UX Work Underway to Make Alphabet Soup, Control Icons Easier on Drivers

Ford’s customer research lead says that efforts are being made to ensure drivers understand ADAS and other controls, but there’s still a long way to go.

When looked at in an overview, the number of initialisms used for various ADAS systems could easily overwhelmfor some drivers. (Ford / Susan Shaw)

At the InCabin USA interior vehicle technology expo in Detroit in May, Ford customer research lead Susan Shaw said that the sea of letters around ADAS features and control and indicator icons that vary between vehicles are often confusing to drivers. Shaw pointed out that the following all represent features related to driving lanes: LDW, LKA, LKS, LFA, LCA. These initialisms (“acronym” only refers to groups of letters that form words) are not the only ways the industry refers to these technologies, as some OEMs have their own names for similar things. It all contributes to what can be dangerous assumptions on the part of a driver. “It’s shocking how many people think their vehicle will apply the brakes in an emergency, when the car has no such system,” she said.

While designers want buttons and icons to be distinctive enough to hint that you’re in, for example, a Mercedes and not a Chevrolet, there is room to communize them to promote universal understanding of what they mean, said Ford’s Susan Shaw, a certified professional ergonomist. Some of the icons shown have been updated since this chart was compiled in 2022. (Ford / Susan Shaw)

As an overview to the subject of control and indicator iconography, Shaw began with an introduction to user experience research by talking about a classic example: The “Don Norman door.” Norman is the author of “The Design of Everyday Things.” A so-called Norman door is any door that is confusing or does not open or close as a user expects it to. For instance, an unlabeled door that a user does not know whether to push, pull or slide to gain entry. And labels or icons don’t necessarily help things.

To change ADAS settings, it can take as few as two or as many as eight button presses to get to the proper place. (Ford / Susan Shaw)

Shaw, a member of the SAE committee on controls and display standards, said one of the group’s goals is to standardize icons – as much as possible – across OEMs. One problem, she said, is that “OEMs want to have their own design. You want to get in a car and know it's a Mercedes or know it’s a Ford. You don't want to be confused between the two. It should look different. It should feel different. But can we make these icons and buttons [more recognizable]?” Shaw cited cruise-control buttons and indicators as one example. “All of them seem to have a speedometer icon, except for two. And then one of them has what I call a lollipop. It’s actually a traffic sign. One of them has a car; a couple have arrows. All of these are the button you use to turn on cruise control, BlueCruise, Super Cruise, whatever cruise you're working on, adaptive or not. And then when you get into the screen, they all show you something different.” And then, some of them mean cruise is on and engaged, and some indicate the speed that is set. “They’re mostly all different,” she said. “If you’re getting in a rental car, do you know that the feature is engaged?”

Susan Shaw, Ford’s customer research lead, works on an SAE committee on controls and displays that is working to communize buttons and icons as much as possible. (Chris Clonts)

Shaw also mentioned the byzantine nature of some vehicles’ ADAS settings menus. For instance, while it might take two button presses on one vehicle to adjust the sensitivity of forward braking, it can take far more on another. And they may be behind different menu names, such as “driver assistance” or “additional settings.”

Shaw advocated for all OEMs to include deep UX expertise and experience on their development teams, including near-constant user testing, even for things that appear to be “just common sense.” “We find repeatedly that common sense isn’t common,” she said, quoting Voltaire. For an example of iconographic confusion, Shaw pointed to her 78-year-old father. “English is not his native language,” she said. “And he told me there’s a button on the steering wheel he’s never touched because he thinks it’s the Wi-Fi button. Well, it’s the voice recognition. It's got the same arcs as the Wi-Fi thing at home does. I'm like, ‘Well, those go up, these go out.’ But to someone who's 78, that’s not enough of a distinction. He’s afraid he’s going to have to pay for Wi-Fi, so he refuses to touch the button.”

A classic example of confusing or misleading design, a Norman door is a door for which it isn't obvious whether one should push or pull it to open it. (Max Vakhtbovycn)

For older drivers and those new to driving, Shaw recommend the website My Car Does What? , managed by the National Safety Council. But, she emphasized, with commonization, the need for such a site would be reduced. In addition to helping reach a common understanding of vehicle controls and indicators that work, Shaw said a good user experience researcher will attempt to balance not only language issues but also regional and ethnic cultural differences that could lead someone to misinterpret or misuse a vehicle feature. Especially in an era in which OEMs are producing more “global cars” than ever.

In addition to helping reach a common understanding of vehicle controls and indicators that work, Shaw said a good user experience researcher will attempt to balance not only language issues but also regional and ethnic cultural differences that could lead someone to misinterpret or misuse a vehicle feature. Especially in an era in which OEMs are producing more “global cars” than ever.