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Why do most microwaves have such a terrible user interface? (timandjeni.com)
19 points by rpenm on June 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

I wish the post had gone deeper trying to answer the question. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think several factors contributed:

1. Microwaves originally had analog dials. The first digital UIs were seen on fancier, high-end appliances. This made them a bit of a status symbol. Eventually, tech costs came down and everyone imitated the high-end UI.

2. Almost nobody grows up wanting to design appliance UIs. They're considered boring.

3. Removing features is hard. If you remove a feature used by 1% of your customers, and you have 10,000 customers, that's 100 angry people. They'll be much more vocal than the slightly happier 9900.

Amusingly, the cheapest microwaves are often the ones with the best interfaces. I spent $80 on something like this[1] years ago, and I like it more than any fancy microwave. This includes the model touted by the author. Having only one knob (time) is too minimalist. I hardly ever touch the power knob, but it's occasionally necessary.

1. http://image.haier.com/us/products/kitchen/microwaves/W02013...

It's also about what you like in the store and what you like at home.

People got swayed by the iPhone 4 design in the store and bought it, then once they own it they covered it in cheap plastic to protect the glass.

The flat surface on the microwave looks great and sleek. The many functions makes the oven seem good and sophisticated. Who knows what magic this microwave does when you ask it to reheat a slice of pizza! Surely it must be better than the normal heating function! Let's get that.

Once you are home, all you want is to set the time and maybe change the power.

I don't recall mine being particulary expensive but it has the two dial (time and power) and to my eyes looks nicer than the other simple interface microwaves being discussed.


The "one knob, that's all there is" user interface that the author of this post hails as a breath of fresh air is certainly simpler than the 34-buttoned UI he criticizes, but anyone who's familiar with the intricacies of microwave cooking knows that just as important as the cooking time is the power level.

You know those cheesy leftovers that you ordinarily nuke for 2 minutes, and the cheesy portion ends up a gooey, steamy mess, while the rest of the dish is only slightly warm?

Try nuking it for 3 minutes, but set the power level to 60%. You'll be amazed at what a difference it makes!

P.S.: Could you imagine a Hacker News crowd-designed microwave? There'd be buttons for "Add 2^1 seconds," "Add 2^2 seconds," "Add 2^3 seconds" ...

You could push and turn to adjust power.

Or have 2 knobs (Power and Time).

I used to have one like that many moons ago. It also had a start button and a stop/open door button. That was perfect.

Most toaster ovens have three knobs: temperature, time, and a series of what sound like discrete settings (bake, toast, broil, etc.) but are actually a graduated spectrum for heat distribution to the top vs. bottom heating coil. Pretty much a perfect UX (though you could toss out the heat-distribution names), and makes me wish that everything else—actual ovens, actual toasters, and microwaves—shared it.

I had that too - Amana RadarRange. It was great for me. But terrible for little kids - up to school age. They would ask "How much time?" for their popcorn. I'd tell them. They'd turn the knob, it would go to some time, they'd ask "More or less?" We'd play that game until they had about the right time.

With a digital control, they'd just press 2-3-3 and Start.

The flat, non tactile buttons make cleaning much easier, a big plus in my book.

Commercial microwaves typically only have a few buttons as well:


Funny to find that someone submitted this two-year-old post of mine here. Sorry I didn't actually answer the question, heh.

Thanks for the insightful comments, all.

I've actually got that same Panasonic in my office, and really appreciate the "Sensor Reheat" feature.

My meals have widely varying thermal capacities (chili vs a sandwich) so it's nice to have a single button to hit, to get my food uniformly hot every single time.

Does it also deal with uneven heating? Test with a few papadums[1]... :)

[1] http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2011/microwave-oven-diagnost...

No. It only has a rotating plate, so I suspect it's not particularly evenly distributed.

When I said "uniformly" I meant that each meal ends up at more or less the same, "pleasantly hot" temperature as the previous meal, irrespective of their thermal mass, because the sensor reheat runs longer or shorter for the respective meals.

Works well enough for leftovers at work ;)

My ideal would be two knobs and an illuminated push button.

The push button is "mute", illuminated when mute is enabled.

One knob is the standard toaster-oven style "twist to desired time", the other a power level knob (with minimum being a special for defrost).

Unfortunately, it's not going to happen, and for a very simple reason: cost. It costs less to do those stupid little membrane switches than discrete knobs / buttons.

My "good enough" would be separate 1s / 5s / 15s / 1m / 5m buttons. Where you press the button, it adds the time. Like how some timers work. And a dedicated mute button, and easy indication of if you are muted.

I like the two knobs UI, it can be as simple as the single knob but it's more versatile. However, those can be annoying when you forget to turn the power knob the right way. A possible solution would be a led with different colors for each power level, that should avoid nearly all mistakes.

On a side note, my UI Design professor gave the microwaves as an example of a frequently bad UI. He had a theory for this: that customers also preferred more features. As in, when buying a microwaves, it could be tempting to choose one with 10~15 over one with 2 or 3.

That was just a theory, though - no studies whatsoever involved. I have never shopped for domestic appliances myself, so I don't know what I'd be tempted to buy.

I had a microwave in college that I bought used for $10. It had a single knob that you could twist to have it run from 0-10 minutes. It was pretty much perfect. I don't ever use a microwave for anything besides reheating leftovers or melting butter.

I was really hoping for an answer!

Most likely because an engineer designs it, or it's designed by committee. Let's see, how can we sell this same microwave that cost us $30 to make, for twice the money? Oh let's add "features" such as a 'popcorn button' that makes popcorn, or a 'defrost tbone steak' that perfectly defrosts...

etc etc, That said, the inverter technology in the panasonics are worth paying for... not to mention that they do have tactile buttons and a knob... http://www.cnet.com/pictures/panasonics-nn-sd997s-microwave-...

I think the answer has to do with the illusion that more buttons = more features = higher quality = better.

I'd guess that each button equates to a feature. So nobody wants to be seen "removing features" from the product.

Microwave A:

- heats food for the duration you want and power level you want

Microwave B:

- heats food for the duration you want and power level you want

- thaws food

- warms pizza

- makes popcorn

- boils water in a cup

- etc.

Probably for the same reason your TV/car/washer-dryer/digital watch/whatever is ugly and overloaded with "features" you never use: they cost nothing to tack on, and people will pay more for it.

The major complaint I have with my current microwave is that when it's done it gives a simple two or three tone beep and that's it. You can't hear it outside the kitchen and it doesn't repeat.

The major complaint I have with my current microwave is that it does repeat, since my apartment is small enough that I can hear it regardless of where I am, and there's usually a reason other than me forgetting if the food is still there after a minute.

I wish that sort of thing was made more prominent on the packaging.

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