How usable is your microwave?

Growing up without a microwave gave me a unique perspective on a series of usability tests on a microwave oven.

A usability test is a helpful way to determine if a product not only functions but that it works. A functioning product is one that does what it is supposed to do; whereas, a product that works, is one that allows the user to use it with ease and without frustration.

This past weekend, a group of researchers and myself put one microwave to the the test.

WHAT: The Emerson 1000-Watt Microwave Oven

USERS: College students aged 18–22

We tasked our three participants with three different tasks that all aimed to gather three different data points.

The averages collected here represent each of three participants times, steps, or level of frustration.

During the testing, we had a moderator, a notetaker, and a timekeeper. The simple tasks proved to be easy on the microwave as long as the buttons were labeled clearly. Another interesting observation was that instead of looking at the back of the bag, where the instructions were located, the participants used the “popcorn” button. If the participants had reviewed the bag they would have seen the warning to not use the “popcorn” button. While we expected some variance in data, the participants all agreed that using the microwave was relatively easy. This could have been due to the fact that our users were people who readily used the device in their everyday life.

The author glances at the board while brainstorming tasks for users to test the usability of a microwave.

I grew up in home where sugar cereals were a treat and juice cleanses riddled my almost empty refrigerator. My family was known for our healthy snacks and consistent dinners, usually eaten out, at our favorite farm-friendly restaurants. When approached with this question of usability in microwave usage, it took serious thought to brainstorm ideas for tasks and data points that could be accomplished in a microwave usability test. I started by asking questions starting with “How do I..?” and “When I need…?” to spark the ideas that eventually led to taks. It is extremely important to start with questions, I have found, when stuck during brainstorming. After finally coming up with the ideas that would go into the usability test we discussed why making sure something usable is so important.

The answer is pretty simple: If the user cannot use it, it won’t get used.

Often times designers and engineers can build a product believing it works for them, without understanding that humans work in many different ways and that is why it is important to do multiple rounds of usability testing. Sometimes, after these multiple rounds , designers will take the extreme of trying to make something too simple. Ultra-minimalist is a dangerous line to design on due to the fact somethings need extra buttons in order to be usable. Designing for certain needs can be difficult but balance is key and peer-review and critique can be helpful in this genre.

** If interested, I came across an article with examples of websites with “good” usability: **