I recently purchased a used Chevy HHR. Big fan of the styling, the retro exaggerated fenders, the throwback style of the wagonesque shape. To me it manages to be retro and modern at the same time. Great gas mileage, lots of room inside for storage. All the interior controls are ergonomically designed, well placed, simple to use. And they’re very attractive visually as well, which is important to a design geek like me. Got it in my favorite colors, Harley orange & black. Witness the coolness that is my new ride:


Love the car. Love driving it.

The automotive UX on my dash…sucks.

In recent years GM, in typical “everyone else has been doing this for 10 years so maybe we should too…” fashion, has implemented something in recent years they call the Driver Information Center (DIC). It’s a digital display located underneath the speedometer and tachometer that shows your average mpg, tire pressure, trip odometer, maintenance intervals and my favorite, fuel range.

Now, the DIC is a great idea and I love having this info at my fingertips. Even if every other auto maker has implemented this kind of thing for at least 10 years….did I say that already? Sorry. It’s just that at times like these I can’t help but wonder how companies full of reasonably intelligent people can’t figure out that certain features that happen to be extremely useful to us humans attract people and uh, sell product. I applaud the attention to improving automotive UX, but it’s clear that efforts are focused solely on visual form and not nearly enough on how well that form communicates.

Anyway, back to the point. Fuel range is damn useful if you drive a lot (I do). In the following pic you’ll see that at any given moment, I know just how far I can travel with the gas that’s currently in my tank. And GM considers it an important feature as well, obviously recognizing its value to customers – this pic is highlighted on the HHR micro-site:


Notice the fuel range: I know just how far I can travel with the gas I currently have in the tank. Great, right? Absolutely….until the range dips to somewhere around 40 miles (it varies). At this point, GM figures I no longer need to know how far I can go until I need to fill up again. Because if it was important to me, I assume the display would NOT change to the tremendously (un)useful and (un)informative explanation you see in this next pic.

Anybody know the distance equivalent of "low"?

Anybody know the distance equivalent of “Low”? Is this GM’s version of Pi or something?

So what exactly does “Fuel Range Low” mean to me? Better yet, what should it mean to me? And why are you making me figure it out in the first place? Yes, I understand what LOW means. But how low? If the purpose of the DIC is to assist and inform my decision making, what’s the purpose of providing less detail at the point where the user actually needs the most detail? After all, if I’m getting low on gas, and maybe in unfamiliar territory where no gas stations are readily available, it’s pretty damn important that I know just how far I can go before I’m SOL.

What’s the reason for an arbitrary move from specific to generic? If anything, shouldn’t it be the other way around? If I have a full tank of gas, I’m not really concerned about the actual distance I can drive — I’m at full, that’s as good as it gets. I’m as prepared as I can be and that’s really all I need to know at that point. Now when I get to a half tank, maybe I start wondering how far I can go before I have to fill up again. See? Generic to specific.

Showing me a number – a tangible piece of information I can weigh my choice against – helps me decide whether I need to stop now – say before an important meeting which could potentially make me late – or after the meeting because I know I have enough gas to get where I’m going.

OK, point made. Last little dig is yet another seemingly arbitrary, useless change to the display message. At some random point I cannot determine (because remember I have no idea what the fuel range is at this point), the display changes again, to this:


And the difference between this message and the previous one is……..? Should I infer something different from this subtle change in verbiage? And if not, why does it change at all? Why would you design a feedback system that makes me guess what it’s trying to tell me? Again, what’s the message here? I’m going to run out of gas and I should fill up now? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t the message be “FILL GAS NOW” or something equally direct?

Of course, it could be me.