Physical buttons outperform touchscreens in new cars, test finds

acts surprised

Kinda misguided to blame it on designers for wanting a clean look. Saving this study for future reference when a client wants to replace physical HMI with a touchscreen

I’d venture the problem is not touch-vs-button, but the possibility of layering and hiding controls in favor of reducing clutter. If we would have all AC controls under a lid that you had to open first we would have less clutter but same UX issue as the touchscreen. (ignoring haptic feedback and signal response which can be assumed to be equal (but rarely are)).

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The advantage of a physical button is that it is in the same place each time it’s needed. If you know where it is through repeated use, muscle memory pretty much gets you there without thinking or looking. Clean is nice, but I’m in the physical button camp.


Not a cost thing either, the screens are bloody expensive

I can adjust volume and temperature via physical buttons, but not fan speed or fan direction in my Legacy. I’m also a bit concerned about the long-term viability of the software continuing to work during the life of the vehicle. Will they issue patches and updates in the future?

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We keep the main controls physical toggles on all of our equipment, located in the same place so you could theoretically be seeing-impaired and learn it once.

The brain gets confused when there is an existing memory of how to get something accomplished and then is tasked with firing its neurons to create yet another replacement memory to do the same task. The neuron pathways are cemented together, a new memory is created and the signal pathway is primed for a specific reflex. These pathways cannot be undone until later in life. So…mechanical has lead to electrical which will lead to voice activated which will lead to neural lace thought activated. Autonomous driving cannot arrive soon enough!

Pre-digital and pre-touchscreen generations will be frustrated with this the most. Younger generations who’s synapses don’t know what toggles are like will never know what they are missing and thus will not confuse neural response times when they are behind the wheel adjusting the air-conditioning.

This reminds me of this train crash in New York that could have been partially attributed to the electronic shifter design.’s_behavior

Coincidentally, I have a new loaner for a car in the shop, and the shifters are all big buttons on the center console. Really stupid.

As a Tesla Model 3 user and industrial designer I do root for the study and the substantial argumentation pro button so far. Had thought of “inventing” buttons, that attach at the bottom of the monitor for the model 3, but after some research found, that there already are aftermarket products catering to this.

“amazon: Enhance S3XY Buttons for Tesla - 6 Black”

(Sorry you can’t but links in your post) says the new board. / Really?

I would love to have a better integration into the given layout of the cockpit, but it shows “proof of concept”. Does it sell? I dunno. Tesla drivers tend to be a little stubborn in being different. Even at times it borders on dangerously wrong…

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@mo-i1 @mo-i Hmm. You should be able to put links in. @shaggy any insight here?

Speaking of physical buttons… my car…

To be honest, not surprised at all. Especially based on personal experience. There have been multiple occasions where I might end up touching at the wrong place or random touch. Touchscreens also add to lag issues over time.

My Mercedes has something like a touchpad in my Laptop, and that becomes irritating few times unless I use the button on top of it with haptic feedback.

Is it only me or does anyone else share the same thought?

Totally agree… and if you are driving a long and hit a little bump as you touch the screen it can activate the wrong thing vs on a physical interface where you can feel your way to the right button and have a little bit more security and accuracy.

Unfortunately with how far in advance cars are planned and platforming it seems the ship has largely sailed and we will mostly see bit touch screens @AnthT ?

I did really like Ford’s solution in the Mach E to add a physical dial. It is cleverly executed as well. Since they couldn’t cut through the screen it is actually stuck on and essentially simulates what a finger would do on the screen, but it give you a knob. Maybe we can get some more of this?

Voice control already outperforms screens. Are any cars using it yet?

my Mercedes A220 supports voice control. It supports all the features compared to a touchscreen, but it’s bad.
Like really really bad. I sometime prefer to park on the side and type, instead of requesting via voice (as it doesn’t allow to type if driving)
80% of the time it would start something random, or it won’t understand what you’re saying. Further their wake word is “mercedes” and still it would get triggered randomly while talking with co-passenger.

So in my experience, voice control, in the car atleast, isn’t to the par yet.


I would really like less things to press, physical or virtual. In the morning after I apply the seatbelt I -

  • Turn on car - toggle down

  • Turn on lights - knob clockwise

  • Turn on fog lights - button

  • Turn on “green” mode - huge knob counterclockwise

  • Turn off “green” mode indicator on dashboard - button

  • Turn on music - Turn knob counterclockwise, press knob down, turn knob counterclockwise

  • Adjust climate control - Turn knob clockwise or counterclockwise

  • Put car into reverse - Lever back

And that does not include what I do with my feet. Again, less is better.

New(er) Acura HMI approach
My boss, @churu , worked on.
When other car makers were moving to Touchscreens, Honda had serious concerns about safety. After trying and testing lots of solutions, they landed on a smaller “absolute position” touchpad (think Wacom tablet) in conjunction with heads up display. After a few minutes of use (to get used to the new system) usability evaluation outperformed conventional and touch HMIs.

When we were in Seattle at IDC driving around in the Polestar rental, one of the new Acura SUVs that has this new HMI system drove by and it was super exciting.

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Best of both?

Right there with Shaggy. I enjoy my i3 and seriously considering a Canoo…
I personally think the BMW i3 controls are the best I have ever used. I believe it is an iDrive with the bonus of electric car simplicity.

Those 8 buttons along the top for programming radios stations are also programable for any other function/screen.

I think the jog wheel in the screen encourages the idea of looking at one is doing.
iDrive jog wheel is in a location that has easy access and requires muscle memory rather than visual cues which for this use I think is superior.

The visual cues on the i3 are in a screen that is part of the same field of view as the road. I think muscle memory with this arrangement is the way to go for tangential controls to a main task.