Bakwas Design: Microwave Makeover

Remember that one time you wanted to reheat some leftover food at a friend’s place. After standing in front of the microwave oven for a minute, you realize that you do not know how to make the microwave work. But why should it be this difficult? You have operated so many microwave ovens in the past. Wondering whether it is embarrassing to ask for help, you start thinking – Why do microwave ovens across brands have such different controls? Why do different microwave ovens within the same brand have such different controls? Why do I have to relearn the controls from scratch every time I encounter a new microwave oven? Didn’t we send people to the moon in 1969?

With some trial and error, you do figure it out eventually and the memory of this micro-struggle is evoked only when you encounter another strange microwave in the wild.

Deep dive into the history of microwave ovens

In the year 1945, Percy Spencer was testing a military grade magnetron (used in the development of radar) and realized that the peanut cluster bar in his pocket had melted. Intrigued, he ran some more tests with popcorns and eggs and realized this technology could not only pick out enemy aircrafts, but also heat your leftover food. Thus, by the year 1947, the world’s first commercial use microwave was available for the public.

Since then, microwave oven has been a staple addition in almost every kitchen in the developed countries and are considered a must have even in urban settings in developing countries such as India.

Let’s look at some common electronic control systems. For example, if we look at Television controls and its evolution.

TV controls went from being stuck on the side of the television to a lot of buttons on a chunky plastic box to a few buttons on a slim plastic box over the course of seventy years. The technology and design have undergone significant changes every few decades and currently every tv remote has the power button on top, and navigation buttons on the center around an ‘OK’ button. Regardless of how smart the TV is, the remotes do tend to stick to this common pattern for these buttons.

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to spot that there hasn’t been a single disruptive change in how microwave ovens are operated in the last fifty years. Even the incremental improvements in design over 5 decades are not significant.

One may think, ‘that might be because it works well enough.’ That could be true if there was only one model of microwave oven available for purchase in the entire world. But unfortunately, different manufacturers have had completely different ideas about how one should be able to cook, heat, or defrost something. This diminishes the possibility of leveraging mental models that the user already is accustomed to.

What is wrong with the microwave oven interface?

Feature creep

Most of us who have used a microwave oven to heat something have used maybe three buttons out of some fifteen to twenty buttons on the panel – Start, Stop, and Add 30s. But most of the time manufacturers dump more than twenty buttons on the panels so that they can advertise the product as ‘feature heavy’.

Nested Menus

Websites and apps that run on rich, vivid 4K screens find it difficult to implement nested menus properly. And here we have our microwave ovens with seven segment displays trying to do away with nested menus for anything other than the basic reheat or defrost functions. Needless to say this isn’t really working out.

Confusing / Unrelated Control Labels

Many microwave ovens still use extremely technical sounding names for recipes and features. Sometimes it feels like they just slap a random label on the button and hope nobody will ever use it. Would you like to have Idli and IC-4 for breakfast?

Lack of a unified approach to UI design (even within the same brand)
We have two microwave ovens in the office from the same brand, and they both have completely different controls. Even models within the same series have different controls & task flows (like pressing select to confirm in one, and not having to do the same in other)

Touchscreen controls do not provide same feedback as tactile feedback
We noticed that the cheaper microwave ovens have tactile buttons or dials which provide better feedback that a certain control/instruction has been passed. As the price of the microwave oven models increase, the tactile buttons tend to switch to touch screen controls which sometimes do not give any feedback that its being pressed or may be accompanied with a beeping sound.

Lack of visual hierarchy between most used features and power user needs

Uber, according to Microwave UI design principles

We asked around and found that most people use microwave ovens to reheat or defrost food. And we haven’t come across a single model which highlights these buttons very clearly on the control panel.

If we compare this practice to digital products like Uber or Shazam where actions which are most commonly used are displayed loud and clear on the first screen, the lack of any thought behind the button layout design in microwave ovens is obvious.

Can we learn from the past?

We go back to the 1940s again, the famous B-17 bomber plane often described as ‘flying fortress’ had one major issue. It was prone to crash mysteriously during landing. After WW2, Air Force Psychologist Paul Fitts (from Fitts’ Law) and his Aviation Psychologist colleague Alfonse Chapanis investigated the issue and found out the problem.

The controls for the Wing Flaps and Landing Gear looked and felt exactly the same and were positioned close to each other.

This lead to the term ‘designer error’ to be coined for the first time. Today these two controls are distinctively shaped and placed away from each other. The important takeaway from this whole incident is that machines should be designed to adapt to the user needs and not the other way around.

So what can microwave ovens learn from this ? After a fair bit of thinking, we feel that the microwave oven designs can become more user friendly if they follow these 4 principles:

Leverage the user’s mental model

Turn the dial to change your time settings

There are several appliances and products that we use on a daily basis, some of the operations have embedded into our muscle memory like turning a dial clockwise for ‘more’ or looking for the power button on the top or bottom of an interface etc.

In the end, a usable UI is one that aligns with the user’s mental model.

Design for the 80%

Rest State

As soon as you start the appliance, the default option is to reheat something to ‘Hot’, so just put the bowl of food in and press start.


For defrost, the default option would be ‘Room Temperature’, so the appliance calculates the approximate weight and adjusts the heat accordingly.

Provide the right location cues

Location cues

In longer operations like cooking something or baking a cake, the user should be informed about how much steps are left, and where they are right now. It would also be really helpful if the oven can help them prepare for the next step in advance.

Make it a delightful experience

Instead of showing ‘READY’ or ‘DONE’, we can use the better display technologies to add some delightful images or small animations letting the user know the heating or cooking has been completed.



You might also want to check out