Qualitative or quantitative: some thoughts on automobile fuel gauge design

The absolute best user interface idea ever in a car is that little arrow next to the fuel pump icon on the fuel gauge, you know the one I mean. (And if you’ve never noticed this before, you’re welcome 🙂

Maybe not absolutely necessary after you’ve had your car for a while, but very (very) useful when driving an unfamiliar car, like a rental. Other than that, I have to admit never really paying much attention to the fuel gauge in a car (at least not until the low fuel light starts blinking!). Not until I found myself in one of those aforementioned rental cars, anyway.

In my experience the fuel gauge in most vehicles, such as my Nissan Frontier, is based on textual indicators, specifically Full and Empty.

Fuel gauge in a Nissan Frontier

On the other hand, the VW Passat I once rented had a a gauge based on numerical indicators, with a full tank represented by 1 and an empty tank interestingly not indicated by either text or number.

Fuel gauge in VW Passat
Fuel Gauge in VW Passat

Having the fuel gauge top out at 1, with the halfway point being 1/2 and empty (presumably) 0, is somewhat reasonable in a mathematical sense. And interestingly, the value of “half” works in either/both the textual and numerical senses.

But most people aren’t really interested in the math of the situation, they’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m almost at zero fuel.” They’re thinking (as the low fuel light blinks at them), “Oh, the tank is almost empty.”

I can’t help wondering how the systems engineers and the user experience team at VW decided to use to indicate a full tank. What was the decision-making process, and what were the evaluation criteria? Is this a case of engineers being engineers? Perhaps a cultural thing, something uniquely German? Or is there something else at play here?

If you know, please share.

“OK” and “Correct” are not the same thing

Have you ever noticed, when you pay with a credit/debit card just about anywhere, after the questions to enter your PIN, do you want cash back, etc., the machine asks you a question along the lines of, “$99.99, is this OK?”

Well, chances are it’s not OK. But chances are very good that it is correct

This is one of those things that I’ve noticed, and sometimes commented on (to the obvious pain of the cashier, “No, it’s not OK”), for a while. But it wasn’t until I saw one recently that actually said, “$99.99, is this correct?” that I really noticed it.

And wondered why the rest of them don’t do it that way, too.

The “making of”

I like movies. I watch them a lot. Probably too much. Though I of course prefer good movies, “good” is a randomly moving target sometimes. I have been known to get sucked into what turns out to be just an awful movie, but still get something out of it. This comes in large part from my interest in the overall process of making a film, my appreciation of a movie beyond just the story.

To me, watching a movie and only seeing/hearing the story is like looking at the Mona Lisa and just seeing a portrait of a woman. It’s not just “a” work of art that appeals to me, it is from an appreciation of “the work” of art that I derive pleasure. Everything that went into it.

You probably won’t be surprised that I often enjoy the “making of” documentaries (audio, visual, written) as much, or even more, than the actual thing being made. And this isn’t limited to just movies. I love it when bands include mini-documentaries with CD releases, and interviews or talks by authors about how they developed the ideas and narratives of books simply fascinates me.

It’s hard to overstate how much I’ve learned from them.

Grandparents and Graybeards

If TED Talks are supposed to spread ideas, why are so few of them given by wise elders who have lived long, interesting and rich lives? Many Talks are organised by young people. Do biases influence the events? We pay too little attention to the unsung Gandalfs of this world.

Source: a friend on Facebook

Instead of marginalizing older people among us, elders could be given important roles in calling dysfunctional/ toxic leaders to task and in helping us to identify the servant leaders among us who might help to transform our world.

Source: Elders as Transcendent Leaders

How would grandmothers help us live longer? According to the hypothesis, grandmothers can help collect food and feed children before they are able to feed themselves, enabling mothers to have more children. Without grandmothers present, if a mother gives birth and already has a two-year-old child, the odds of that child surviving are much lower, because unlike other primates, humans aren’t able to feed and take care of themselves immediately after weaning. The mother must devote her time and attention to the new infant at the expense of the older child. But grandmothers can solve this problem by acting as supplementary caregivers.

Source: New Evidence that Grandmothers Were Crucial for Human Evolution

i’m not lost, i’m wondering

I first heard the expression “there are no straight lines in nature” sometime in the mid- to late-90s, and it immediately struck a chord. I was, at the time, neck deep in learning about the then new (to me at least) science of complexity. I later discovered a more complete version of this sentiment, attributed to Buckminster Fuller:

Everything you’ve learned in school as ‘obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.

Another quote from a very different author has long resonated with me as well:

Not all who wander are lost.

I have, over time, adapted and adopted it as a bit of a personal motto:

i’m not lost, i’m wondering.

And my mind wonders quite a bit. But there are a few attractors that keep pulling me in to explore, including:

  • Variations on a theme: Everything is just a variation of everything else, we just use different words for them. Informed in large part by work of Hofstadter and Sander in their book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.
  • Rules: From the making of rules to the breaking of rules and everything in between. Rules get a bad rap, most often seen as a limit on creativity and action. I see them otherwise, as the basis on which creativity and action are built. At least the good ones.
  • Everything you know is wrong: As the saying goes, “all models (maps?) are wrong, but some are useful”. I’ve most often heard this used in the context of actual models or maps, things explicitly identified as such. But much of what counts for “facts” or “knowledge” these days are really nothing more than models. And they are, in the same way, wrong but useful. Way points on the journey to ever more “right” models. (For those who prefer something less dramatic, you can look at this one as “Everything you know is subject to change.”)
  • Layers of abstraction: The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday. (Related to the idea that everything you know is wrong, but sufficiently different to warrant being examined separately.) This is not in and of itself bad, but the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.
  • Debt and Progress: When people think or talk about debt it is usually in the context of financial debt, the borrowing of money against the future to pay for something today. But there are other forms of debt, the one that most readily comes to mind is the concept of “technical debt” from the world of software development. Others that I am exploring include social and cultural debt.
  • Disruption (Disruptors and the Disrupted): Is disruption a goal, or is it the means to achieve a goal. How many disruptors are actually interested in providing something of value to their “customers”, and how many disruptors are simply pandering to the crowd to enrich themselves. Are the disrupted ever better off?
  • Thinking in bits (not atoms): The early days of “digital” was all about adapting things and services into bits, but still thinking in the physical context in which those things and services originally came about. Who am I kidding, the “early days”? This is still how most people think about and implement “digital”.

Except for the last one, thinking in bits, I think that there are elements of each of these attractors in just about any narrative you look at, be it politics, business, or whatever. The more I wonder through different domains of knowledge, the more I believe that if we can develop a deep understanding of one thing, we are well on our way to being able to understanding everything.

Even if that understanding is ultimately wrong (or, at the very least, subject to change).