Check Your Engine Please


This is a story about iconography and information design. 

Driving home the other day in my wife’s 10 year-old Honda Civic (such an awesome reliable ride!) I was greeted with a peculiar little icon lighting up among the main instrument cluster. The icon in question, an oddly shaped blob of sorts, amber in colour, also known as the check engine light, has a rather vexing quality about it, wouldn’t you say?

Naturally no one ever wants to see this indicator light up on their dashboard. Usually it means there’s something bad is going on mechanically under the hood and that it might be time to head over to the dealership and empty our wallet to the tune of several hundred (or thousand) bucks depending on how neglectful we’ve been in maintaining our ride.

We all dread seeing this stupid little icon blink or chime away.

Wouldn’t a more pleasant scenario be a one-time reminder sent from our digital assistant informing us that it’s time to make an appointment with the service center? Even better, getting our smartphone or car computer to automatically make the service appointment on our behalf, then email us with the date and time while simultaneously updating our calendar app. Maybe I’m dreaming, or maybe Siri will be doing this kind of thing for us eventually.
Instead, for the time being, the brilliant automotive design engineers feel it more appropriate to distract our driving with a multitude of visual annoyances cluttering our line of sight until we finally break down and visit our local mechanic who will gladly make the icons go away, for a price. Hey it’s bad enough the driving experience has become incredibly stressful on its own—just pick any major urban center. Never mind the incessant sound of beeping alerts and flashing dashboard icons vying for our attention. Driving, at least in Toronto, has become a crappy experience many of us smarter folks have largely abandoned Monday to Friday in favour of public transit to reclaim our cognitive well-being.

Back to our cursory little check engine light icon. I seem to be fixated upon its glowing presence next to the speedometer as I accelerate and change lanes on my way home. How much is this repair going to cost me, I think to myself.
I’m willing to bet most major auto manufacturers enlist teams of information designers and research specialists to evaluate various human factors when devising instrument cluster controls. Naturally with the best of ergonomic intentions, but quite often forming some of the most irritating sensory aspects of the driving experience we all tend to gripe about, like I’m doing right now.

I wonder how many people have actually taken a look under the hood of their car or truck. Does the cartoonish looking design crudely resembling an engine block and fan belt come across as intuitive or arbitrary in its meaning? It may depend on how long you’ve been driving. If you first car is less than 5 years old chances are you’ve never looked under the hood—and probably never will. Most vehicles contain a dozen or so on-board computers and you would almost need a computer science degree to change the oil or sparkplugs these days. So our check engine icon becomes rather meaningless then as none of us dare venture under the hood, fearing we’ll muck something up or void our warranty. “Call your mechanic” seems far more appropriate as an alert message instead.

Perhaps a better visual representation for the check engine diagnostic might be a frowning face next to an emptying wallet or a laughing mechanic with flashing dollar signs circling about. I’m thinking Cooter the grease-ball mechanic from The Dukes of Hazzard would work well in this case.

Maybe cars should come equipped with customizable dashboard interfaces in which we could upload our own avatars or random clip art in the same way we express ourselves with quirky profile pics on Twitter and Facebook. Anything that would put a smile on our face improves the UX in my opinion. Let’s get rid of the stoic 1970s era looking iconography. It doesn’t work.

In all seriousness though, information design is challenging. To anticipate what end-users want and need in terms of feedback and visual cues, perhaps an even greater challenge.
Iconography is sometimes used as a communication crutch when form and function are not readily apparent. As an element of visual design, icons are meant to reduce the complexity of a system while serving as affordances for people. Yet in many instances iconographic provisions do little to improve product use and may actually hinder our experience, despite the efforts of well intentioned design teams. Still, we try.