The Hot Dog Button

January, 2014

I recently had the privilege of remodeling my kitchen. It ended up being much more superficial than I’d originally hoped, largely due to the fact that most appliances are terrible.

Before Before
After After

I rarely have the opportunity to leave the screen, so I was excited to design something at a larger, more human scale. I’d been holding off on redoing my kitchen, favoring other parts of the house… But when my microwave’s controls started only responding to a complex combination of mashing and stabbing with my palm and index finger, I knew it was time to get started. I headed to Home Depot.

This was a mistake.

I walked through their appliances section, starting with the microwaves. I looked closely at their features. Each had way too many buttons—some with pictograms of common foods that could be cooked. Popcorn, potato, hot dog, beverage, reheat, etc. Each with their own dedicated buttons.

Finally!
A hot dog button!

They were covered in stickers touting things like DuoSense™ technology. Ultrawave™ or whatever.

I was embarrassed by the selection. Perhaps I’d picked the wrong store. Perhaps a store down the road would have the microwave I was looking for. I looked elsewhere only to find them all filled with the same things—poorly produced appliances that had many “features” I’d never use. A few of the models were the same, only with different names.

I found units with flimsy doors and cheap displays. The buttons felt mushy and hard to press. Though some crafted nice-feeling doors, the latching action was so loud it’d wake anyone in the house.

In my frustration I discovered that all I wanted from a microwave was a single knob. That’s it. I want to open a carefully considered door, close it without waking the neighbors, twist a single knob to the desired time, press it to start, and hear a single chime when it’s done. Press again to cancel, or simply twist counter-clockwise to zero it out.

Side note: Microwave manufacturers, what’s the emergency? Whatever I’ve cooked can hang out in the microwave for 5 minutes without hearing a repeating chime. In fact, most packaging recommends you let the product cool.

But if you get rid of the hot dog button how will customers know how long to cook their hot dogs? Well, food packaging already recommends how long you cook their product. If you read closely on microwavable popcorn packaging they recommend NOT using the popcorn button because the feature is so poorly executed across an industry that their customers were complaining about burnt popcorn.

What.

Not only do we have a feature that users don’t need, but it’s so poorly executed that food companies actively warn against it. Is this something customers even want? Of course not.

Consider this solution: A single knob that you turn, like an egg timer to select the time. If customers are truly asking for a hot dog button, instead of adding a dedicated button, simply label the knob. Since most people aren’t microwaving most things for any longer than 3 minutes, you can change the scale of the knob to allow smaller time increments at the beginning and longer ones toward the end.

Knob Look familiar? This is how early microwaves looked. That’s all we ever needed. And here we are, full circle.
Single knob microwave What if microwaves looked like this?

Side note: How about you kill the clock on the microwave? Many microwaves appear above a range that already has a clock. So you set both times but one becomes maddeningly one minute ahead of the other. Kill one. The redundancy isn’t needed.

Similar problems exist with other appliances. As I browsed the ovens each one proudly proclaimed that they were self-cleaning. I recently made a mess in mine and did some research before running the self cleaning cycle. I’m glad I did my research. Consider the article “Why You Should (Almost) Never Use Your Oven’s Self-Cleaning Function” over at The Kitchn.

I have been doing a lot of research on appliances, and as I researched ovens, one complaint seemed to arise over and over: “I used the self-cleaning mode and poof! The fuse burnt out!” When ovens went bad, the evidence seemed to say, it was after the self-cleaning cycle.

Why is this? I asked Adam Dahl at The Appliance Loft, an appliance shop in Cincinnati. He explained that yes, many oven repair calls are due to self-cleaning problems. Why? Two things.

Self-cleaning, often with temperatures that go over 1000°, is a particular problem. The elements and the oven just get so hot — much, much hotter than the 350° to 500° range of normal baking — that sometimes fuses pop and control panels burn out.

Manufacturers, Adam implied, know this and they understand that self-cleaning cycles are a problem. But, he said, customers demand self-cleaning options. They’re so highly desired that it’s very difficult to sell an oven without one. And yet it’s pushing an oven to do something that is fairly extreme and difficult to engineer, and so there are genuine risks of damaging the oven.

WHAT.

Could this really be what customers want? You’ve got oven manufacturers adding a feature that literally destroys their ovens for just another bullet point on a list of features on a showroom floor. I can’t think of a better example of feature-creep getting in the way of refinement of simple ideas.

If you ignore the potential bullet points of features, customers will discover the benefits of the incremental refinements on their own. With less research & development being thrown into gimmicky features, manufacturers can shift their focus to improving the reliability and price of their appliances.

Which would you rather have in your kitchen, the complex appliance whose rarely-used features warrant a service call, or the refined appliance that is affordable and lasts for years?

I’d argue for the latter every time.


Aaron Shekey

I’m a product designer and musician in Minneapolis, MN. I design and build Hum. I lead a band called The Usual Things. I work at Stack Overflow. I’ve also worked at GitHub and Adobe.