Chevy Volt: A Study in UX Gone Wrong

January 27th, 2013

I’ve been driving a Chevy Volt for about 3 months now. I certainly enjoy rarely having to put gas in the car – in about 3000 miles, I’ve spent perhaps $50 on gas. And that, I think, is what contributes to the Volt’s irrationally high customer satisfaction. Because as someone who previously owned a Nissan Leaf for a year – and as someone who just kinda knows how cars are supposed to work – I have no alternative but to say that the Volt is hands down the worst vehicle I have ever owned.

My dissatisfaction is not about the electric motor or the gas/electric hybrid system, which lets you keep driving even if you run out of electrons (the Volt has a fairly anemic electric range, especially compared to all-electrics like the Leaf). Instead, my criticism is with the car’s overall user experience – often called the “UX.” The UX determines everything about how you interact with the car: Where the buttons are placed, what the displays look like, how it warns you about problems, and so on. The Volt’s UX is casually infuriating, as if every decision was intentionally made to inconvenience or frustrate the driver.

The Center Console of Confusion

consoleStart with the car’s most hilariously disastrous design failure: The center console. Just look at this fiasco. I’m guessing it probably doesn’t look as bad in a photo as it does when you’re actually trying to use it while driving. It’s a giant block of undifferentiated buttons, flung onto the center post in a seemingly random arrangement.

The buttons are all the same size and shape, and there are far too many of them (about 35 in all). And their placement defies rational explanation. The “Home” button, which takes you to the on-screen interface’s central screen, is not the first button in the grid. It’s not even in the center, or on the top row. It’s just kind of randomly in the middle. Likewise, I defy you to find the play/pause button, especially when actually driving the car. I didn’t realize the car even had one for a few days, until I found it lurking, off center, hidden in the midst of a bunch of unrelated buttons.

Honestly, I can’t emphasize enough how completely broken the center console experience is; not only are the buttons difficult to locate and require significant amounts of memorization and muscle memory to use, but they have an unusual feel; they’re hard to press, since they’re not traditional tactile buttons. They are flush with the surface of the console, and don’t really “click.” Knowing where to press to activate them (especially with gloves on) is more trial and error than something you can even learn through repetition.

And then there’s the button that locks the car doors. You won’t find any way to lock or unlock the car on the doors themselves – no, a 100-year-old UX convention like that would be too simple. The door lock and unlock buttons are buried within the mess of center console buttons. Even knowing that’s where they are, my wife and I occasionally stare dumbly at the doors for 5 or 10 seconds after a trip trying to figure out how to get out of the car. I’d liken it to the way Microsoft removed the Start button from Windows 8, but this is actually a lot worse.

Unfit and Unfinished

There’s a cavalcade of what you might call “fit and finish” issues.

Perhaps no one thing better illustrates the lack of attention to fit and finish than the process of adding locations to the navigation address book. When you name your new locations, you can only use upper case letters. That’s fine, I guess, though quite ugly. But your Home address, which is a default label in the address book, uses title case – a mix of upper and lowercase letters. Wonderful. If you’re just a little bit OCD like me, seeing that ransom note list of locations in your address book every day is sure to drive you to the brink of insanity. Sure, some of these things are quibbles, but when you add them all up, they contribute to an experience that feels sloppy and amateurish.

Or consider the main interface’s customization. If you think there are a lot of buttons on the center console, just wait till you wade through page after page of additional icons on the LCD. Thankfully, you can rearrange the icons to a limited degree, putting the features you use the most of the first page. That was great for about 2 weeks, before my custom arrangement was inexplicably wiped out one day and the factory settings were restored. Hey Chevy: a software crash in a car should never reset settings—it’s not a confidence builder. Given the difficulty of the Volt’s customization process, I’ve never tried again. It’s not worth it, especially if a random bug will simply erase all my work shortly thereafter.

And then there’s the fact that the car is confused about the total miles per gallon rating. The Volt tracks both your short-term and total fuel efficiency, which is cool. It’s nice knowing, for example, that I am getting about 140 mpg overall. But I noticed something interesting: One of the trip odometers has never been reset from when the car was brand new, and the MPG credited to this trip counter is different – by a significant amount – than the total vehicle lifetime MPG. They should be the same, and that fact that they’re different is an example of inexcusable sloppiness.

Bluetooth Disaster

More fit and finish frustration: The car can play music wirelessly (via Bluetooth) from your smartphone. But press the pause button (the hard-to-find one on the center console) and the car only pauses the music for about 30 seconds or so. Then it gives up and abruptly starts playing music from the radio. Because to Chevy engineers, “pause” apparently means “only stop playing my selected music briefly, then just start playing some random music at a shockingly high volume.” And lest you think this is some shortcoming in Bluetooth that’s beyond Chevy’s control, I can assure you that I’ve driven other cars with integrated stereo Bluetooth. This is the first I’ve ever encountered this problem.

And that’s not all: Accept a phone call using the car’s on-screen display, and the call, insanely, is routed to your phone by default. You know, the phone that’s probably in your pocket or charging in the glove compartment. Then you fumble madly for the right button on the car’s display in order to transfer the call to the car’s speakers. While driving 50 miles per hour down the highway. I have not the words.

Even the experience of locking and unlocking the car is annoying. There’s no key, of course; with the fob in your pocket, you just press the button on the door handle to lock or unlock. You press the button twice to unlock all the car doors, but only kind of. Good luck getting all the doors unlocked. Double tap the button too quickly, and nothing happens. Most of the time. Occasionally, you might press twice, nothing happens, and press a third time, and be surprised to see the doors unlock after a short delay, then immediately lock again thanks to the unnecessary third press. It’s a game Chevy wants you to play called “I dare you: Just try to unlock your car.” When you exit the car, you can press the button to lock the doors, but you’ll end up nervously standing around a couple of seconds waiting to see if the press “took.” In my old Nissan Leaf, button presses to lock and unlock the doors were authoritative, reliable, and nearly instantaneous. How can Chevy get something as simple as door locks wrong?

It’s Electric, Really

And then there’s the fact that the Volt doesn’t appear to even know it’s an electric car. The navigation system has a database of gas stations and can direct you to the closest ones – not surprising, really, since this is a standard feature in most navigations systems. But the Volt is an electric car – is Chevy aware of that? Because there’s no database of nearby charging stations—something I would argue is a lot more critical than a guide to nearby gas stations. Texaco is on every street corner. Good luck finding a charging station in downtown LA without some help. Again, I must fall back on my experience with the Nissan Leaf, which was always ready to direct you to charging stations when you were running low on electrons. If you have a Volt, download a third-party smartphone app for that, I suppose.

Broken App

And speaking of apps, Chevy offers both an iPhone app and a Web site for finding out your car’s charge status and other diagnostics. Plus, you can do things like start the car and fire the car alarm remotely. Great, right? Unfortunately, the app can’t accept the same password as the one you created for the Web site if you made it strong with special symbols in the password. There’s no indication of this on the Web site or in the app; the only way I found out was after an extended chat with customer service. To use the app, you must weaken your password for both.

Why No Heat?

And once you’re in, I discovered that Chevy doesn’t really understand why they should offer the remote start feature to begin with. As an aside, I should point out that I’ve noticed that Chevy has apparently tried hard to match Nissan feature for feature in many, many ways across the vehicle. If the Leaf can do something, the Volt can do something quite similar – just not nearly as well. Case in point: You can use an app to turn on the Leaf’s heating system, which makes your car nice and toasty while it’s still plugged into a charger. The Volt? You can remote start the engine, but you can’t control the climate system. If you tend to leave the climate system off (or in “fan only” mode), which is likely, since that’s the most battery-friendly configuration, then starting the car in your garage won’t heat it up. Thanks a lot, Chevy. Why did you include the remote start feature at all?

Bottom Line

And there’s more annoyances – a lot more.

I knew that the Volt was something of a “compromise car” when I got it – I wasn’t ecstatic about buying one. I would rather have a Leaf, but the Leaf didn’t quite offer the range I needed for my long daily commute. A Tesla S would have been perfect, but it’s unaffordable. Which left me with the Volt. It’s utilitarian; it does what it needs to – barely – but the UX is so poorly implemented that I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this car to anyone who wants to actually enjoy his or her time on the road.

Dangerous Flashlights

July 11th, 2011

We bought this flashlight recently. It was only after we got it home that I discovered the fine print on the packaging. I have so many questions. img017You know, questions like: Why is this flashlight so dangerous that it can only be operated by adults? And why are “students” not also “persons?”


Cupcake Calculus

June 4th, 2011

When most families bring a few cupcakes home from the store, they just kinda divide them up and call it good enough. Not this family. No, this is just one of several matrices Kris worked out to divide our cupcake spoils among the four of us, taking into consideration such factors as which cupcakes were more or less desired by each person and, presumably, the volume of air in the room.


Topher Likes to Squeak

March 21st, 2011

We go through a new squeak toy approximately once per week. He squeaks it more or less nonstop for an hour or two, then he tears it to ribbons and leaves the empty skin lying around.

Does anyone know if they make a squeak toy out of Kevlar?

Kristin Hersh’s Renaissance

February 14th, 2011

imageKristin Hersh has been having a personal Renaissance of sorts in the last few years. As a result, I’ve had more of Kristin’s music in heavy rotation recently than at any time since the mid-90s.

First up: Power+Light. This 50 Foot Wave release — is it a song? An EP? I don’t know what to call it. It’s a single 25-minute long track that’s divided into a half-dozen distinct but integrally blended movements. Some of these movements rock as hard as anything 50 Foot Wave has ever done; others, like Skeleton Key, are beautiful, sublime, loaded with powerful and emotive cello… actually redefining what a 50 Foot Wave track can sound like.

Power+Light has been around for a couple of years — it was first released in 2009, I believe — but since it was initially only available on vinyl, I was out of the loop until I could download it digitally. And what I found was that it represents the leading edge of a newfound spurt of energy and creativity. It’s so addictive that it’s spinning around my head even as I write this, and I’ve now been listening to it for months.

I’m also playing Crooked to death. Kristin’s latest solo album, this is without a doubt the best album she has released in a decade. I simply cannot stop playing the record. Every track is a masterpiece.

imageThe only thing is, this time, Kristin has pulled back the curtain to let us see (ever so slightly) what’s behind her inscrutable lyrics. Crooked, you see, is also available in book form, packed with lyrics and essays. The best way to experience the book is as an iPad (or iPhone) app. On the iPad, Crooked [iTunes link] is stunningly beautiful. Interspersed with gorgeous macro photography of flowers and an essay penned by Kristin for each song, the Crooked app also features commentary for each song, in which Kristin and husband Billy chat about the music. You might think, "Finally, I’ll learn what each song is about," but you won’t, really — and to hope that you will is almost beside the point. It’s like the time Kristin said to me (after playing her lovely house concert in my living room a few years ago) "Did I ever tell you what Pearl was about?" I said no, and she told me an interesting story — but in the end, it didn’t really shed any actual light on Pearl for me in the conventional way. But you can’t help but be mesmerized by Kristin and Billy’s banter as they reach around and through Kristin’s creative process to try to make the intangible… at least a little more accessible.

Let me put it another way: If you’re a Kristin Hersh fan, you absolutely should own the Crooked book. If you don’t have an iPad or iPhone, you can get the physical book and download the commentary tracks to your PC.

And that’s not all. I’ve also been listening to Kristin’s various projects in which she’s revisited older material. Throwing Muses has recorded the songs mentioned in Kristin’s autobiography, Rat Girl, as four season-themed collections: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The first two (Fall and Winter) are already available for download (if you purchased a copy of Rat Girl), and they are wonderful. I listen to the Muses’ reinterpretation of Flying over and over and over. My family must hate me. This collection perfectly complements Kristin’s recent 5-volume 10-4 sessions, acoustic covers of dozens of songs from across the depth of her career.

That’s a lot of music. From some artists, it might all add up to oversaturation. In Kristin’s case, though, it just makes you say, "perhaps I should download the Speedbath demos while I wait for the new Throwing Muses album."

Peter Himmelman Comes to Town

January 23rd, 2011

altWhat are you doing on Feb 8? Nothing interesting you say? Well, if you live in Seattle, then I’ve got a deal for you. I just discovered that one of my favorite musicians, Peter Himmelman, is playing at the Tractor. You should be there.

Peter is one of the greats. Whether playing solo or with his band, he is, I suppose, becoming one of the elder statesmen of the folk-rock tradition. You might not know Peter; he had a brush with mainstream airplay in the mid-90s, but to be honest, I got the impression that was never especially comfortable there. Nonetheless, some of his CDs from that time period (From Strength to Strength, Synesthesia, Skin) remain my favorite albums and ones I go back to time and again.

I’m jazzed that Peter is coming to town. If you want to experience some transcendent music, check out his show. See you there?

House Concert, New Puppy Enjoyed by All

November 16th, 2010

terriThere are definitely times when I feel luckier than I have any right to be. Like last weekend, when Terri Moeller, Paul Austin, and Jon Hyde played a house show in our living room as Terri’s new project, Terri Tarrantula.

At one point, Terri described the show as “Transmantula,” since the set list was a blending of new Terri Tarrantula and older Transmissionary Six material. Indeed, the show was an awesome combination of old and new, and a great primer on Terri’s work for those folks who had never heard her before. Here’s the set list, with the studio albums they came from for your potential purchasing pleasure:

1. Broker (Radar)terri2

2. Top of Your Lungs (Radar)

3. Bum Leg (Joe Pernice cover)

4. Mulligan (Terri Tarantula)

5. Paper Party Hat (Transmissionary Six)

6. Upside Down (Terri Tarantula)

7. Your Small Hands (Terri Tarantula)

8. Transmission Line (Radar)

9. Clay Man Down (Transmissionary Six)

10. Circus School Class of ‘73 (New, unreleased)

11. Happy Place (Sparklehorse cover)

12. Holiday Park (Get Down)

13. The Daredevil Way (Terri Tarantula)

14. Always Crashing in the Same Car (David Bowie cover)

15. Infrared (Radar)

16. Happy Landings (Get Down)

While we’re on the subject: If you’re looking for a good album to start with, I’d suggest Get Down – Paul Austin recently mentioned to me that it’s his personal favorite, and I’m hard pressed to disagree. After all, it has Happy Landings.


Here’s the version of Happy Landings which Terri performed to close the show:



Also somewhat unexpected: Our new family member Topher was a hit with both guests and band. And how could he not be? Topher remains the cutest little puppy, like, ever.

Thanks to everyone who came to the show, and thanks to Terri, Paul, and Jon for playing (and for introducing me to Joe Pernice, who is awesome).

Don’t You Know Dignity When You See It?

October 16th, 2010

Recently, I was headed to the grocery store and asked Marin if she needed anything. Here’s the shopping list she supplied:


Kristen Watching Kristin

October 9th, 2010

KHcollageA few night ago, Kris and I were privileged to see Kristin Hersh perform a private concert – it was, in fact, the day after her book signing event at Elliot Bay Books in Capitol Hill. (You already bought a copy of Rat Girl, right?)

About 25 folks packed into an awesome little recording studio nestled in someone’s backyard in the Green Lake area. Kristin was charming and funny and amazing as usual, playing a set list that included all sorts of unexpected gems across the length of her career (City of the Dead, Devil’s Roof, Pearl, Hysterical Bendings, 37 Hours… and many more that I don’t remember because I have an atrocious memory).

You can see Kris in the audience shot on the left, above. kristin

So it’s clear how little original work I put into this post, let me point out that the Polaroids in that little collage were taken by Josh Umami (Great job, Josh – and thanks). And I didn’t even make up the title of this post; I got it from the subject line of an email from Paul Austin, who forwarded the photo to me the day after the show.

A heartfelt thanks to Paul, by the way, who invited Kris and me to the show.

Finally, I took this photo of Kristin on the right with my iPhone. Kris and I sat in the front row, so we were about 4 feet, at most, from Kristin. If you’re curious, that is unnervingly close.

It’s a chicken. Holding an ice cream cone.

October 9th, 2010

chicken-logoThis post is long overdue. Earlier this summer, I took my family to Mount St Helens for the weekend, and along the way, we discovered what is almost certainly the most awesome thing in the universe. A restaurant  called The Chicken House and Ice Cream Store.

Why so awesome, you ask? I barely know where to begin. Let me try to cover the most salient points in a numbered list.


  1. The place is called The Chicken House and Ice Cream Store. Just let that name roll around in your head for a while. Honestly, can you think of a better name for anything?
  2. Look at the logo. It’s a chicken. Holding an ice cream cone. I love everything about this logo. The bright, brain-melting colors. The conceit of a chicken grasping an ice cream cone. The expression on the chicken’s face.  It’s graphic design perfection. (Perhaps The Gap could take a lesson from these folks.)
  3. The restaurant itself is apparently a converted Dairy Queen, and they sell all the usual trappings of a fast food joint, only they’ve renamed everything. They make DQ Blizzards, for example, but they’re called Hurricanes.

chicken-signHow does the food taste? I have no idea. We didn’t eat a meal there*. To wonder what the food tastes like is to miss the point. Please refer back to #1: It’s a chicken. Holding an ice cream cone.

*Actually, I am not being completely honest. We did get ice cream. And it was pretty darned good – they stuffed it with a lot more mix-in than I am used to getting at DQ, so I loved my snack.

I love telling people about this place – the logo is my iPhone’s lock screen, and I have whipped it out to emphasize that it’s a chicken holding an  ice cream cone to virtually everyone I’ve met in the last 3 months, from my boss to my various editors to friends, family, and even Kristin Hersh when she was in town for a book signing the other night. The world must know.