Chevy Volt: A Study in UX Gone Wrong

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.

8 Responses to “Chevy Volt: A Study in UX Gone Wrong”

  1. Robbert Says:

    I own a Volt for 5 months (5000 miles) now. I share most of your observations about the UX design. Steve Jobs would turn in his grave:

    - stupid button layout: A button to set the time that I never use, yet no easy button to access audio presets. Messy menu structure.
    - Braindead way for switching between presets
    - Occasional random crash causes some (but curiously not all) presets to be lost
    - There are 4 ways to play from my iPhone, all of them suck. Mylink is a joke, since it takes so long before it is usable and because its hard to navigate.
    - The nav is worse than the one in my 7-year old toyota, even though its made by the same company. Routing is sub-par. Horrible POI search gives closest startbucks 500 miles away. Bugs galore (e.g. when breadcrums buffer is full, but cannot be saved while driving).
    - I listen a lot of podcasts, and at every start it takes quite some effort to get the thing to play.
    - No speed dial for favorite phone numbers: Calling my wife is a pain since the phone book contains 200 entries.
    - Stupid and meaningless MPG number is shown, but no true miles/kWh, which is a more useful rating of my driving style.
    - Auto-setting for climate control is wasteful and still fogs up the car.
    - Uselessly by gear shifter eats up the space that I would need to place my iPhone.
    - Loads of issues with the onstar app. Incompetency at the onstar software departments and its contractors cripple an otherwise great telemetry concept.

    Its all a the results of the typical ‘big company’ miscommunicaton between the units and the contractors. The spec is OK, but they have to learns that the devil is in the details.

    BUT. I’ve grown a little milder about it in time. I got in a routine that seems workable, and I just stop being irritated about the design misses, while enjoying the hits:

    - Gorgeous retina quality screens (both of them) that are readable in all situations. Nav looks pretty. You can see the curvature of the earth when zoomed out.
    - The sound quality is very good and adapts to vehicle speed.
    - At least the nav does not force me to ‘OK’ a stupid legal disclaimer each time I start the car (as in all Toyotas)
    - The 2 rotary buttons are pretty nice for controlling volume and zoom.
    - Nicely designed energy flow display under the speedometer shows kWh value in and out of the engines and battery.
    - The voice control actually works. It seems to be the quickest way to call my wife.
    - It looks and works different than other cars. I think the design concept is nice, and in the end managed to find the balance between ‘advanced look’ and familiarity.

    Out of the 30-some buttons there are perhaps 5 that I use. I can find them, just like I can blindly find the buttons on a querty keyboard that was also designed to annoy the users…

    Give it another 2 month, and the good wins from the bad, easily ;)

  2. Robbert Says:

    Oh I forgot one thing. Indeed if would be nice if the nav knew about charge stations. But practically that is less useful because they tend to change. Both for navigation and for charge stations there are great free smartphone apps. They beat any built-in nav, even the best.

    I would argue that the Volt does not need public charge stations for a number of reasons:

    - We have a backup engine, so no big deal if we miss it
    - The cost of public chargers (chargepoint of blink) are often too expensive: Anything at or above $1/hour is more expensive than driving on gas.
    - At 10 miles/hour, it takes way too long to charge anyway. Who wants to sit in a McDonalds for the car to charge up?

    The whole point of Voltec is that its OK to slow charge at home (or at work). No other infrastructure is needed to make this a workable car.

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    Wow.
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