The Usability of a Toyota Prius


This is the gear shifter from a Toyota Prius, the 2007 model to be specific, which I drove while on a work trip. If you’ve never driven this car before, let me describe how it works:

  1. The shifter is spring loaded, so it always rests in the position you see it in now. You move it to the “D” position for drive and it returns back to the “resting position”.
  2. There is an indicator on the dash (not pictured)  showing you if you what gear you are in.
  3. If you want to put  the car in park, you push the park button that is light in the picture.

So from a user experience perspective, what are the usability issues with this setup? What’s good about it? And why?

Let’s look at it using some of the parts of a usability heuristic evaluation

Status & Feedback – Is it clear to the user what’s going on at all times?

  • Good: LED on the parking button helps provide feedback to the driver that they are in park
  • Bad: Only the parking button has an indicator to confirm correct selection. Now granted there is certainly a dash indicator too, but could you improve the user experience by having an indicator in both spots?

Relevance & Familiarity – Are you using language that is familiar to the user? Does it line up with other products the user might have encountered?

  • Good: “R”, “N”, “D”, and “P” are all familiar to the average driver, and using the full words for something this common probably isn’t necessary.
  • Bad: While most of the letters on the gear shifter are clear, the “B” option isn’t clear as to what it should do.
  • Bad: On most cars the park option is selected using the same controls as drive, so your average driver stepping into this car won’t know to look for a button. As I’ve told some of my employees in the past, you need a really good reason to break a UI standard, and it’s not apparent what that really good reason is. I’ll add that there might have been a good engineering reason for this choice, but if that is the case you have to be careful that convenient engineering decisions aren’t trumping good usability.

Consistency – Are you consistent within the product in where items like navigation are placed or how buttons look?

  • Bad: The use of a box on the park button is inconsistent with the other letters / options. Using a box helps emphasis, but the designers of this car already separated the park button out from everything else, so is it a necessary inconsistency?

For the items I marked as “bad” keep in mind that this is the perspective of a first time driver. Sometimes you want to optimize for repeat users, so these issues might not be deal breakers depending on your audience and how they interact with your product.

What other good or bad usability things do you observer?

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