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The usability of infotainment systems
A Primer in Affordance

I’ve really been fascinated with infotainment centers for a few years now. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a general term used for next generation audio systems in cars. These systems today are more than just your terrestrial car radio or CD player. They often integrate GPS functionality, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity to devices and more are beginning to integrate support for hands free calling and operation for mobile applications through your smart phone.

The reviews of the various SYNC flavors haven’t been good. There are plenty of articles that discuss the pain associated with the SYNC system, from difficulty with overall usability, to issues with the voice controls to just plain bugs and system crashes. There are websites dedicated to bemoaning the SYNC system and class action lawsuits in the works. There are actually four flavors available when it comes to the Ford SYNC system, and while all versions have been panned they really boil down to a version with a touch screen (SYNC with MyFord Touch) and everything else.

So of course this summer when I was shopping for a new car, I really REALLY wanted to see just how bad the SYNC really was. I wanted a hybrid more than the touch system, and with inventories running low the only hybrid available in the package I wanted within a five state radius came with a non-touch screen version. Oh well, another blog for another day. But the usability issues and complaints are not just limited to the touch screen version. The actual version that came with my vehicle is “SYNC with MyFord” and I quickly found this version to be less than usable as well. While I’ve learned how to work the system, having to do so shows just how poor the affordance of these systems are.

So what exactly is affordance?

Affordance is one of those terms that a UX professionals will throw out from time to time. It can be quickly defined as the ability for a user to figure out how to use an object just from looking at it. A great example is a door in a store, office the gym or any other public location. If the door has a handle, it would be said that the door would have a high level of affordance if the door opened by pulling. If the door had the same handle, but opened by pushing instead the door would be said to have a low level of affordance because most people would expect there to be a push plate on the door.

So if we a look at the layout of the SYNC with MyFord system in a 2013 Ford Fusion, and do so through the lens of affordance using the definition above we might be able to see some immediate issues.


If we start from left to right along the console, we’ll notice a grouping of buttons that appear to control various modes of the system, a display screen with a current task and other standard pieces of information such as the current time, and a second grouping of buttons that look like they might work with phone integration. Below these three items are knobs for volume and tuning the radio, additional buttons with arrows and circles and a button marked “OK” that looks like it should be used to confirm an action of some sort. There are additional buttons on the steering wheel as well that we will get to in a bit.

If we focus on the first group of buttons, we’ll see some that are pretty obvious. It’s a safe bet that the CD button allows you access to a CD, the Radio button turns on the terrestrial radio, the Sirius button switches over to satellite radio. Then there is that fourth button in the upper right with an icon on it. Why an icon? Not sure, but aside from the now lack of consistency is labeling these buttons the icon is of a music note. So what exactly does this do? Can’t I get music from the CD player, or from the radio, or from Sirius?

The next button that stands out is labeled “media”. This button raises essentially the same question as above. Isn’t a CD media? We’re also presented another icon, that looks like a clock face. It’s obvious this has something to do with the clock, but it isn’t clear how this functionality differs from the “Menu” button below it. The last button is a “Phone” button, but is this just for calling or is this how I connect my phone to play music? Or what that was the music note icon button was for? Or maybe that functionality falls under media?

We can quickly see that the affordability of the system is quickly falling part as we begin to take the time to analyze each of these buttons, their potential meaning, but also their meaning when compared to the potential meanings of the other buttons. The use of text on some buttons, icons on the others adds an additional level of interpretation by the user and confusion in all the potential meanings of the system.

So what do these buttons actually do?

Well the CD player adequate for playing CD’s. Unfortunately I’ve moved on from CD’s so that won’t be getting much use in the future. The radio button does flip turn on terrestrial radio, and also acts as a toggle between multiple FM presets and AM. To actually change a preset you would use the number buttons that we thought were associated with the phone.

Now for the interesting parts. The musical note icon button changes the audio levels. Bass, Treble, Middle, Fade and Balance. The clock icon button sets the time. This is also available from the menu button, which along with clock settings provides audio settings (), display settings, and “SYNC media”.

SYNC Media? Wasn’t there a “Media” button as well? Why yes there was. Selecting the Media button switches the system to “line in”. So if you have a phone, mp3 player or another device with a headphone jack plugged into the vehicles line in port this button allows you listen to that device through the car stereo. But unlike the Radio button which would allow you to toggle between FM and AM modes by repeatedly pressing the Radio button, you only get 1 mode through the Media button.

If you want to change to Bluetooth audio, you need to click the Menu button, select “SYNC Media” then choose “Select Source.” From here you a pick between SYNC USB, Bluetooth or LineIn. Once you select your choice, your music should begin playing immediately as long as your device is playing audio. But the moment you shut off your car everything resets. The Media button no longer remembers you were last using Bluetooth audio, and reverts right back to Line In.

Now, if you feel like all of that wasn’t very intuitive and would consider the labeling of buttons, the organization of features under those buttons and the behavior of the system when you interact with it is an example of low affordability you would be right. But if you remember I had mentioned that earlier that there were additional buttons on the steering wheel. Those include buttons for advancing through your music collection, changing stations, answering and hanging up phone calls and one additional little gem that’s supposed to help keep your hands off of all those buttons… voice activation.

I won’t get into issues around the reliability of Ford SYNC, since that’s less a usability issue and more of a development issue. But for example if you wanted to use your Bluetooth device for audio and didn’t want to sift through 3 menu items to do it, you could press the voice button on the steering wheel and say “Bluetooth Audio”. If successful, the car would repeat the request back to you then switch to Bluetooth. Again, if the audio is playing on your device it should be audible within a second or two of the request. But just like when selecting Bluetooth audio by navigating the menu system, the system will reset once you shut off your car and default back to the line in mode. So each time you get in and you want to use Bluetooth, you need to ask your car to turn on Bluetooth.

So how does this get fixed? The easiest place to start when building a system like this is to make your options clear, concise and consistent. A button labeled “CD” in the context of a music system is easy for a user to recognize. An icon of a musical note needs to be interpreted by the individual, and different individuals may come to different conclusions on that meaning. Being consistent with using text for all buttons helps. Removing ambiguous labels takes things a step further. If “Media” means “Line in” then label it as such. And make sure it behaves like the other buttons. If “Radio” can toggle between multiple modes, then the option for Line in should allow the driver to between various related modes as well.

Finally, be intelligent. If the driver was listening to the radio when the car was shut off, the same radio station would begin playing the next time the driver started the car. The same should apply if the driver was listening to their Bluetooth device as well.

There is much more functionality I didn’t even touch in this post as it relates to Ford SYNC, but hopefully you have a better understanding of the principal of affordance and all the usability issues that can come from it when affordance is overlooked or ignored.

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I am a certified usability analyst, user experience & graphic designer, and information architect with web & .net development experience based in Cleveland, Ohio.

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