What’s All This “Cheat-Sheet” Stuff, Anyhow?

Jan. 26, 2010
Rental cars with non-intuitive controls provide contributing editor Bob Pease with an opportunity to muse about about design: features labeling, and formal documentation.

My friend Noah rented a car at the Glasgow airport, a new Toyota Avensis. We were almost ready to start out, but he was suspicious as he couldn’t find any emergency brake release. He drove slowly to the rental lot exit and asked, “How do I turn off the handbrake?” The guy hollered, through the heavy rain, “See the little green button by your left knee?” Reply, NO.

The guy did some pointing. There was a tiny green button, above the driver’s left knee. “Push that and the handbrakes go on.” (Wurra wurra...) “Now, pull on it, and the handbrakes go off.” (Wurra wurra wurra.) On a flat space, this works fine, a nice lazy way to go. But on a hill in traffic, or when parked near a steep dropoff, we decided to eschew such cutesy schemes. Just use the heel-and-toe on the gas and brakes. Much more predictable. Still, there were other inobvious things in this car that we had to figure out. And it was 4 in. wider than the car we had requested.

Within two weeks, we swapped in that car and rented an Opel Zefira in Dublin. It was a more conventional car and had fewer foibles (and fewer processors), but it still had some odd things to learn. The windscreen wiper controls were sequential. You didn’t push the lever up a fixed distance to turn them on. You pushed them up once for drizzle, again to run, and a third time for fast.

The computers, which were (we found out on the last day) nested among the myriad controls for the radio, wanted you to push many menu items to see certain things. At one point, it suddenly started displaying RANGE (before it would run out of gas). We were never able to turn that function on again! But eventually it turned itself on. We were finally able to turn the car in with 37 km of fuel to go. Not bad.


Cars, especially rental cars, need a cheat sheet to explain any non-standard things. If there are inscrutable functions (does “Eject” mean eject a CD, or eject a disagreeable passenger?), it can be dangerous. My wife just rented a car and couldn’t find the light switch. I think it’s criminal for controls as important as that to be hidden in a non-standard way, especially as you might need them! When you suddenly come to a tunnel, it may be important to know, “Where did the bastards hide the light switch?”

In some cars, you just stomp on the emergency brake to stop and stomp again to go. Once I was driving up from New York City to Rhode Island. It got dark. We swapped drivers. Soon we were doing 65 mph in the fast lane of the Connecticut Turnpike, and my friend Leo observed that the emergency brake light was on. So he tromped on the emergency brake pedal again to turn it off.

Unfortunately, this was a car where that just puts on the brakes harder. Very soon we were doing 3 mph in the high-speed lane! Fortunately, Leo was a real sharp guy, and he fished in the dark for the release, and we got going before any crash occurred. So my friend in Glasgow was wise to ask how to turn things off.

If you know how to ask, fine. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, then you can’t even ask the question. I don’t like that. So when you rent a car, make sure you know where to find the important functions. Use a list (such as the lists from my pretty good book, How To Drive Into Accidents—And How Not To).


This goes for computers, too. When I bought my Mac, I soon put together a list of questions that I’d need help answering. One of my colleagues said, “Just read the book.” I had to explain to him that no owner’s manual comes with the computer. No driver’s manual. Not even a cheat sheet.

So I started making my own, which is why I have over a dozen notes taped to the inside and outside of the top cover. Apple has made the Mac so “intuitive” that for dozens of functions, you can guess what to do. But in other cases, you can’t tell, and you can’t even guess. You can’t even hardly define what you don’t know.

There’s a whole cottage industry of books that should solve some of these problems for the Mac (see “What’s All This Leopard Stuff, Anyhow?”). But you often have to wallow through dozens of pages to find a simple fact. Other times, this doesn’t even work.

So the next time you are including a cute feature in one of your computers, ask yourself if anybody can find it. If not, can you include (preferably on paper) an index? If not, you may be well on your way to having thousands and millions of people curse you,  like some other software experts I know.

Or you might put it in a cheat sheet.

Comments invited! [email protected] —or:
R.A. Pease, 682 Miramar Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94112-1232


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