Usability: Predictability vs. Innovation

Let’s take a break from the usual mobile/internet product discussion here at What It All Boils Down To and take a look at a device many of you use every day: the microwave.

This morning I received an email from a kitchen supply store with an ad for a microwave that bills itself as a “Microwave for Foodies by Foodies.” And let me tell you, it sounds fabulous: it can “measure the moisture released from the food to calculate the cooking time;” you can “adjust the power while your meal is cooking;” and it has a “dedicated button that instantly adds more time with a touch.”

A manually controlled microwave from 1983 and the new "Quick Touch" microwave.

A manually controlled microwave from 1983 and the new “Quick Touch” microwave.

All this sounds fabulous, really innovative, and it sounds like the way I’d like to use my microwave. But it isn’t the way I really use my microwave. What I usually do is press my microwave’s “add 30 seconds” button until I get the time I want. On rare occasions I’ll enter the actual time I’d like by first pressing “time” and then at least 3 number buttons but mostly I’ll use that “30 seconds” one. Why? Because I don’t want to invest too much time thinking about how I want to cook the food, I just want to cook/heat it. And if it isn’t hot when the time is up, I’m OK with adding another 30 seconds. I’m also OK with adding 30 seconds but opening the door after 15 seconds because that’s easier than entering a 15 second cook time.

Call me lazy but this is how most people use the microwave. This isn’t a device we really want a long and intricate interaction with but one we’d just like to get the job done with as little input from us as possible.

Before you call me a microwave Luddite I’d like to say that it’s not that I’m against progress. I’d love to see a one-button microwave that automatically weighs your food, analyzes its content and knows the desired temperature for it. That’s one-touch heating/cooking I can get behind.

My point is that you need to balance product innovation with usability. Before you add all the bells and whistles to your product ask yourself if they’re really practical and if they fit existing usage patterns. If the answer to both is “no” ask yourself if you want to be the one to change norms.

If the answer to that is “yes” get yourself a nice marketing budget and go for it.


Photo credit: Sur La Table and Game Over Forum.



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