with counter tops today, whereas stoves were more likely to be isolated in earlier kitchen arrangements. So, the persistence of counter tops could explain why the later model stove continues to be popular. Also, increased attention to the need to ship goods constrains their style severely. Older items were designed without much thought to how much it would cost to ship them to stores or arrange delivery to customers’ homes. Contrast this situation with the design of Ikea furniture, say, in which items are “knocked down”, that is, carefully squeezed in pieces into little boxes that can be shipped efficiently and which consumers can take home in their cars for final assembly. Although furniture and appliances are now designed for efficient shipping, thus reducing cost, that does not make them prettier.
Also, the change in style seems to bear witness to a preference for masculine appearance over feminine. That is, the older items are lighter, have more curves, and are more decorated, on the whole, than the new items. The latter are more heavy, rectilinear, and severe in appearance. If industrial design has taught consumers to prefer a more masculine aesthetic, then does that constitute progress? Not as such, I would think.
Nevertheless, the newer models do display in their appearance a concern for ease of use, compactness, and safety that people would reasonably prefer. Perhaps consumers have become more demanding about the looks of their appliances (if not furniture, where styles still vary quite a bit), at least where that appearance suggests safety and convenience. As that does sound like an improvement, we can thank Dreyfuss and his colleagues for educating the public through their work.
Rise in the level of public taste June 3, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have been reading Designing for people by the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. He was one of the pioneers of the field, perhaps best known for the design of the Bell series 300 and 500 telephones, the latter remaining the standard desk phone for the remainder of the century. (See also this discussion of his design for a thermostat.) His book is certainly well worth the read, in spite of the intervening years.
(Image courtesy of ProhibitOnions via Wikimedia.com.)
I took special notice of his defense of industrial design against accusations that it merely promotes consumerism. Dreyfuss characterizes the criticism in this way (p. 82):
They imply that Americans, in their worship of comfort and luxury, have so surrounded themselves with slick mechanization that their capacity to esteem the fine arts has become dulled or has disappeared entirely.
So, industrial designers make life more comfortable for people through making products more attractive or just more usable or disposable. This emphasis on ease coarsens the attitude towards art, whose appreciation requires the effort to cultivate taste. Thus, industrial designers are making Americans coarser than ever.
There is a touch of defensiveness here, perhaps because Dreyfuss got his start in the theater, designing sets and costumes and the like. In any event, Dreyfuss replies that industrial design actually improves the public level of taste. After all, he argues, good design in consumer products is much the same as good taste in the arts. The more that industrial designers provide the public with better designed goods, the more the discerning the public will become about all designs, including art works.
To bolster his point, Dreyfuss cites statistics showing that attendance at museums in New York City nearly equaled attendance at sporting events in 1954. If Americans care only for lowbrow activities such as baseball or football, then why do they show up at the American Museum of Natural History in such numbers?
This rejoinder is interesting and relevant, although it does not quite make the case. After all, his claim was that industrial design improves the level of public taste, not that enthusiasm for dinosaur bones will rival that for basketball. What we would need to know is whether or not attendance at art shows has increased since the arrival of industrial design. We would also want to control for confounding factors, e.g., the possibility that an increase in attendance at arts shows is due to better advertising, growth in income, a baseball strike, etc.
Nevertheless, the position that better industrial design tends to make the public more discerning and stimulated by the arts is worth investigating. However, I do not know of any studies that tend to confirm it, although some preliminary ones would not be too hard to conduct. In the meantime, what do you think? Have the carefully contoured curves of your new iPad made you more discerning? More interested in sculpture or painting?
Complexity vs. consumerism: The Chevy Volt November 8, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
In an earlier post, I noted the argument made by Matthew Crawford that modern design is tending more and more towards consumerism. That is, designs have a tendency to become more complex and less accessible over time. Crawford contrasts early motorbikes with modern ones as an example: Early bikes were open to intervention and modification by their owners. They positively invited exploration. Modern bikes, by contrast, are highly computerized and actively resist intervention and modification by their owners. Crawford deplores this trend as a promotion of consumerism, that is, modern gear is designed to appear like a black box that is merely to be consumed, used up, and then thrown out when it has become boring or broken down. The opportunity for designers to educate users about their gear via its design is deliberately passed over.
Of course, another explanation for the increasing complexity of our gear is that the computerization that makes for more complex designs makes for more efficient designs too. So, designers computerize things like motor bikes to make them work better (a point that Crawford seems to concede) and the trade-off is that their users are excluded from tinkering with them.
(Image courtesy of Mariordo via Wikimedia Commons.)
Wired.com notes the presence of this trade-off in the Chevy Volt. In case you had not heard, the Volt is GM’s entry into the electric car market, with an all-electric range of some 40 miles (ca. 65 kms). The Volt is highly computerized, sporting over 100 electronic controllers, a unique IP address for each vehicle, and an astonishing 10 million lines of code!
For comparison, the new Boeing 787, which is widely considered to be the most electronic airliner ever, has around 8 million lines of code. And that includes the complex avionics and navigation systems. The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Around 6 million.
I can personally image a program (or suite of programs) containing hundreds or even thousands of lines of code, but 10 million just boggles the mind! How could anyone really understand what is going on in the digital depths of the Volt?!
As the Wired.com article points out, this level of complexity will surely inhibit owners from messing with the Volt’s inner workings:
We’re not software engineers here at Autopia, but with all those lines of software code, anybody looking to tweak a Volt may have quite a puzzle on their hands. Sure the days of a new intake manifold and a four barrel carb are long gone, but now it looks like the modern version of ‘chipping’ a car is far from adequate for the new cars on the block.
So, is the Volt the ultimate (to date) consumer gadget, the latest way Detroit has found to turn its clients into dependent ignoramuses? Or is it part of a necessary progression of technology in which consumer education must be traded off for gains in efficiency and performance?
The Betty Crocker Cruiser May 28, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have been reading Shop class as soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. So far, I have found it both a compelling read and an insightful critique of the supposed opposition between manual work and the good life.
The book touches on a number of interesting subjects but one in particular struck me as relevant for a design audience. Let me quote from Crawford’s remarks on how companies now encourage people merely to consume their “stuff” instead of mastering it, while deliberately conflating the two situations (pp. 66-67):
An ad for the Yamaha Warrior in the July 2007 issue of Motor Cyclist carries the caption “Life is what you make of it. Start making it your own.” The picture shows a guy in his home shop, focused intently on his Warrior. There are motorcycle parts on shelves above his ancient workbench, and a full stack of grungy, obviously well-used tool boxes in standard mechanic’s red. He’s not smiling for the camera; he’s lost in his work. A smaller caption reads, “The 102-cubic-inch fuel-injected Warrior. We build it. You make it your own.” Smaller still, it reads, “You only get one shot at life–may as well make it mean something. And when you start with the four-time AMA Prostar Hot Rod Cruiser Class Champion Warrior, then add your choice of Star Custom Accessories, the result is very powerful. And very personal.”
So it turns out, in the small type, that what the guy is actually doing is attaching some accessory to his bike. This is a little like those model cars where the child’s role consists of putting the decals on. Motorcycle culture retains a dim remembrance of the more involving character of the old machines, and the ad seems to gesture in that direction. Back in the 1950s, when the focal practice of baking was displaced by the advent of cake mix, Betty Crocker learned quickly that it was good business to make the mix not quite complete. The baker felt better about her cake if she was required to add an egg to the mix. So if the Warrior were to be christened with a street name, an apt one might be the Betty Crocker Cruiser, forged as it is in the Easy Bake Oven of consumerism.
Crawford’s comment is relevant for any designer and, indeed, for their educators. To my knowledge, many classes in engineering and other design fields emphasize ease-of-use. Students in a Human Factors class learn techniques for making devices intuitive for their users. Crawford points out that this emphasis serves the purposes of a broader design ideology, namely consumerism. Consumers use their gear until it breaks down or they get bored with it. Then, they turf it out for something else. This process is supposed to make users happy and producers happy. Consumers, in this sense, necessarily have a flaccid and passive attitude towards the things they own.
Contrast this attitude with one that Crawford calls spirited. The spirited owner develops an attachment to his gear and desires to find out how it works and how to fix it when it breaks down. This attitude inhibits the urge to throw stuff out when it does not behave properly or goes out of style. Thus, it is vastly different than consumerism, and has different implications for the environment, obviously, but also for designers.
Designing a machine to be easy-to-use often means making its inner workings opaque and inaccessible to the user. If all goes well, then the user can make the machine work without spending time understanding its workings or strengths and weaknesses. However, when the machine breaks or misbehaves, the owner is at the mercy of “service representatives” or simply finds it cheaper to buy a new one.
Crawford argues that the passive attitude encouraged by consumer items is bad for owners. Whatever its economic rationale, consumerism stunts people’s growth and self-realization. It makes them stupid. If so, then designers of people’s gear face a question: Is it always a good idea to make things so easy-to-use?
There must be some balance between challenge and ease-of-use in design, and I do not yet know what resolution, if any, Crawford has to offer. However, this issue strikes me as an excellent one to raise with students who are learning one or another of the design disciplines.