Saturday, November 24, 2018

User Interface

I finally bit the bullet and used my oven yesterday.

I actually have used this oven before, but it must have been ten years ago. It intimidates and frustrates me because a) the oven's conceptual categories don't match mine and b) the crucial feedback mechanism -- the little register that tells you the "phase" and reports the temperature setting -- is so dim that it can only be read -- if it's nighttime -- by switching off all the lights in the house and crouching down close to it. In daytime it can't be read at all.

So Martha and I sat down and read the owner's manual, the other day. We searched for a way to embrighten the register, but no luck. But at least I got over the conceptual stumbling blocks. It had seemed to me that, having set a "preheat" temperature and attained it, you should then proceed to set the baking time, using the "bake" button. Because now you're going on to the "bake" phase, capiche? That's what we're doing here, we're baking something. But the oven doesn't think that way. There is a "preheat" button. What it does is bring the oven up to a certain temperature, 350 degrees by default, and it leaves it there. Fair enough. Then there is a "bake" button. What this does -- so far as I can tell -- is go straight to whatever behavior will maintain the oven indefinitely at the set temperature. "I'm now baking at 350," the oven says to itself, even though it's sitting there at 70 degrees. After a while it will get there, but it won't ever engage the upper element to do so. And once it achieves 350, it will stay there forever. So it's very, very like the "preheat" button, and I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would ever use it. "Heat up to 350, but be slow about it!" Whatever.

So my first real conceptual difficulty was my conviction that, since I was setting out to bake something, I should at some point press the "bake" button. I have cleared that away. In the ordinary course of things I will never touch the "bake" button at all, unless what I want to do is reduce the heat. (I suspect I could use the "preheat" button for that as well, though I haven't run the experiment.)

My second conceptual difficulty was my naive belief that the oven would not let me turn it on for perpetuity. Surely it would turn itself off, by default, after a day, or three days, or something? Not a bit of it. Here we probably run into Things That People Do With Ovens that are beyond my ken: food drying maybe? Anyway, it ain't so. Once it achieves its heat, it will stay there forever, until the stars burn out. If you want to limit the time it will stay on, you use the "bake time" button, and then set the time using the up and down arrow buttons. The time set will appear in the amber lights that cannot be read in daytime, just as the temperature does. It goes up or down in 5 minute increments. To turn off the oven -- which seems to me to be a pretty fundamental oven command -- you push the "cancel" button. Cancel? Really? In what world does "cancel" mean "off"?

I write this all out -- recognizing that it must be tedious reading -- in order to fully wrap my mind around it. It's deeply counterintuitive, to me. And it makes me grateful for the innumerable good user interfaces I use every day. I don't often encounter an interface, any more, that isn't immediately understandable. It also drives home how bad it is, for the user, to not have an immediate response to every command, a way to know it was received and understood. In theory, knowing that every press of the "up" button increases the heat by five degrees, or the time by five minutes, should suffice. In practice, not being able to see the temperature or time induces real anxiety, anxiety strong enough to have kept me from using the thing for years. 

Anyway. I baked some chicken thighs and potatoes, and they were good. A great leap forward. From the stovetop to the profundities beneath. New worlds.


Joanne Noragon said...

Intuitively speaking then, it has not lied to you.

Murr Brewster said...

This, from a man who probably got used to pushing the "start" button to turn off the computer twenty years ago.

Catherine E said...

I got a kick out of this! I cook a lot and I still fight with the oven controls. I also have the “Cancel” button. The Bake button and the Timer button interact in some obscure way that I haven’t figured out, ending up with food sitting in a cold oven. The clock is broken and cannot be repaired, so the screen shows random numbers but they are at least bright enough to read....Dreaming of a world with a really usable stove/oven interface! (And why is it called a “range”? Can’t bring myself to use that word!)

Sabine said...

Congratulations! I count this as a massive achievement.

We just pulled the plug/fuse in a similar situation, far too impatient we were with poorly translated instruction booklets. But then, our oven has an alarm sound that will wake semi comatous people three doors down. For reasons we fail to understand, this alarm started to go off at all hours completely on a whim. The battle continues.

Bread has been baked though.

Dale said...

Heh. Remind me to tell you the story, Murr, of a friend of mine, also long-term sophisticated high tech, and I, trying to turn on the Windows computer of an absent friend to perform some chore or other.

We crawled around under the table among the cords for the longest time, totally baffled. Half an hour maybe. Finally my friend said, "Huh. I wonder if it could possibly be turned on *from the keyboard*?

And we looked at each other with a wild surmise.

(We were both old Unix lags. We'd never heard of such a thing. In our world, you always pushed a button on the tower. Keyboards? Keyboards were just peripherals!)

Dale said...

Catherine, I have similar dislike for the word "range," but I guess it's centuries old. I guess so-called because it provides a range of cooking spots, both oven and stovetop?

I hope you solve the mysteries of bake and time eventually!

Dale said...

Sabine -- our stove is well-behaved in the sounds it makes, thank God! Our dryer, on the other hand, if you're careless enough to press its wrinkle-guard button, will wake the dead, at five minute intervals, all night long, or until you come to turn it off.