Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Automobile Reviewers: Stuck in the Past

Like many of you, I live in the 21st century, a time when society is recognizing the damage done to the environment through our inattention to the side effects of our technologies. But one specialized niche of the world still lives in the 20th century: those who write the automobile reviews for magazines and newspapers.

Why do automobile reviewers still emphasize appearance (styling), speed, and performance at high speed, often to the exclusion of all else? Where have they been living? Don't they understand about environmental concerns? Don't they have families or for that matter, lives, where the auto is not just a performance engine but a practical means of pets, required to carry families with children, groceries, and children? Where crowded streets and highways make speed and performance irrelevant, and increasing gasoline costs and environmental concerns make efficiency and safety prime considerations?

I enjoy high-performance driving. I've worked with the major automobile companies and I enjoy the feel of a well-tuned sports car as it maneuvers tight curves. But today I worry about the environment, about the huge cost of energy and its atmospheric side effects, to say nothing of the political consequences of our dependence upon oil. I look forward to the day our vehicles will be completely automated, reducing deaths and injury, reducing the mental stress of navigating today's crowded highways and streets. Those who enjoy high-performance driving can do so at the track or special driving courses, much as horse lovers get to deploy their skills on special riding paths and venues. Meanwhile, we have an obligation to develop sensible purchasing and driving habits. 

When I buy my next car (which will be either hybrid or electric), I will evaluate its efficiency and safety. I will want to know how well it suits my family's transportation needs. Alas, the auto reviews in popular magazines and newspapers seldom deliver this kind of information.

Today, safety, environmental efficiency and comfort are considered desirable attributes. But you would never guess it from the way that automobiles are reviewed. Reviewers are still enamored of style. They love power, discussing the time it takes to accelerate to 60 mph, seemingly unaware that in the real world of shopping malls and crowded city streets and highways, such rapid acceleration would be foolhardy and dangerous. Performance driving? Why not emphasize responsible driving, which is better for fuel consumption, for the impact upon the environment, for safety, and for the health and well being of all.

When I read reviews, I want to know how safe the car is, how comfortable for the variety of uses such as shopping, touring, taking children back and forth, or commuting. Horsepower? Who cares? Styling? Yes, I know that appearances and aesthetic pleasure are important, after all, I'm the author of the book "Emotional Design," but that should not be the major purchase criterion.

What about safety? What features are provided for passengers? How comfortable is it for them? Automobile reviewers emphasize the driver, usually ignoring the passengers, especially those in the rear.

It is time for a change. Let's have reviewers who do not dwell on the latest exterior design details, horsepower, or acceleration. Let's have reviews addressed to real people and families, reviews that emphasize the environment and the health and safety of both drivers and passengers. Time to enter the 21st Century.

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