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Beware how much you “help” people in the name of the next great usability idea.

I have been involved in many debates about usability over the course of my career. Indeed, each time a new design paradigm or some sort of design meme is introduced, there is always the discussion about how much it helps and whether it is worth the effort to implement it. In particular this becomes a problem on mature user interfaces with larger customer bases that are already familiar with how to get their tasks done via the current UI.

Recently I encountered the same sort of potential risk when driving a rental car. I’m driving a brand spankin’ new fully loaded Ford Explorer right now while on vacation. It’s a great vehicle really, with an enhanced digital dashboard, on-board cameras for backing up, the whole shebang. Handles well, is quiet. I’d consider buying one myself.

Except someone at Ford decided to monkey with the directional signal.

I trust you are aware of the directional signal. It’s the little lever on the left of the steering wheel that you click up into place to indicate a right turn, or click down into place for a left turn. Once you turn the steering wheel back straight, the level clicks back into its original position automatically.

Not so on the new Ford Explorer. On the Ford Explorer, there’s no click into place; when you push it up, it doesn’t stay up. So naturally you immediately think it’s broken. And then once you realize it’s not broken, you discover that the length of time the turn signal stays on is driven by how hard and how long you hold the signal lever in place. If you don’t hold it long enough, it blinks three times and then turns off.

Not only is it extremely confusing, but it goes against every other directional signal design on the road, and in some cases it’s dangerous. What it doesn’t do is make my signal turning easier, even though I can only assume that was the intention of whoever came up with this.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone looking to incorporate the next great design idea, or try to help their customers do things easier than they’ve done before. It’s a good idea to understand the satisfaction level of your customers with your current UI, as well as how your customers are going to react to the changes you implement, especially if they go in the face of current norms that permeate the web today. You run the risk of alienating the people you are trying to help if your designs are not truly intuitive to the people using them, or if you sacrifice familiarity for the next great design concept.

The last thing you want is someone on your website wondering why the turn signal is broken.

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