Patterns Determine Decisions (microwaves are EVIL!!!!)

This is Day 7 of 30 Days of Integrated Assistance.



Rush hour

Have you ever noticed that when you do something regularly, you develop a pattern? Yeah, I know, I’m a genius, but think about it. You build habits and routines. You take the same exit on your way to work. You drive the same route.


Sometimes you might rethink your route, but you’re in the minority if you do that. I know you’re in the minority, because if it wasn’t a vast minority, then all my driving shortcuts I take during traffic… wouldn’t work.


When I want to go from the 520 west to the 405 south and the onramp to the 405 south is backed up, then I drive past it, I get off on the next exit, I get back on the 520, but I head east. And then I take that onramp onto the 405 south, and I bypass all the traffic of everyone from Redmond and Bellevue trying to go south.


Yes, I’m giving you my driving secrets. It’s probably not the best idea, but I might as well, after all, Bruce Willis dies at the end of a movie.


Scenario #2: I want to take the 148th Street off-ramp into Eastgate from 90 east. During rush hour, if I get off the most direct off ramp then it might take me half an hour to get past the first light. However, if I go past that off-ramp and take the next one (so that I’m heading north instead of south like I want), then I can take a loop and get back to where I’m going in the matter of minutes (one tenth the time).



Everyone follows the flow

Traffic affects my decisions, but more importantly, I have to fight what comes naturally in order to do something else (to find the faster route). Everyone is going in the same direction; that’s why these tricks work.


And the same thing goes for using software. Most people have a pattern in mind of how they want to use the software. And the pattern isn’t necessarily based on what’s usable or even the most productive. The pattern is based on what they already know.  Let’s look at some examples.


Bing Search

I’ve mentioned Bing before, but basically Bing started out with its own unique design (as Live Search). They wanted to make sure it was different than other designs. However, after a lot of research, they realized that people wanted Google. They wanted it to look and feel like Google, and they gave reasons for every aspect (color, layout, spacing, etc.). You could argue that Google had done research and found the perfect design and layout or you could simply say that people were used to Google, and they didn’t want to learn something new when they were comfortable with what they have (the truth is likely a combination of both).



Microsoft Surface

Microsoft Surface can detect over a hundred contact points (versus the one or two on most devices and screens). You can have several people put all their fingers on the surface and interact with it simultaneously.


Despite that great feature, we noticed a problem. The problem was that most people touched the screen with a single finger. They tapped and they dragged, all with one finger. And that was the extent of what they’d try to do if they weren’t prompted. So the concept of scaling something with two fingers took a little more prompting for most people. And then more advanced gestures took a lot of prompting and some clear instructions.


So why was this concept not natural? We argued that it was natural to do these gestures since we modeled the gestures and the look and feel of the interface after real-life objects that we interacted with. Yet we still encountered that same problem.


First of all, it’s your computer’s fault. Face it; your computer has only one mouse. You click it, and you can drag with it. Your computer has taught you to interact with a single contact point and only two possible interactions: click and drag (also right-click, but that’s a little harder to associate with fingers). So people who have used a mouse were likely to start interacting with one finger.


Who were the people who were most likely to interact with multiple fingers and multiple hands? Children. While part of the reason for this is their inhibition to caring about rules or understanding that rules exist, a big part of it was simply that they weren’t already taught to use only one finger.


To make matters a little worse, iPhone has continued to drive the one-finger concept home (although non-iPhone users still had the same problem).




Who designs microwaves?

Have you ever noticed that microwaves are confusing? Most microwaves have just enough consistencies to lull you into comfort and complacency, only to throw you way off course and mock your expectations openly. This usually isn’t a problem if you only use one microwave, but if you use many microwaves, then this can become frustrating. Let me give you an example.


I was waiting to use a microwave (there was a line), but the line was long. So I announced that I was going to upstairs and use the one there (why I announced it out loud, I’m not sure; maybe I’ve been around four-year olds too much). Before I left, my friend warned me that the microwave didn’t work. He said that it appeared to turn on, but the power wasn’t working because it didn’t cook the food. I remembered using that microwave before, and it worked then, so I decided to risk it and get the exercise of climbing a flight of stairs (I’m told it’s good to climb four floors of stairs a day for health reasons).


So I went up to the floor above me. As I expected, there was no line. I used the microwave without problems, and then I returned back down to announce my success (once again, I blame children for my desire to announce things). As I got back down I explained to my friend what I’m about to explain to you now (the emotion you’re feeling right now is anticipation or something else)…


The microwave on the lower floor was the one we were used to using. Below the digital keypad and to the left is an annoying Timed Cook button. It’s annoying because you have to press it every time you want to enter the time that you want your food to cook. So that means we press it every time. It’s a useless button and not all microwaves force you to push it. But ours does. =^)


However, the microwave on the floor above ours had a different button in the EXACT same location as the Timed Cook button that we’re used to. And do you know what it says? It says “Timer” on it. And if you’re not reading the microwave (or aren’t wearing your glasses in my friend’s case), then “Timer” looks a LOT like “Timed Cook.” So essentially he had set the timer and put his food in the microwave. So that’s why it never cooked (the woman waiting for her food to cook smiled amusingly while I explained all this).


And this is NOT an isolated event! Sometimes I can never find two microwaves that are exactly alike. I’ve gotten used to having no expectations when using a microwave and having to stare at it first before I use the thing! I do. It’s like a checklist:

(1)    Is there a Timed Cook or similar button? Scour entire interface.

(2)    If so, press it, and then press the desired minutes.

(3)    If not, press the minutes instead.

(4)    Scour the entire interface to find the Start button (it seems to not be in the same place that often).

(5)    If I need to stop the microwave, scour the interface for the Clear or Cancel button (which is not named the same thing on many microwaves and sometimes isn’t even next to the Start button).

I’ve decided that microwave designers are either evil or microwave Marketing is evil, and they somehow convinced designers that a different button layout is important for branding purposes. Oh, and I also decided that they don’t research their designs (or if they do, then their research shows that every microwave is already different and so there’s no consistent option that enough people are already used to).


Can’t they band together and form standards? Please????? After all, if the elevator industry managed it, so can the microwave industry! (Read my evaluation about the usability of elevators.) 




Go with the easy win

So how do we apply this to the experiences we make today? Simple.


If we figure out what our users are already using and used to, then we can adhere to that same sense of design and usability. Everybody wants to be different, but look at the microwave example above. Different can be confusing. Make it pink, but don’t move buttons into confusing locations. Make the interactions similar to what we’re used to, and then we won’t need to be taught as much how to use it.


I often say that the job of User Education is to accurately and truthfully document a process to show how confusing and difficult it actually is. When the difficulty is made obvious, a need for improvement is also made obvious.



May you not confuse your customers and send them driving off the bridge of despair for the sake of design and uniqueness (and if you design microwaves, may you repent of your evil deeds),


- User Ed


This is Day 7 of 30 Days of Integrated Assistance.


Comments (7)

  1. JonnyBoats says:

    Perhaps the problem is not the hardware, past experience or even users expectations?

    After all, the Kinect is doing quite well and do you know anyone who uses a single finger to interact with a Konnect? (Other than the execs at Apple and Sony who wish they had thought of it 😉

  2. John,

    Well, it's user expectations. So the Microwave problem ocurred because one microwave put the "Timer" button in the same place that the "Timed Cook" button was, and we were pre-programmed to push the "Timed Cook" button in that location.

    With Surface and touch screens, we already teach users to engage with one point of contact via the mouse.

    Kinect is something new and great. They marketed it by showing full body movement. Users perceive it as something new, and all they have to compare it with is Wii motion controllers.

    There are similarities and differences to the issues of Surface and touch computing. One similarity is that I don't see people trying to use multiple fingers with Kinect (nor does it really support that). People use single hands and fists to move things, which is much like using a mouse. I don't see people using two hands in Kinect much, unless they are dancing or punching. I don't really see a lot of multi-hand gestures being needed. It's usually big things like sway right, jump, or put your hands in the air. And often they just copy what they see the character on the screen doing.

    So I think the reason why Kinect seems to have no problems (or far less) is that the designers took their limitations into consideration. Kinect is a win when it comes to Integrated Assistance. They don't rely on customers to use complicated gestures that the customers don't know about. Like any videogame, they do/will feature in-level tutorials to get players accustomed to new "moves."

    And Kinect deserves mad props. They are ahead of the game of Nintendo, Sony, Apple, Windows, and Microsoft hardware. It's a catch up and improve game, and Microsoft Kinect is now at the lead. (You had a great point about that.)

    (In the console games industry, Nintendo originally had the lead spot with the NES and SNES and in more recent years took it back from Sony with the Wii. Then Kinect just helped Xbox 360 take the lead in innovation. I was actually surprised to see Kinect showcased at E3 without any real competition from Nintendo and Sony. Now it's their turn to catch up.)

    Thanks for this great thought. Let me know if you have any other Kinect thoughts.

    – User Ed

  3. Luiz Henrique Lima Campos says:

    Congratulations for your blog, very good.

    A hug.


    Luiz Henrique Lima Campos

  4. Brian Tkatch says:

    Robert B. Cialdini's "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" talks about automatic decisions and how they are nearly required. Whether expectations or what we are used, we ultimately want that which requires little effort *unless* we *want* to put in extra effort. There's a special pleasure in that which requires extra effort, if it's my passion.

    The user experience is not aiming towards taking over your life. Indeed, it is to try to keep in the background as much as possible. And that relies on what people are used to.

  5. danishani says:

    I had great fun reading this! Cheers 🙂

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  7. r-girl says:

    I rally like reading throough an article that can make men and women think.
    Also, hank you for allowing me to comment!

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