The humble microwave is a common sight in our kitchens. However, it might just be the source of the worst user interface design of any product we own.
Your typical microwave will have a numeric keypad, a selection of heating modes, and start/stop buttons. Simple, right? Well, not so much. All I want from my microwave is to set the timer and maybe the power. Surely this shouldn’t require 20 different buttons, yet 20 buttons is par for the course – some models have over 30!
I don’t know what most of the modes do, so I just use the same one every time. I see this as a total failure of communication with the user. Every time I want to heat up my porridge I need to tell my microwave what mode I want, before mashing a capacitive keypad to set the time. Then I need to press a start button. This process requires my unbroken attention throughout – what if I press the adjacent button by accident, or one of the buttons doesn’t register? I better be careful.
But it wasn’t always like this.
This beautiful model has two controls: time and power. Before the advent of the microchip, all microwaves were like this. Analogue timer, analogue power. Now that’s simple. Better yet, they’re big ol’ dials. This means I can do everything while barely looking, and fast. The power dial is even in the right place from yesterday’s porridge. Does your fancy digital microwave know what mode to use from yesterday? Didn’t think so.
As software designer Alan Cooper would say, if you mix a computer with another thing, the result is still a computer. Digital microwaves have unnecessary features because it was just so easy to add them. It’s absolutely critical to remain focused on what actually matters to the user. Turbo Inverter Defrost Pizza Slice mode doesn’t matter to the user.
That isn’t to say that digital technology isn’t useful. Digital timers offer a level of accuracy that an analogue dial could never replicate – a lifesaver when your melt-in-the-middle chocolate pudding demands to be heated for precisely 40 seconds or else it will destroy your taste buds.
So, what happens when you combine the best of analogue and digital into one microwave?
You get the microwave to end all microwaves, the Samsung MS23F301EAK.
This is a digital design, but it has the same simple dial-based layout that analogue microwaves have. The only tweak is a little seven segment display to tell you the precise time setting. Technically speaking, the timer dial is now a rotary encoder, as opposed to a mechanical clock, meaning it spins infinitely. This is what lets you specify the time down to 5-second increments. Otherwise it’s a familiar setup. Big door handle, analogue power dial, automatically starting timer. Now I can make my porridge with a single twist of the wrist.
By sheer luck, this is the microwave I own, and as far as I can tell, it’s the only microwave ever conceived that got this right. You won’t find a single other digital microwave with two dials, I dare you. And I hate to break it to you, but it’s been discontinued. For reasons we will never know.
Looking at the microwave evolution, the ‘metal box’ approach seems to work pretty well. Since its invention in the late 60s, this concept hasn’t changed. It’s almost as if using a metal container to stop the user getting cancer is a good idea. Every company quickly converged on this standardised format, as is what happens in a maturing product space. However, the user interface only followed suit until the microchip made a big splash around 1980, and it seems like the interfaces are still oscillating between designs 40 years later.
So why is it so hard for companies to settle on a good interface design?
Well, Charles Arthur of The Guardian thinks it’s about product life cycles. Everyone has a microwave now, so the sales are nothing like what they were in the 80s. If we’re all keeping our microwaves for a decade, then the evolution is very slow. Besides, microwaves aren’t impulse purchases. Companies aren’t going to sell more microwaves if they make better microwaves, because the only people buying microwaves are probably going to buy a microwave either way. So why bother making them better?
In recent times we have finally started to see a glimpse of standardisation in microwave interfaces, as is evidenced by the +30s button making an appearance in most current models. This one simple button can be used to start the microwave with one press, and then select the time. It’s just a shame that it feels like such an ad hoc solution, like applying tape over a cracked brick wall.
Perhaps we are slowly heading towards a standardised microwave interface utopia, where the vast panel of flat buttons has been eradicated and we can operate the controls with one hand movement. But until then, we will have to continue living in this cruel world where you can’t make popcorn in your friends’ house without calling for help.