Microwave ovens on store shelves

Micro-annoyance waves

I said to myself; “That microwave is going to piss me off every time I use it, for the entire lifetime of the appliance.”

On Sunday afternoon, our microwave oven beeped oddly, then lost track of time. Diane reset the time and we shrugged. Then later it shocked her.

“OK,” we thought, “time for a new microwave.” After all, our Daewoo stainless steel microwave was well over a decade old; it didn’t owe us anything. So on Monday we went out to a couple places and brought home an Oster. Read the manual, plugged it in, went to set the cooking time and – something unexpected happened:

Intending to set 1 min 30 seconds, I touched the ‘1’ button and it instantly started up, counting down from 1 minute. I never got the chance to press “30” or “Start”.

“WTF”, I thought. I tried again. Anytime you touched a number button one through six, it just started right up for that number of minutes. I studied the manual more carefully.

Microwave control panel with logic problems
If you touch any number from one to six, the microwave just… starts, cooking that many minutes.

Turns out, if you wanted something specific like one minute, forty seconds, you had to press “Cook Time” first, then the time, then “Start”. The “Cook Time” button was in gray lettering on a gray background, the same size as several other function buttons arranged with it.*

You could use the “Express cook” feature, as long as you are satisfied with whole-minute increments. But it lacks finesse: the difference between one minute and two minutes is a hundred percent more cooking. Two to three minutes? Fifty percent more cooking. At 1200 watts intensity, those are big jumps.

Or you could trust the “sensor cooking”, wherein you let an appliance company decide for you how hot your tea or soup or whatever should be. Since Diane and I have differing preferences, that’s a non-starter.

You can also “Add 30 seconds” using the eponymous dedicated button. It saves you one whole button-push, at the expense of exact control, and the need to find that button on the control panel.

This nonsense is called “Express Cook”, wherein the most basic function is hard to see, and requires extra steps. I pictured myself at six in the morning, peering at the control panel in the half-lit kitchen, trying to heat some water.

I returned the microwave and went in search for a replacement. Turns out, most brands were made by that same company. With minor graphic differences, the panels were laid out the same way. And the user manuals even had the same grammatical errors in the same sentences.

I went to several stores, and wound up at Best Buy. Many of the brands had the “Express Cook” panel with its messed-up workflow and logic. LG had an intriguiging layout: just a featureless black panel on which controls would appear once you touched. It reminded me of the monolith from 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Panasonic looked like a good clean design, so I downloaded the manual and stood there in the store to verify. For basic cooking at full power, you simply enter the desired time and press “Start”. If you want anything different or fancy, then you involve other buttons. I bought it and it works fine.

What possesses designers to make things more complicated instead of simpler? To force the user to recall instructions instead of going directly to basic functions? For a glimpse of the commercial value of simplicity, think of the old Yahoo home page, versus the Google home page.

NOTES:

  • Bonus: if you watch it count down and hit ‘Stop’ when it reaches 1, you can skip the five beeps. (I hate beeps, what was ever wrong with a pleasant little bell to tell you when the microwave was done)
  • Also, I mean obviously, everyone should just get off my lawn
  • I have not been in Best Buy for years, because they always had music and movies up super-loud. But it was considerably quieter, so they must have found a way to query the customers who were NOT going to their store.
  • * Of course they are not actual buttons with tactile placement and feedback, but only marked spots on an otherwise smooth flat.
  • Here, I’m gonna try out the WordPress gallery feature. Click on any one of the pictures to get a closer look.

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georgewiman

Older technology guy with photography and history background