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My favorite product user experience

The wind blowing in your hair, big rigs next to your shoulder, hot air blowing on your ankles... Let's just see if an iPhone can match the pleasure of driving an old MG convertible.

Somebody asked me a while back what my favorite product user experience was. I thought about it for a minute and, in my contrarian way, said "My wife's 1972 MGB convertible".

Now let me set the stage a little: She inherited the car from her dad when he passed away, and it's in pretty so-so shape. The top doesn't work (so it's not really a convertible, it's permanently an open-top), the body work is not in great shape, and the interior is spotty. The engine runs surprisingly well, though it burns through oil at a prodigious rate. She was able to drive it up from San Diego to San Francisco after having it worked on, however, and it drove like a champ. Aesthetically it is the prototype for the Mazda Miata, and has tidy lines that are helped by small chrome bumpers - I think this was the last year before big rubber bumpers became mandated for crash safety reasons.

So why is it such a great experience? Because it is a truly all-sensory experience to drive it. It's noisy, it vibrates, it smells a bit of oil and gasoline, and of course you see the world whizzing by you. Or apparently whizzing by you - the sensation of speed is enhanced by the fact that your butt is 4" from the road surface, and your eyelevel is below the wheel arch of a standard SUV. Even a MINI seems large in comparison when you're sitting in it.

But it's also the tactility of how it moves, how it communicates what it is doing and what the road surface is like, how the tires are moving on the tarmac. You have to put effort into everything - steering (unpowered), shifting (obviously manual and with a stick the size of your arm), and getting in and out is an acrobatic chore. It is not an "easy to use" car by any stretch. But that also is part of the joy of it - you really have to invest in the experience and learn it.

It's often said that it is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and that is true in spades with the little MG. By modern standards it is excruciatingly slow - I doubt it cracks 60 in under 15 seconds, and any modern econobox will leave it behind like the hare dusts the tortoise. But 5 minutes in this car is more fun than just about any car you can think of, because you are just bombarded with physical sensations.

So folks may be getting excited about touch-screen technologies, and there's a lot to be said for the new flexibilty and immediacy they bring. But the old physical push/pull/turn controls with tactile and aural feedback still have a lot going for them. They are a pleasure to use sensorially, while touchscreens are just intellectually interesting. Let's not all get over excited and throw the (physical control) baby out with the bathwater.