Wednesday, April 18, 2007


My Microwave oven really wants me to eat a lot of bacon. I'm vegan and live in California, I'm already quite aware that my culinary habits are not exactly in sync with those of the average American. Even so, every time I go to nuke a tofu dog my microwave dutifully reminds me of this fact. TV, magazines and just about everything else also remind me of this fact so I really don't need the microwave giving me a bunch of crap about it as well. When I hit the "Microwave" button to get its attention it responds with "Bacon" every time. It doesn't think that I might just want it to zap something for 30 seconds or a minute, it immediately jumps to the conclusion that I must want bacon. If I want something else it requires that I convince it of this by pressing buttons and turning a knob.

Now you might be wondering why the microwave would want me to hit a button labeled "Microwave" before it will microwave something. It does seem a bit redundant if you don't know that my microwave oven is a microwave/convection combo oven. Given this fact it shouldn't surprise you that it also has a "Convection" button. In addition to this it also has "Speed Cook" button that puts the microwave in a mode that's similar to convection but it's faster. I don't remember why I would want to use the slower convection mode. It's one of those things that's in the manual and if you don't use it all the time your brain dumps it in preference to something more useful. And considering how much I've ended up using the convection mode of the oven this difference has never spent much time in my brain.

So I guess it's not all that illogical that I have to hit the "Microwave" button if I want to nuke something. Of course the bulk of the time I want to use the microwave and not the convection or mysterious speed-cook modes and I'm willing to bet that the majority of users of microwave/convection combo ovens are the same way. Even if they aren't I still think that defaulting to the microwave mode is the right thing to do. It seems to me that the amount of effort that you put in to starting some process should correspond to the amount of time that the process is going to be running relative to the other possible processes that a device could run. I'm not a usability or interaction design expert but the preceding seems reasonable to me. Maybe it's called "the principle of proportional effort" in user interface expert circles or something.

In my case I often want to nuke a tofu-dog or heat up some leftovers for my kid, both of which have run times of say 30 seconds. Running the convection oven for 30 seconds doesn't accomplish much of anything. On the rare occasion I actually use the convection oven I'd say I always run it for at least 5 minutes. So I would want to optimize the interface so that the shorter nuking session takes less time to start than the convection oven. Of course with my oven both operations take roughly the same amount of work to start. To nuke a tofu-dog I have to hit the "Microwave" button, turn a knob to get from "Bacon" to "Timed" mode, press the knob to select "Timed" mode, turn the knob again to select a time, press the knob again to lock in that time and finally press the knob one last time to confirm that, yes, I actually do want to cook something. If I want to convect1 some food I have to hit the "Convection" button, turn the knob to select a time and then press it lock in the time, turn the knob to select the heat level and press it to lock in the level and then press the knob again to confirm that I'm happy with my choices. Note that if the microwave wasn't convinced that I wanted bacon then there would be one less knob turn and push when using microwave mode and it would technically beat convection mode by a hair. Both modes could also eliminate one knob press by not asking for confirmation. Instead the oven could rely on the cancel button that I would hit the instant I realized that I had screwed something up. And, as these things usually go, the confirmation is now useless since I've been conditioned to press the knob twice after I get the time dialed in and if I screwed something up the time I just hit cancel.

Instead of having the interface assume that I want to do the quick and common operation it feigns ignorance and requires me to jump through a bunch of hoops. By default it should be assumed that I want a timed microwave run and if I start turning the knob without hitting a mode button then it should start setting the cooking time. When I press the knob it should just start, no confirmation. I can just hit the cancel button if I entered the wrong amount of time, a few stray microwaves isn't going to ruin my food. The oven does have a minute button that starts the microwave at one minute and then adds a minute to the run time for each successive press. Often if I'm nuking something for less than thirty seconds I'll just hit the minute button and stand there until the amount of time I actually wanted has passed at which point I'll hit cancel2.

Having to jump through all the hoops to nuke a tofu dog is annoying, but making bacon the default microwave setting just mystifies me. Am I really that out of touch with mainstream America that I don't realize that cooking bacon is the number one use of microwave's? I don't see members of my extended family using their microwaves for this, but they also live in California and thus might also be outliers when it comes to microwave oven market research. I know that obesity and heart disease are out of control in the US, but could bacon pushers microwave ovens be the reason? Or do the people at Kenmore like bacon so much that they assumed that everyone would like to have the bacon as their first microwaving choice? Did they sell the top slot to the pork industry? Am I reading too much into this. All I wanted to do is nuke a tofu dog, but every time I do I get all these questions in my head. And it also gets me wondering if there are people out there getting ready to write their own bacon screed after having used software that I've written.

  1. I suppose that convect is probably the wrong word to use here since really it's the air that is convecting in the oven, not the food. But cook doesn't exactly nail down what it is that is being done to the food so convect it is.
  2. It turns out that once the microwave is going, i.e. after I hit the minute button, turning the knob adjusts the run time. This moots my complaint about how long it takes to get the microwave going to some degree. It isn't exactly the most discoverable of interfaces though since we've had the oven for about six months and my wife just discovered this feature a couple of days ago. Either that or we're morons.