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December 16, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: Audi owner email

Audi_owner_emailAdam Bromwich writes in:

I received an Audi owner e-mail with the following news item, which I found to be incredibly amusing:

Non-Problem Problems
They have been called "faux problems" — a term used to describe customer problems that aren't really problems, but are actually part of the car's design. Examples include red lights in the doors that continue flashing (to show the alarm system is armed and operative) and the sound system that automatically adjusts the volume at various speeds to compensate for driving noise.
As an assist for new owners, Audi includes a list of frequently-cited "faux problems" and explanations in the owner welcome kit. This helps reduce unnecessary calls to the dealer and adds to the driving experience. So if you're a new owner and you think you may have a problem with your Audi, check the owner privileges portfolio that came with your welcome kit. It may be not be a problem at all.

I guess Audi has given up on designing these features and instead chalks it up to owner ignorance. I would have expected them to tell me something along the lines of, "Here are some common misunderstandings, and we're working to eliminate them." 

Their examples can be addressed with design changes, even just by providing visual or audible feedback to the driver. Sad to see that Audi's approach to design problems is so broken.


Here's my non-comment comment. It has been called a "faux comment" -a term used to describe comments that aren't really comments, just me failing to be funny.

Posted by: gmangw at December 16, 2005 12:24 AM

At the very least, they should allow you to turn off those features as a preference. How much money is their company losing because of bad design? Well, on second thought, maybe the dealerships are making money because they are going to have to charge people who come in for their inspections of "faux problems."

I really don't care for the tone of that writing, either. "Faux-problems!" Can you be any more condescending?

Posted by: Dawn N at December 17, 2005 10:30 AM

Not broken, unless you want to call consumer stupidity a 'broken' thing.

Posted by: stargate525 at December 17, 2005 11:52 AM

Both examples cited don't even sound like something I'd see as a problem to begin with. It makes sense for the red lights to flash to indicate the alarm is activated, as does the volume on the stereo increasing with speed (I wish my car had that feature). I don't even understand why you think Audi should change these things. There's absolutely nothing wrong with their design; they make complete sense. MAYBE being able to turn them off could be nice, but not necessary, IMHO.

Posted by: nicole at December 18, 2005 12:14 AM

That's a pretty condescending message.

Most Audis I've seen are broken in some way, these cars have LOTS of electrical problems. I can't tell you how many times I've been behind one in traffic and have observed really odd tail light operation.

Good luck with your VW, oops I mean Audi.

Mr. G

Posted by: Mr. Goodwrench at December 18, 2005 12:14 PM

Just shows that all those people who are not smart enough to buy a good car are not smart enought to understand it.

Posted by: ron at December 18, 2005 03:06 PM

I am seeing a trends like this. Advancements in the ability of "intelligent" devices to anticipate the needs of their users has an upper limit where it reaches diminishing returns.

The thing about these non-problems, is that the users will likely see them as desirable features only *after* they realize *what* they're doing. I doubt customers are realizing WHY the stereo volume is going up and down.

Posted by: DaveC426913 at December 18, 2005 04:49 PM

"Both examples cited don't even sound like something I'd see as a problem to begin with."

You're completely missing the point! Your hindsight (the knowledge of *why* the devices are doing what they do) is something the users don't have the benefit of.

Posted by: DaveC426913 at December 18, 2005 04:52 PM


"Not broken, unless you want to call consumer stupidity a 'broken' thing."

Stargate525 is obviously neither *in* the usability industry nor knows the first thing about it (literally, the first thing, which is "lack of usability is never the user's fault, it's the fault of bad design").

In fact, I'll bet my paycheque that, if Stargate525 is in the s/w industry at all, it's as an engineer or programmer, who too often think "users are stupid if they can't learn my program".

Posted by: DAveC426913 at December 18, 2005 05:02 PM

The volume control might actually be a design problem. If the volume change is audible (it must be if people are complaining about it), then it would mean it's overcompensating for the road noise.

Posted by: rockers at December 18, 2005 11:53 PM

This _is_ a manifestation of user ignorance, the same applies in most every other industry I can think of including my own (telecoms). You cannot in all seriousness put every such instance down to poor design, can you? Since when did people have to stop thinking about their everyday lives? What gives you the right to be so darned blinkered [other than your own ignorance]? Audi's approach is to be commended for its honesty.

What's that you say? You shouldn't have to read the manual. Really? For a car? I see a Darwin Award with your name on it on yonder horizon...

Posted by: AJF at December 19, 2005 07:15 AM

"What's that you say? You shouldn't have to read the manual. Really? For a car?"

Not car. Radio.

The *critical* elements of car operation (such as not hitting other cars) require enough brain-cycles to operate without having cycles siphoned off for components that have had the benefit of 3/4's of a century of design evolution (such as radios).

Posted by: DaveC426913 at December 19, 2005 09:50 AM

A recent edition of NPR's "Car Talk" had a caller who was being annoyed by the automatic volume control "feature" on her car (I think it was the show that aired on December 10th or thereabouts, depending on your local NPR station's schedule). She apparently was unaware of it and had somehow inadvertently activated it.

Posted by: Steve at December 19, 2005 11:36 AM

While there are plenty of poorly designed systems on cars, complete with bad ergonmics, impenetrable icons and counter-intuitive behavior, but these two examples cited are not one of them.

I have an Audi. You can turn off the volume compensation in the radio's controls (whether that's well-designed is a different question). The alarm indicator light: how do you design that differently? Either it exists or doesn't, and I'm actually surprised that people in 2005 aren't aware that all alarm systems do that.

By the way, the automatic volume adjustment systems do need more work. They're better than they used to be, but they're still not subtle enough, and they still execute on a staircase-like pattern instead of incline, meaning I can hear the distinct points at which volume changes (on my car, 20 mph, 40 mph, 60 mph).

Posted by: Steve J at December 19, 2005 01:10 PM

quote: "Most Audis I've seen are broken in some way, these cars have LOTS of electrical problems. I can't tell you how many times I've been behind one in traffic and have observed really odd tail light operation. "

heh, that's a feature, it's called rear fog light

Posted by: root at December 20, 2005 12:56 PM

just shows how ignorant US users can be about features that are quite commonplace in EU.

Posted by: root at December 20, 2005 12:58 PM

VAG, that is all I can say. You don't like these issues, learn how to use a VAG tool and turn them off.

Posted by: Chris at December 20, 2005 01:08 PM

I've driven an 2005/2006 Audi A6 several times and most functions can be adjusted to your preferences in the MMI (Multi Media Interface) system. If you have ever used a computer, it's not hard to figure out.

The speed sensitive volume could be annoying, but that can be adjusted. Also, in the higher end audio system, there are actually microphones built into the cabin that adjusts the sound level, not based on speed, but actual amount of road noise.

Posted by: TT at December 20, 2005 01:25 PM

I understand the whole usability thing, and mostly it is a good thing.

But I do believe that sometimes you just have to think, even a little bit; use that large round thing on top of your neck, it's there for a purpose.

I am admittedly in engineering which, I am sure, contributes greatly to my opinion.

But if you are going to buy a higher end vehicle that has all the bells and whistles, don't be surprised when it starts whistling.

Posted by: hammer at December 20, 2005 01:26 PM

I have owned and rented a number of German cars including Mercedes, BMWs, and VWs. The only exception is the Audi. All of the cars that I've driven during the last seven years had a stereo that automatically adjusted the volume. Even my Ford Mondeo had that feature. And in all of the cars (except the Ford), it was easily adjustable. First, you figure out which button to push to adjust the bass and treble. You push that a couple of more times and you pass the balance and fade. Finally, you will come to the adjustment for the auto-volume compensator (each mark calls it something else). And if that's too complex, maybe these stupid people should read the flippin' manual. It's plainly stated.

Posted by: Brian at December 20, 2005 01:36 PM

Don't get me wrong, I'm firmly in the usability-first camp, and there are plenty of things to complain about in the car world (BMW iDrive, lack of a decent cupholder in any European car) but the things cited here are just silly. As someone who sits on the front lines of user support on systems that are supposedly famous for ease of use, I can tell you there are always going to be people who "just don't get it." Some tasks are just not able to be simplified to the no-thought necessary, 3yr old child level. It's just not possible. So the best alternative in these situations is to create systems that are easy to learn. However, if your user doesn't attempt to learn anything (RTFM - which in the car industry, I've yet to see a decent one - start your usability studies there) then there are going to be questions. Unavoidable. Somethings just have to be learned, or else we wouldn't have schools.

Posted by: ~bc at December 21, 2005 10:46 AM

"You're completely missing the point! Your hindsight (the knowledge of *why* the devices are doing what they do) is something the users don't have the benefit of."

Which is pricisely the point of the e-mail Audi sent to owners, Dave: to inform the unaware consumer. But I get the feeling from your comments that you'll find something to nitpick anyway.

"Most Audis I've seen are broken in some way, these cars have LOTS of electrical problems. I can't tell you how many times I've been behind one in traffic and have observed really odd tail light operation."

But what does that have to do with the topic at hand? The items cited in the e-mail aren't electrical problems, they are features of the car and not just for that make/model in particular. These are fairly common features on many cars. For someone to imply that if it's not simple enough for a two year old to understand then it must be poor design is ludicrous. It's up to the individual to be responsible enough to investigate something they do not understand. If it's something that doesn't make any sense, I could understand being upset or feeling like the company is being condescending, but in this case, I don't see justification for that. So shame on the consumer for blaming their ignorance on the manufacturer.

And hey, I take offense to that VW remark. I happen to love my Jetta, Mr. Goodwrench. :)

Posted by: Nicole at December 21, 2005 10:29 PM

what's broken is buying an audi

Posted by: Poindexter T Quakenfuss at December 23, 2005 08:15 PM

If you just bought a vehicle as is the case that we are discussing. I hope that the dealership is friendly enough that you would think to call them with a concern if any of these faux problems came to your attention. And would not the dealership be happy to handle these calls? After all they could be handled quickly. Why offend your customers by taking an offensive approach like emailing them? Is there really a risk of losing material revenue due to a few minutes spent on the phone with a few concerned customers? I think not.


Posted by: Jojo at December 23, 2005 11:55 PM

First off, the salesperson should cover this stuff on delivery. Second, as someone stated, it is possible to defeat the speed sensitive volume. Third, I am on my 3rd consecutive A6 and they ALL have had the alarm status leds. This is part of a larger problem...people won't take any responsibility for themselves any more. If they don't choose to read the manual or investigate, their lack of knowledge is automatically the manufacturer's fault. If the manufacturer writes a comprehensive manual, it is deemed too long/heavy/complicated to deal with. If they abridge it they get sued because they omitted some detail. What is broken is the failure of too many people to be responsible adults.

Posted by: Bruce at December 27, 2005 02:29 PM

Heh, sounds like Audi's attitude is the ultimate "It's not a bug, it's a feature!" credo.

Posted by: Ummagumma at January 4, 2006 10:06 AM

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