Micro-waves, Big Problems

Microwaves are an everyday tool for hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. With how common they are, it’s amazing how their design is so confusing its become somewhat of a cultural touchstone.

To try and find a better way to deal with this, me and my group created a usability testing experiment for this Black and Decker microwave. We created it through identifying common tasks performed with microwaves, and by considering our own personal experiences, and cultural evidence, predicted several possible points of breakdowns in usability to test. This test involved having several subjects attempt three telling tests with the microwave, as a test of the machine’s usability. The tests included removing and replacing the tray (in simulation of cleaning), setting the microwave to cook for a specific length of time (as though one were about to make a bag of popcorn), and setting the clock on the microwave.

Confusing metal heat box. Note the numerous, rarely used buttons with their tiny text. This was the microwave used in our experiment
Test subject attempts to decipher microwave controls. This confused focus is indicative of some lapse in usability

The resultant data were a tester’s time on task, whether or not the given task was completed by that tester, and that tester’s personal rating of the test’s difficulty, from one to seven (one being the easiest).

More detailed description of results and tasks can be found in this video : https://youtu.be/i6B_J8fPGo0

Having an opportunity to get some real data fresh from the source, and learn something about where exactly people got caught up with a design really resonated with me. Designing an experiment to get the desired information out of our subjects without significantly biasing their answers was also an intriguing exercise. Certainly this skill will prove invaluable in any future experiments I’m involved in, giving me tools to not only perform them myself, but also to work with experiments done by others in a more knowledgeable manner. This experience of designing an experiment shows just how many places such experiments can go awry.

Having experience in experimenting is no doubt going to be highly useful in the future. Creating and conducting experiments is a career in itself, after all. In addition to being a potential livelihood, being able to test the usability of a design will certainly make it possible to create more polished designs myself in the future.

The relatively blunt techniques of my group’s experiments, while far from strict, still yielded important and useful data on the usability of the microwave. These techniques are certainly not moral, nor very effective for use in more serious, high-stakes kinds of experiments, such as medical testing, and tests involving intensely personal data, but they would likely function very well in experiments on consumer goods. Consumer goods, at least from a usability perspective, are rarely dangerous.

Testing in a manner similar to the way my group has learned is extremely effective at finding usability problems in designs. Having a third party run through usage of a product is a great way to see if it acts like they want it to, which is important if you want to sell that product.