Please, Don’t Over-Engineer My Toast!

Geek Culture

This post is about user interface design, but it’s going to take me a while to get there. Please be patient.

When I got married in 1993, my wife and I received three presents that really went above and beyond the usual wedding fare:

  1. Cousin Skipper gave us a porcelain umbrella stand that was a thoughtful and unique addition to our home.
  2. My buddy Jeff gave us Black Bart, a diminutive charcoal grill, perfect for a romantic picnic.
  3. Aunt Debbie gave us a Black & Decker toaster oven. You might think this is a classic wedding gift, but this one was extraordinary.

I did not fully appreciate the toaster oven, because it just worked. It didn’t get in our way, and it did what it was supposed to do. Furthermore, it lasted more than seven years of, as my wife says, “vigorous use.” When we finally had to replace it, I realized that no other toaster oven available had the same simple, sensible user interface.

Our wedding toaster oven had one knob and one switch. And the switch only turned the oven on–you would either open the door to turn it off, or it would turn off by itself when your toast was finished. Furthermore, when you opened the door, it automatically pulled out the rack for you, which made it easier to put stuff in or take it out. When the kids were little, before they started eating everything in their path, my wife and I were able to use this capable little machine to prepare baked chicken, London Broil, or even toast for our little family. I can’t find a photograph online (shocking!) so here is a simple drawing.

Here is a close-up of that single knob.

Notice how you can toast, bake, or broil with this one knob. You just turn it to what you want to do, then press the switch to start it up. Simple, right?

Now, compare that with our current machine, or indeed almost every toaster oven currently on the market.

Photo: Black & Decker

What’s that? Three knobs? Why? It doesn’t do any more, it just has more controls.

It’s easy to guess how this happened. Here are two likely scenarios:

  1. The multifunction knob was more expensive to make than three simpler knobs, so some yutz executive decided it was more important to make toaster ovens cheaply than to make them right.
  2. Some yutz in marketing did a focus group and concluded that people perceive that the toaster oven is better if it has more controls.

Clearly, a yutz was somehow involved.

Today’s User Interface Booby Prize, therefore, goes to the toaster oven manufacturers of the world, who had a good thing and blew it.

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