I think I knew I wanted to be a designer before I even knew that was even a thing to be. It happened the first time I had to use a pay phone; I was in the fifth or sixth grade and needed to call home, maybe I had forgotten a permission slip or a report that was due that day. I was naive and lived in a small town with only two public phones, one in the market and one at the school. So, I was clueless going in. I looked at the machine and saw three numbers engraved next to the coin slot: 5, 10, 25. Okay. I must need to put in a nickel, a dime, and a quarter in that order and it would work. Do I then pull that lever next to the slot? I tried over and over, to no avail from this machine.
My mind was too young protest, but now I think, that’s silly. Things that are so commonplace shouldn’t be that hard to use. Even in 2015 these poorly designed experiences still exist. For example – our washers and dryers have a myriad of settings & cycles for each type of fabric and the dirtiness of your clothes. But who even knows what they do? Each time I do my laundry I just set it to normal wash, warm, start, whatever. Maybe that’s just because I’m a man, but that’s a different discussion.
As designers & developers we spend so much time creating beautiful interfaces for our smartphones and gushing over the newest digital devices we can get. Shouldn’t these appliances we use on a daily basis get the same attention? Don’t we want to enjoy using them, or at least be able to?
Our microwaves have the same kind of mess going on. Every microwave you can buy has a similar range of options that attempt to cook your food automagically: popcorn, potato, frozen entree, vegetable, frozen vegetable, dinner plate, auto defrost, express defrost, I even saw one specifically for hot dogs. Despite these luxuries of the 21st century (imagine if our parents grew up with this fancy “science oven” that automatically heats up my hot dog… what even is a hot dog?) I’ve tried using these features only a handful of times.
I think the main reason no one does is because no one knows what they do or how they work. If I push defrost, what happens? How does it know what I’m even defrosting? If it calculates that the microwave should run for eight minutes, how is that different from just typing in eight minutes on the keypad? What is the program for cooking a hotdog, besides blasting it for 30 seconds so I can go back to watching The Bachelor?
Some appliances are getting better at solving these usability problems. Whirlpool’s Cabrio washers and dryers have done away with the dial every washing machine has had for decades. The new interface is a touchpad divided into plain english sections: ‘what to wash’ and ‘how to wash’ laid out left to right, naturally the way we read and process information. Start at the left with the power button, select mixed with a delay start, normal wash, start. Wasn’t that easy? The June Oven has a reinvented interface that feels more like an iPad than an oven, with richly illustrated menus and a logical flow to cook most anything. Shouldn’t everything be that easy and natural?
With these sentiments I decided to exercise redesigning a microwave interface to work that easily. Let’s make it the Tesla of microwaves — Tesla being a car that is elegant, works almost by itself, and just makes sense.
Let’s keep the idea of a tall control panel on one side of it. That’s familiar. A ‘resting’ state of this could display just the clock and an option to start a timer. Those are the essentials if you’re not cooking.
Upon opening and closing the door, which is an easy way to sense you want to start cooking, the cooking options will appear. Let’s keep it simple with a keypad and two extra options for Auto Cook and adjusting the power level, assuming that those are still the lesser-used features.
Tapping auto cook will show a new screen with all those options but with a twist: plain english descriptions of what those features will do. This isn’t a grid either, mind you – there is a lot to say on how grids are a poor way to organize options and prevent the user from finding what they want quickly.
If I want to defrost some chicken I can tell my science oven that it’s chicken and I have one pound of it. My science oven will tell me, okay, I’m going to run on half power for four minutes, stopping midway through to prompt you to turn the meat. That makes sense to me.
Once I hit start the screen goes back to the essentials: what program it is set to (if applicable), the time remaining, and a stop button.
These kinds of experiences are pleasant to us because they make sense and feel natural. We like it when websites use conversational language like humans do. We like our signage to be instantly clear; when I first moved to Washington I noticed on the highway signs, if there was a two-lane exit coming up, one lane was marked “only” and the other simply “OK”. That felt nice. If you want to get off here, you’re OK in this lane. If you don’t want to, you’re still OK. Everything is OK. Aren’t we at a point in our technology-saturated world where every experience should be so easy and natural?
Image courtesy of Kelly Sikkema for Unsplash.