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Gripes about Ford’s many similar buttons

Kamil Kaluski November 9, 2017 Diss-ign, Featured, Ford Reviews 28 Comments

Above is a close look at the climate controls of the new 2018 Ford Expedition. They seem rather unremarkable, typical Ford-like, as they have been for many years now. These controls are located below the infotainment screen and below the radio buttons and knobs. Basically, these are the lowest placed items in the vertical section of the center pod of the dash. 

Say you’re driving your new 5500-pound Expedition at 75 MPH on the highway. You decide that you must change the heated seat setting from two dashes to one. You try to find the button by feel but they are all located near each other, and all feel the same. Instead you accidentally press the “fan-” button. Doing so you took the climate control off the automatic mode and you still haven’t reduced the temperature of your seat. 

You curse and you look down. You’re now looking for two buttons, the “auto” to get the climate control back into the automatic mode, and the heated seat button which you were originally trying to press. Say it takes you three seconds to complete the task of finding and pressing these buttons.

How far has your 5500-pound Expedition traveled in that time?

2018 Ford Expedition

330 feet. That’s how far you have traveled in those three seconds when your eyes were down, away from the road, looking for two stupid buttons. 

Chances are nothing would jump out in front of you in those three seconds. Many cars are now equipped with technology the beeps at the driver and/or slams the brakes in the vehicle senses a potential accident, and surely is so is the new Expedition. And it’s by far not the only thing that can distract a driver and force his or her eyes off the road, but it is one that was designed into the vehicle, unlike one’s phone. 

In this control panel are two temperature knobs. Each knob can be pressed, left for power, right for zones. Between them are seventeen buttons organized in three rows. Guesstimating by the good old DIN-size, the area these seventeen buttons are on is about six inches by 2.5 inches. That would make each button about one inch wide and half an inch high. And there are seventeen of them clustered together, basically the same in size and feel. 

2016 Ford F-150

Had Ford given this design more thought, perhaps they would combine some buttons and eliminate others. For example:

  • Why are there two windshield defroster buttons? Why can’t the same button be pressed twice for “max”?
  • Since each knob is an individual temperature controller, why not integrate the other individual setting, the heated/ventilated seat setting into these knobs? Jaguar did it. 
  • Why not a third knob which directs the air between feet, head, and the windshield? Look to Subaru for that. Rear window defogger and recirculate buttons could be slapped into that as well. 
  • Why not combine the AC and MAX AC buttons? Press once for AC, twice for MAX.
  • Heated steering wheel buttons work best on the steering wheel. Unfortunately the same guy who designed the HVAC control panel designed the steering wheel controls and its twenty buttons!

More examples of simplification can be made. Same goes for the audio control buttons and the mentioned steering wheels buttons. In each case there are many of them, they are all the same, and all clustered together. That’s just a poor and lazy design. 

2016 Ford Mustang EcoBoost

Now Ford would rightfully answer this by saying that many, if not all, of these functions can be accessed through Ford’s excellent SYNC3 system. And with automatic climate controls getting smarter and smarter, most of these buttons will be seldom used. And Ford would be right. But if that’s really the case, then why even have these buttons at all?

Ford is definitely not the only offender in this button-loving design, but because all of their buttons are almost the same, and all placed in line, next to each other, they do have the worst design. It’s it’s not just one or two models, it’s on all of them. I think the new Ford vehicles really are great. I loved both the F-150 Raptor and the Mustang GT350R I recently reviewed, but both of these vehicles had a dash design very similar to the new Expedition and it drove me nuts!

Why wouldn’t a large company such as Ford hire someone with a good sense of ergonomic design? And why would a team of people sign-off on such a design? C’mon, Ford, you make some excellent vehicles, you have had some awesome technical and design ideas lately, why can’t you get this right?

Ford Escape

  • Fred Talmadge
    • Alff

      Yes, but the consequences of losing control of your coffee table as you attempt to navigate the cd changer aren’t nearly as dire.

  • neight428

    I drive an F150 with much the same control setup as the Expedition pictured. The audio controls are pretty much all redundant (many of them 3x), and I rarely touch the center stack preferring either the touch screen or the steering wheel controls. The HVAC variety is pretty crazy, but I don’t find that I change much more than temp or fan speed while driving. It may be overkill, but it doesn’t seem more problematic in use than anything else.

  • If you have 150 functions, you’ll need 150 switches, be it hard buttons, movable icons on a screen, or touch sensor’ed surfaces (or a combo thereof). The question is whether you need or even want 150 functions. (150 is a made-up number for illustration purposes)

    In other news, Aaron Severson has a new piece for, ahem, gear heads, which is easier to digest than the previous installment, imo. Great he is doing these!

  • Victor

    Hooniverse has fallen so far , Now we gripe about similarities. Drive it for a week , your fingers will remember.

    • I can go back to complaining about the carburetor on my Lada or the lack of performance shocks and brake pads for my Lemon Buick.

      Gotta mix it up sometimes.

      • Have you considered swapping a Solex onto it? Onto the Lada, that is, not the Buick.

        On second thought, bonus points for swapping a Solex onto the Buick, too.

      • Victor

        I realize now that it must be difficult after all these years to produce new content , keep up the good work.

  • Sjalabais

    10 years ago, there was a screenless, intuitive way to organize this by:
    Got to say though, you will get used to it if you actually own the car. My Honda has the heated seat buttons below the driver’s seat – even with my Orang Utan arms it’s a stretch. Passenger has to reach over the handbrake and under my seat if she wants to control it herself. That’s a hilariously bad placement, but we got used to it. Quicker than just having heated seats horizontally, and not in the back…why, why, why, Honda?

  • tonyola

    Could be worse. Mess up here and you could crash an Apollo spacecraft. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/417c428039bab6e822e25ccd08876c4f30451ca692e0010218a00d52a77b2452.jpg

    • Those drivers got a thorough, thorough introduction when they picked up their new ride, though.

      • kogashiwa

        Also the chances of a deer jumping in front of them were reasonably slim (except on Christmas Eve I suppose)

  • Zentropy

    I’ll take a thousand buttons over one touchscreen, any day. I still prefer the buttons, knobs, and sliders on my ’87 BMW to anything out there now.

  • smokyburnout
    • kogashiwa

      The magnificent XT, from when Subaru valiantly tried to out-weird the French, and came very close to pulling it off.

    • outback_ute

      So where are the heated seat switches?

    • crank_case


  • SlowJoeCrow

    Mazda does this more elegantly. Our 2016 CX-5 has the base HVAC and mid-level audio so climate control is 3 knobs with a button in the center of each one.From L to R, temp with AC controlled by the button, fan with recirc and mode with rear defrost. The only stupid is that turning the temp dial to full cold puts the system in max ac.
    The stereo is mostly controlled by an iDrive style combo knob/joystick in the console, plus a dedicated volume/mute knob on the console and steering wheel controls. Oddly there is no actual power button for the stereo, just the mute. There are some buttons for tcs tpms and cruise but I never use them.

    • outback_ute

      Toyota does it pretty similar, as do others. If they do the graphics so that there is a setting past full cold for Max AC then that would make sense.

      If the volume knob does mute not power, does that mean you can’t turn the radio off? Seems a bit weird.

    • My 2002 RSX has nearly the exact same HVAC setup, except fan is on the left, temp in the center and mode to the right. It’s great except that the grey on silver graphics are nearly impossible to read in certain lighting.


  • cap’n fast

    and i remember the 88 Tbird Turbo Coupe cabin layout. no tactile dissimlarity between button functions. lest i forget the 90 mark VII lsc with its trip computer or the Mark VIII seat heater switches and knobs i can turn on with a misplaced knee when getting in. what have we done now; gone back to the 1980s design philosophy of baffling them with our brilliance????
    most of the time, I do not want to take my eyes off the road and those pesky texters around my car. so i use the sense of touch to change a radio station or adjust the cabin temps a bit. rows and rows of the same button means nothing to my blind fingers. and at night, how often do the inside lights get turned up to see whats what.
    in an aviation setting, every button and knob has a different purpose. every button and knob has a different feel and look. flaps handles look different than landing gear handles. they feel different. they do different things. you do not need to see what it is to know what it is. why are cars so….so awkward. i feel the prescence of a stylist here….OOOOOOOOOOoooooooo………….

  • You kids with your fancy pushbutton-controlled seat heaters! The seat heater in my KV (indeed, its only heater) is a rotating cover behind the seat which is operated by exiting the vehicle, removing the seat back, adjusting the cover, then reassembling everything. This allows some of the heat from the air-cooled engine to be diverted into the passenger compartment, where it hits the plywood seat backing and, well, accomplishes essentially nothing. But at least it’s straightforward.


    • Zentropy

      But given the exceptionally tight fit of the door seals and top, any more heat in there would roast you. ;-D

  • Yeah, no. Give it a week and you’ll appreciate the big, easy to grab knobs and easy to push buttons. While wearing gloves even!

    There’s more to gripe about in other vehicles. Those high tech looking dashboards where the touchscreen floats elegantly slightly above the dash. So pretty. So impossible to accurately use without a large bezel to rest your thumb or other finger on while you’re trying to adjust something. Cars move people, and roads aren’t always perfectly smooth. Those buttons where you press it once to lock, set or adjust. Twice to unlock, re-set or re-adjust. Too prone to the accidental double tap. Volume controls that adjust as you slide a finger across a touchscreen may be fine on your smartphone, but are a nightmare in a moving vehicle.

    Keep it simple stupid. Big knobs where they make sense, big buttons where they make sense.

    Now that that’s out of the way, lean in real close. Imma gonna whisper. (It’s all about keeping it simple and easy so if you sit in one of them ferrin jobs, it seems all cattywumpus and you get scared and go back to a Merrican car. Or truck. Preferably truck. Follow the money!)

  • Our Prius has the best and worst of interface designs.

    It’s the worst because there are few buttons on the dash, everything is done through the touchscreen. And the touchscreen defaults to either an MPG graphic or an animation of how power is being routed through the engine, motor and battery. You need to hit a button to bring up the HVAC or audio controls and then must interact with the touch screen. Terrible.

    However, the steering wheel layout is very well done. It has physical buttons for most of what you need so you don’t have to interact with the touch screen most of the time, and it’s configured in a way that you can operate it by touch. A raised dimple increases the volume or temperature, a indented dimple lowers either. Bumps and ridges separate buttons and provide registration and other buttons sit proud. Common audio & HVAC controls are all there. It’s very a well done layout.


  • Rover 1

    Way back in the sixties the Rover P6 designers thought of this and gave the buttons different shapes depending how they worked,( push, pull, twist, etc)
    Series 1
    Series 2

  • JRise

    It can be made very easy, also by Ford:
    Here is the HVAC control panel in my Ford Cougar:
    Left button to adjust the fan speed (I mostly leave it on Auto), center buttons to set temperature, right button decides where the air goes. Not rocket science.
    (Panel is out of the car as it was broken, that is another matter entirely) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/87f38e4ff248e39c97690c2337186cb7ba56fa8940c3997a67dc3291d8e54146.jpg

  • Rudy™

    Funny that in my 3rd gen CR-V, the climate control has less than half as many buttons, yet performs all the same functions. Still, it’s like the others–press “Auto,” set the temperature, done.