Reader Question: Pie Menus?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Peter asks: I’ve noticed that recently you’ve again been bringing out some of the very real problems of touch screen menus and displays in cars. Another is that they lead to RSI, repetitive strain injury, as they don’t move back when pressed the way a mobile telephone does, which is why I prefer to touch them with my knuckles rather than my finger tips. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Have you come across pie menus and, if so, what do you think about them and can you get them considered by the car industry? Pie menus still risk RSI and they still aren’t suitable for everything; for instance they aren’t suitable for menus that dynamically add options like links to recently opened files, but for statically set options as in cars they work very well, allowing muscle memory to develop and take away the need to look at the screen after a while. It would be even better if there were also a head up display on the windscreen, either as well as or instead of a display on the touch pad, as that too would only display after a brief delay if the driver couldn’t yet go straight to his chosen option without looking at the display, and it would be virtually at infinity and so wouldn’t need the driver’s eyes to adjust focal distance or to look away from the road and the traffic. I would appreciate your thoughts on this for the future of car design and implementation – it’s a real question. I suppose I should ask about your site’s inaccessibility these days, too (posting comments there now needs some sort of browser features that I can’t go looking for.

My reply: Actually, pie menus – or rather, displays – are being used in many of the latest new cars. For example, in a hybrids, to show percentages (e.g., charge used/remaining). But they are not – to my knowledge – being used as primary interfaces (i.e., the thing you’d you’d touch/tap to select a given function).

I think the main issues with using the pie layout for that would be: There are now so many menus and sub-menus in most new cars’ infotainment systems that each pie “slice” would be very small/narrow and probably even harder to use while driving than the common virtual button/icon. It would also probably look cluttered vs. the button/icon layout, which can be “scrollable” left/right (or next screen) to accommodate an infinite number of buttons/icons of the same size.

By the way, some of these systems do have “pushback” – it is called haptic feedback. This can be helpful in terms of confirmation (without looking) that you did actually engage what you wanted to engage – but I still maintain that physical buttons and knobs are inherently more ergonomic, safer – and sensible.

The reason those are disappearing has to do with the limited physical room on a dashboard/console to accommodate all the buttons/knobs that would be needed to operate the numerous functions now common in new cars; and because LCD displays are cheaper while looking fancier.

As far as your access problems here. Please try to reply to this Q&A and we’ll get this sorted out!

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