June 11, 2009

Instant Usability: Microwave Controls

The picture shows the control panel of the microwave at work. It’s hard to figure out at first glance whether the microwave really has that much functionality or whether a limited set of functions is presented in a rather complicated manner. (At least the manufacturer seems to have thought of the pizza aficionados.)

Issues With The Control Panel
The upper knob is interesting for at least two reasons.

The knob and its “scale” seem to imply some sort of continuum on which a certain value can be adjusted. In fact, it’s no continuum at all. The user can choose one of six options by turning the know to the respective position. In addition, it’s not even one single dimension that can be adjusted here: the knob is used for controlling the microwave functionality and the integrated grill.

The symbology used for those two functionalities is the second noteworthy thing: the wave-like symbols refer to…the grill. The first three symbols from the right indicate: upper&lower heat, lower heat, upper heat. If you mistake those for the microwave functionality, you could be in for a nasty surprise when preparing a foil-sealed microwave meal.

Apart from using better symbols to refer to the two functionalities, it would be an improvement using a different control for setting them in order to avoid the impression (and false mental model) that the main purpose of this area is setting the degree/intensity for one single parameter. An approach could consist in providing two distinct controls, one for setting microwave and one for grill, and allowing the user to combine the two settings as required. One would have to make sure that invalid combinations are properly communicated or avoided, respectively. Adding some labels could help, too. (For manufacturers, the charm of symbol-only panels lies in the fact that they don't have to be localized, of course.)

Other Examples of Microwave Usability Issues
As it seems, there's still enough reason for usability engineers to get active in microwave oven design. Some other examples for microwave usability issues can be found in the following places:
Microwave Usability (Raymond Cassick)
Microwave Usability (Tammy Green)
Office Microwave (Max Steenbergen)


Jeff Parks said...

Great post, Markus!

Bill DeRouchey at last years Idea conference in Chicago showed examples of "modern" washing machines, as one example, in his presentation entitled "The Language of Interaction" http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/idea-2008

The number of buttons and their labels made no sense.

I mean come on, it's a washing machine. Think about it's purpose. It draws water into a tub and swishes the clothes around. Why is there a need for 20 buttons!?

Designing for simplicity is key, IMHO. However it's also a lot of work to get from complex to simple. The results are worth the effort, from my experience.

Mike Maddaloni - The Hot Iron said...

Well, I gues it's good that I am not alone? :)

The issue with the one I tried to use in the dark today is that the start button was in the middle of a grid of membrane buttons, all the same color and text size. Definitely not user friendly...


Markus Weber said...

It’s absolutely worth it. One would think that household appliances in particular would be designed with usability/simplicity in mind because they are so widely used and – as you say – they are not the most complex (or newest) systems in the world. But then, maybe some people falsely assume that usability is only for highly sophisticated / highly interactive systems.

Markus Weber said...

Stupid bug indeed, since it does not require months of user research to find out that the start/stop button of a microwave should somehow stand out from the other buttons…