Did you ever stay with a friend or relative and, while there, need to use their microwave or oven? How did it go? Was it easy, confusing, frustrating, enraging? Did you figure it out for yourself or did you have to ask for instructions? What about their bathroom? Did you happen to use that, too? How'd that go? Did you figure it out or did you have to ask for instructions?
Over the winter holidays, my family and my son's two friends spent time in a rental house in the Lake Tahoe area. On the evening of our arrival, we decided to pick up pizza on our way to the house. We finally got to our destination, threw our gear inside, and the boys immediately headed outside to build a snowboard ramp. It was vacation, so we decided dinner could wait. My wife volunteered to go back into town and stock up on provisions.
That left me alone with two large pizzas and a green salad. I wasn't sure when the boys would be back in for food, so I put the salad in the refrigerator and decided to keep the pizzas warm in the oven. The rental was recently renovated with a new kitchen and new appliances.
I approached the oven. This was a sleek wall oven, with stainless steel and black glass. I looked for a second, found the "on" button and pressed it, illuminating the multi-function control panel. There were a variety of settings and options such as "turbo bake" and "convection rotisserie," but I decided to go for the simple route and adjusted the temperature to a low setting. After all, I was just trying to keep pizza warm.
We had just arrived and I hadn't had time to track down the usual cooking tools so, after unsuccessfully looking for a pizza pan for about 10 seconds, I decided just to put the pizza boxes directly into the oven. Okay, I know this is dumb (‘bet you've done it, too) but I had set the oven temperature to 200 degrees—far below the kindling point of paper—and I figured it would be fine.
My phone started ringing; someone from my office was trying reach me. I answered, but the connection was spotty, so I walked up the stairs where the reception was a little bit better, and talked for about 25 minutes. Suddenly the smoke alarm sounded. I ran back down the stairs to find the kitchen full of smoke... the pizzas! I quickly removed the smoldering boxes and threw them on the stove top. Our pizza dinner was a charred ruin.
I went back to look at the oven—200 degrees. What went wrong? Turns out that in the lower left corner of the display panel (far away from the 200 degree indicator) was an illuminated small letter "c". Yep, Celsius. I only figured it out after finding the user manual for the stove, which the homeowner had stowed in a drawer labeled appliance manuals. Why was the oven was set to Celsius not Fahrenheit? Beats me. Maybe that was the default setting; maybe it was a European oven; maybe the owners of the rental house set it that way to be funny. I really don't know. All I know is that it certainly wasn't evident to me… and instead of warming the pizzas to a toasty 200F, I had scorched them at 200C, the equivalent of about 400 degrees F.
Modern Built-in Oven with flush control panel (no knobs). Not necessarily the oven in my story.
The control panels can get very confusing, especially for a first time user.
This oven wants me to push it. Hey, that's too much work! I just want to keep the pizza warm.
So who cares? I burned pizza and almost started a fire; no big deal, it happens every day. Here's the point: As products get smarter, people are forced to get smarter too, just to use them. For many of today's products, it takes more time and a greater level of attention to perform the simplest tasks. These products can save time, but they can suck time, too. I can understand that if you buy a new appliance it may take some level of involvement to learn about the advanced functions, but basic operations should be obvious and intuitive. This is the acid test for good design. And it's not necessarily just about an object's physical design; it's about how we operate products, how we interact and engage with them that makes the difference.
Unlike a personal cell phone, most household products, from kitchen appliances to entertainment systems to bathroom fixtures, are "we" products used by all members of the family, as well as guests and visitors. They should be designed with that in mind. Today, products are becoming more and more advanced, multi-functional, and connected. So for now, when visiting friends or family you probably don't have to ask how to operate their toilet, but give it a few years; that time may be coming soon.
My wife returned with the supplies and I went back out to get more pizza. I left the operation of the TV and entertainment system to the teenage boys. The vacation was off to a relaxing start.
How have "we" products stymied you? Did you ever have to ask how to operate a toilet? Tell me your story.
Read more of Tom Dair's SmartDesign blog
Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends.
Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical devices to children's toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.