Smart tools, dumb craft

I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.

I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.

Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.

I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations:

  1. There are really only two settings to be adjusted on a microwave oven: power and time. Every complicated, gourmet, or “custom” option is only a shortcut (or longcut, as it may be) for some combination of those two options.
  2. Those shortcuts cannot work consistently for all cooks in all situations. Note well: The problem isn’t just that they don’t work, which would imply that better engineering would make them work. The problem is that they can’t. You can’t program enough shortcuts for every quantity of meat you might want to defrost. Meat comes out of the freezer at different temperatures and has different densities. I may want to soften butter to cool room temperature for baking or to warm room temperature for spreading. An experienced cook makes continual intuitive adjustments to handle the almost infinite variations in day-to-day cooking. (And everybody knows when you make popcorn in the microwave you have to listen for the popping to stop; you never trust the “popcorn” setting.)
  3. Having to set the appliance via an algorithm — a chosen pre-programmed sequence of steps — thus makes smart cooking impossible, or at least far more difficult than it would otherwise be. A former colleague had a sign in his office to the effect that simple rules encourage complex behavior, while complicated rules encourage simple behavior; I think his point had to do with the superiority of baseball over football, but the principle can be broadly applied. “Smart” kitchens make dumb cooks.

So how would I design the microwave’s interface to enable and encourage thoughtful and attentive cooking and to save the cook time in setting the machine? Since there are only two things to be set, you only need two means of setting things: one for time and one for power. You could have a number pad, but why? It’s actually quicker to turn a dial — and more appropriate for time, which is a continuous measure and not a discrete one. So have a dial for minutes and a dial for seconds. Minutes numbered 1–20 (or even 1–15) would cover 99 percent of what anyone does with a microwave and would give you ample room to see each minute, and the dial could click at each minute for audible feedback. The seconds dial could turn continuously and be labeled every five seconds, which would let you set it easily to a precision of about 2½ seconds — which realistically is plenty of precision.

And that, again realistically, is why I don’t have a career in design. Nevertheless, if GE or somebody wants to hire me for UX design on a dumb microwave, I’m available on a per-hour basis.

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