On Thursday from 12 pm to 1:30 pm, I observed various individuals interacting with the microwave in the staff lounge in the Queen Mother Building on the University of Dundee campus.
The staff lounge is a bright room with a southern exposure on the third floor of the Queen Mother building. The southern wall, composed of windows, is curved like the outside of the building; a pair of double doors open out onto a balcony where tables and chairs are stacked, presumably unused, for the winter. Two white coffee mugs sit on the stack of tables to the east of the door.
There are two doors into the staff lounge of the QMB, both on the north wall of the room. Along the north walls between the two doors there is a kitchenette, with (from west to east, or left to right when facing the kitchenette), there is a microwave, a water dispenser, an espresso machine, a hot water kettle, and a sink. Underneath the countertop (again from left to right) is a refrigerator, and then drawers and cabinets.
A close up of the interface:
The first person I observed was a young woman, who read the sign I had posted indicating that microwave usability observations were in progress, and immediately informed me of her primary problem with the microwave. “You can’t see the display in this room,” she said. “It’s too bright.” She said that you have to lean in front of the microwave and cup your hands around the display in order to read it. She also mentioned that she can’t see if the food is cooking properly by looking through the door. Instead, she opened the door once during the cooking process to stir and check that it was heating evenly. She pressed the start button 4 times to put time on the clock; every time you press start it adds 30 seconds. She mentions that this is the only way she knows how to operate this microwave.
The next participant, a man perhaps in his thirties, interacts with the microwave in this way.
- Presses the door open button to open the door of the microwave
- Removes the lid from the tupperware to be microwaved
- Sets the lid to the counter to the right of the microwave
- Presses the power button
- Cups his hands around the display and leans in to read it
- Presses the “10 sec/1 min” button twice
- Presses the start button
When the microwave finishes, it beeps three times. The gentleman does not immediately return, and approximately a minute later, it beeps three times again.
The next several participants did not have anything to microwave, but regaled me with their comments. The first was a young man who was eating a sandwich on a baguette purchased from the Uni shop, along with fair trade orange juice. He demonstrated his primary complaint with the microwave by leaning over, cupping his long fingers over the display to see the numbers, a move that is necessary to read the display. He explained that the problem with the display is that it is designed to be read from eye-level, but that was ridiculous since most microwaves sit on worktops, well below eye-level.
His compatriot, another young man, explained his distaste for timer knobs. He described a microwave in which the scale on the timer knob was 5 minutes. “People stop trusting it to tell time,” he said. “It effectively becomes the on button”.
Another young lady said that she always forgets to press the start button. Her microwave at home does not have one, she explained. “I can’t say the number of times I have keyed in the time, gone away, and come back 5 minutes later to find that nothing at all happened.”
The following participant explained that he didn’t know how to control the temperature with this microwave. Instead, he employed this method. He would press start, which microwaves for 30 seconds, then check the dish to see if it was an appropriate temperature. If it was not hot enough, he would press start again and let it microwave for another 30 seconds. He would repeat this process until the dish was hot enough.
A middle aged woman came in to microwave her lunch. She pressed the start button six times, then holds a paper towel in front of the display to read it. When she finishes microwaving her lunch and leaves, she does not successfully close the door of the microwave.
Not all of the participants used the microwave. The first, a man in his mid-twenties, exclaimed, “I don’t use the microwave…I am a weird person. It might just be that I am technologically challenged.”
That gentleman’s sentiments were mirrored by another gentleman perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s, who declared, emphatically, “I never use that blasted box!” I inquired why that was, and he said that initially he and his wife were uncomfortable with the notion of microwave radiation in the kitchen, and so they never had one. He mentioned that on one or two occasions, he attempted to use the microwave in the staff lounge, but “found the interface so non-intuitive as it beggers belief”, and therefore gave up.
The gentlemen having lunch with him nodded in agreement, with one of them adding that an “interface should not need instructions to use.” The other chimed in with a further tidbit of information–apparently knobs when out of fashion in microwave design is that they were a point of mechanical failure in the microwave. When a microwave broke, it tended to be because the coupling in the knob had gone wonky.