Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Facing to the rear

DONALD A. NORMAN

Originally published in InteriorMotives.

When I travel in cars, I am a passenger as often as I am a driver. Passengers seem poorly served by the design of most automobile interiors. Consider the case of one driver with two passengers. If the two sit in the back seat, they can talk to one another, but not only does this leave out the driver, but it sends a subtle signal that the driver is a mere chauffer, set apart from the group. If one passenger sits in the front, then the other is isolated, sitting in the rear, unable to share in any conversation that takes place between the front seat driver and passenger. If the front seat passenger drives to converse with the one in the rear, the passenger either has to shout or turn head and body around into an uncomfortable position, so that all the effort that went into the design of comfortable seats is thwarted., and the front passenger is apt to end up with a neck-ache.

As I write this, I am sitting in the express train between Trento and Florence. I’m in a comfortable seat, with arm and headrests facing backwards while my wife sits opposite me, in equally comfortable seat, facing forward. We have lots of space between us – sufficient both for our feet and a suitcase, yet the total length of the cabin from front seatback to rear seatback is no greater than the length of an auto’s passenger compartment, from dashboard to rear of the second seat.

Why not allow the front seat to face to the rear? Now, suddenly, the front and rear passengers are united. Moreover, the front passenger seat could now slide forward, with its rear abutting the dashboard, thereby increasing legroom for the two facing passengers. This position allows everyone in the car to converse: front seat passenger, rear seat passengers, and even the driver, for now the driver is certainly no worse of than before, possibly better.

Folklore has it that passengers reject the idea of facing backwards. But why do they sit this way on trains? And what if it were a choice, with the front seat either swiveling or constructed like a train seat, with the backrest being movable from the rear of the seat to the front? Safety? Rear-facing seats are safer than front-facing ones – we require them for babies -- but a flexible seat poses some difficulties with crash resistance and seat belt placement, but nothing a clever designer could not overcome. This is not a new idea: see the Renault Deck'up and the Espace. An idea whose time is now.

Donald Norman is a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities, helps companies through the Nielsen Norman group, and, in his spare time, writes books, including "Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things." He lives in northern California at www.jnd.org. Write him at "don" at jnd.org.

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