I bet you didn’t know a microwave could spark so much creativity!
One benefit of designing consumer products is that you can read reviews on the internet. Reviews (both good and bad) can be very helpful in the design process. Just be careful not to rely solely on reviews as people can be quite biased, especially in an industry full of heavily branded products.
I spent the last 30 minutes browsing the reviews of Whirpool microwaves to get my brain ticking about your question.
I like to read reviews on at least three different sites, as some sites really skew the reviews that they show to consumers.
Here are some of the top complaints:
- “lightbulb under the microwave is hard and confusing to change”
- “handle broke off microwave door”
- “the magnetron failed”
Here are some of the most common compliments:
- “looks really good in my kitchen”
- “great product… had it for years”
- “always been a quality product”
Now some of these reviews are quite understandable given the product (a microwave) in question. With that said, some of these stand out as great opportunities (or problems) for better design.
Every good design starts with a good problem. Designers often come up with a problem statement to base their research and ideation off of.
Let’s create two problem statements based on our current knowledge.
Problem #1: The handle breaks off of the microwave door after people pulling on it so much.
Problem #2: It’s hard to change the light bulb because I have to bend over and look up. It requires tools that I don’t have and I no longer know where the instruction manual is.
Let’s take it a step further with problem #2.
Now that we have a problem statement lets ask some “why” questions that may help us to ideate possible solutions.
Remember at this stage we can’t be judgmental. No question is a stupid question. We’re just going to keep asking “why” to dig deeper into the problem(s).
- Why does changing the lightbulb frustrate me?
- Why does changing the lightbulb have to require tools?
- Why is there a lightbulb under the microwave?
- Why does the user need instructions to change the lightbulb?
- Why does the lightbulb have to burn out?
- Why do I have to crouch down to change the lightbulb?
- When will the lightbulb go out again?
It’s also our job as designers to come up with features based on user observations, usability testing, and our own experiences. Things that may not ever be requested by consumers.
Steve Jobs was famously quoted saying “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Another favorite quote of mine is from Henry Ford. He stated,
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Here are some of my thoughts as I sit here and ponder microwaves.
One thing that drives me crazy about microwave design is the non-standardization of the buttons. I understand that competitors may want to have a different interface, but if you compare 50 whirlpool microwaves, many of them would be different layouts, sizes, styles, and so on. Why is this?
Imagine if you were challenged with a different keyboard layout every single time you used a different brand of computer. I know I would be very frustrated.
I also hate that the start and stop buttons never stand out on microwaves. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve spent so much time in a woodshop, but I wish microwaves had colored buttons like machinery. Green for start. Red for stop.
Now some people may argue that a microwave wouldn’t look good with bold green/red buttons. I would have to agree with them. After browsing microwave reviews you’ll see that most customers rave about how good the microwave’s facade looks in their kitchen.
Hmmm… what if the start and stop buttons lit up green/red every time you opened the microwave to use it? Maybe 30 seconds after the timer goes out the glow would disappear?
Here are some other things that really frustrate me as I reflect on my experiences with microwaves. All of these are areas of opportunity for better design.
- Some microwaves ventilation exits at the top of the microwave coating the cabinets above it with a layer of sticky residue.
- I find myself always microwaving the same few things. I wish it knew I was heating up a glass of hot water for tea at 7 am every morning. What if it recommended the same timer as I opened up the door?
- I wish I could customize the “quick” buttons.