Is it me, or is it the machine?
I've pondered the question for two years, ever since leasing my car, a 2014 Infiniti Q50 Hybrid. It drives great, looks great, never breaks down. Mostly, I love it to death.
But then there's the dashboard - the machine in question, which poses a befuddling level of complexity.
Forget it. Just setting the A/C can be a challenge.
Which is why I called Wendy Ju, executive director of the Center for Design Research at Stanford University, and asked her to take a look at my dashboard. I repeated my question: Is it me, or is it the machine?
"People are always saying that: 'Maybe it's me,' " she answered. "But probably it's not."
Indeed, legions of car owners - especially high-end car owners - suffer from dashboard-related anxieties. That's because dashboards and their infotainment systems have grown increasingly complex in recent years, requiring drivers to grasp ever more information and master longer and longer sets of commands.
Ju has a doctorate in human-computer interactions, and dashboard design is one of her specialties, so we arranged to meet. I figured an hour-long, in-car tutorial with Ju would accomplish one of two things: either demystify my dashboard or justify my suspicion that the beast is out of control.
I arrived for the tutorial, pulling into the carport at the center's research garage.
Over the next hour, Ju poked around, trying this, trying that - exploring. She found three ways to find and adjust the clock - make that clocks, as my dashboard turns out to have an array of them ("analog," "digital," "world") housed inside a so-called clock garage. All new to me.
After plenty of trial and error, Ju succeeded in pairing my cellphone to the infotainment system via Bluetooth. (The pairing is a chronic problem.) When she finally did, the connection instantly and inexplicably triggered a pair of unrelated responses - my driver's seat lurched forward and the air-conditioning switched on.
One might ask why automakers don't just simplify and back off the complexity. The answer is obvious, Ju said: Automakers are in competition with Apple and Samsung and other makers of smartphones and tablets.
So they have attempted, with limited success, to design super-multifunctional dashboards.
The principles of user interface design emphasize simplicity, conciseness, clarity, consistency, and comprehensibility. I wondered if my dashboard embodied any of those qualities.
Ju's verdict was mixed.
She noted that my dashboard's designers had prioritized certain common tasks, bringing them within reach of the driver - my phone's "favorites," for example, are close by the steering wheel. Yet, other tasks are confusingly organized; The dashboard bunches together too many related and unrelated options.
But Ju has seen worse. And she held out hope for the future. Apple and Google have developed technologies that project smartphone apps onto the screen in your car, making it easier to access those apps without having to reach for your phone. Sensing a competitive threat, car companies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the redesigning of their dashboards.