Sonic bust: How bad design ruins the user experience

Chevrolet Sonic nameplateI have a theory about rental cars: Rental car companies fill their lots with the most uninspiring, unenjoyable, and unsellable fleet vehicles imaginable so that you are motivated to return them. It doesn’t matter how old or dumpy the car you own is. You will love it like the day you bought it after you’ve spent several days in some underpowered rental car with a smelly cabin.

Last week, we rented a 2014 Chevrolet Sonic while our 2013 Honda CR-V was being repaired. I could tell how overjoyed we would be to get our car back the moment I got behind the wheel of the Sonic. It has the worst user interface I’ve ever seen on a vehicle.

Something that seems as minor as the layout of a dashboard can have a big impact in how we view a product. It can determine whether we will enjoy driving the car or dread it as a typical rental vehicle. Here’s why.

Let’s first take a look at the dashboard of our CR-V.

Dashboard of a 2013 Honda CR-V

Look at how beautifully laid out it is! The speedometer, which provides the most important information (as anyone who ever got a speeding ticket can tell you), is in the center and is the largest dial on the dashboard. The odometer, trip meter, and outside temperature are in the middle of the speedometer. All of the other indicators are on the outside of the speedometer so that you can still see them, but they are not distracting.

As for the Chevrolet Sonic…

2014 Chevrolet Sonic dashboard

Why is the tachometer the largest dial on the dashboard? Who even uses it? The speedometer, which has the most important information, is that large, but thin LCD number zero that is a little off-center. Why is the tachometer bigger and more prominent than the speedometer? And why did GM engineers decide that the tachometer should be analog and the speedometer be digital?

And what is with all those black circles above and below the digital display? These are for the indicator lights, but those should only appear when something needs to be indicated. (The Check Engine light is always an important one.) But this design draws attention to the indicator lights when they are not in use. Since there are some indicator lights that never come on because you don’t have a particular feature on that car, knowing they are there makes them more distracting.

The Sonic’s bad interface design isn’t limited to the dashboard. There’s this:

Sonic Dashboard Lights

What is the light switch doing on the dashboard? On every car I driven since 1983, foreign and domestic, the light switch is at the tip of the turn signal like on my new Prius.

Light controls on a Toyota Prius

Why put the light switch on the turn signal? Because it’s convenient! If I’m on a long drive that goes into dusk or if I hit a fog bank, it’s easier to reach for the turn signal. With the Sonic, I have to extend my arm all the way to the dashboard.

The Sonic’s dashboard and and light switch aren’t design features like the ones on the Prius that I can adapt to and get comfortable with. The Sonic has design bugs that are non-standard and counter-intuitive, and they don’t have a clear reason or offer a benefit to the user.

A good interface shouldn’t require people to think. This is especially important for a car when you have a fraction of a second to react to road conditions. Controls and gauges should be thoughtfully placed so they are easy to find and use. They also need to be consistent so you don’t have to remember how to use them. This is why the controls in automobiles haven’t changed much in the past 30 years or so. (The days of push-button transmissions have long gone.) When companies introduce different types of interfaces that don’t have a purpose or logic to them, they’re not innovative — they’re irritating.

Even if the Sonic was a comfortable, smooth-performing car (which it isn’t), its irritating dashboard and controls would still distract from my enjoyment of the vehicle. The Sonic’s poor design did offer us one benefit: We couldn’t wait to return it to the rental company and get our CR-V back!