Sunday, January 1, 2006

Microwave Oven Usability

In the time around my daughter’s birth, I was in and around the hospital a lot. Different wards have their own galley kitchens, each with a communal microwave oven. In using the microwave I was puzzled to see that it almost always had a small amount of time remaining from the previous person, who apparently stopped before the countdown was complete.

The hospital microwave was meant to be used as follows: Push the “Power” button, then select a power level, then push the “Time” button (which does nothing if you push it before pushing the “Power” button), then key-in a cooking time, then push the “Start” button.

It’s a relatively standard sequence for microwave ovens, but if you don’t know it, the front panel gives no hints. However, there is an “Add 30 Sec” button, which I found myself using as a shortcut, pushing multiple times until it showed the time I needed. In my case, the time I needed was divisible by 30 seconds, so I used the full countdown. But at some point I realized that most people probably did the same thing with the “Add 30 Sec” button, except they pushed “Stop” when their time (which was not divisible by 30) had counted down.

The lesson: A microwave with 16 buttons was getting used as if it had two buttons, including by me who knew how to use it the intended way.

Meanwhile, at home we have a relatively new microwave oven, a GE SpaceMaker 2.0. It attempts to be more user-friendly, with a touchscreen interface, including various forms of help. Here is the top-level screen:

It also has shortcuts for cooking or reheating food types like “popcorn” and “fish.” While fine for popcorn, the feature usually disappoints due to the variance in cooking required for different types of “fish,” “rice,” “fresh vegetables,” and such.

Still, I applaud GE for trying; it’s a step forward. But now that we’ve got a touchscreen instead of fixed buttons, can’t we be simpler? For example, why not let me push “Start” from a list of the last four settings I’ve used? Something like this:


Because we tend to use the microwave for a few things frequently, and for everything else rarely, this feature could be highly effective—at least for home use, not necessarily for communal use. Another way of doing it would be like speed dial on phones, where a setting could be recalled by pressing 1, 2, etc. (The SpaceMaker 2.0 has user-configurable “custom” buttons, but they don’t have the same level of intuitiveness that a “recent list” or “speed dial” feature would have.)

The point: At the hospital, people faced with 16 buttons improvised their way to the goal by using only two. In that spirit, the touchscreen’s promise is to offer not just more choices but the right choices, in context. The fact that, even with the SpaceMaker 2.0, I still often use the “30 Sec Express” button multiple times—and, in terms of minimizing button pushes, it is rational to do so—means more improvements are waiting to be made.

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