Why do most microwaves have such a terrible user interface?

Most microwaves that you find in the store have a user interface that is so terrible, I can only assume that it was designed by a committee of middle managers who don’t even know the meaning of the term “user interface.”

Allow me to explain. Here are a few examples of your typical microwave:

LG Microwave

This LG microwave has 31 buttons. Thirty-one (non-tactile) buttons, when all I want to do with a microwave is heat up food for a specified amount of time..

Talk about overkill.

Jenn-Air Microwave

This Jenn-Air microwave sports 34 buttons. Thirty-four buttons! The microwave in my kitchen at home is a similar Jenn-Air model, also with thirty-four flat, zero-feedback buttons. The vast majority of the time, I use exactly two of these buttons: “Add 30 Sec.” (which also starts the heat) and “Stop / Cancel.” For those of you keeping score at home, that makes 94% of the buttons on my microwave a total waste of space.

Combine an excess of useless buttons with a completely flat surface that has zero tactile feedback, and you’ve basically designed the worst interface possible. Which comes standard on most microwaves. For some reason.

Let’s say I’m watching a movie in the next room over and would prefer not to divert my eyes from the screen and turn on the kitchen lights just to reheat my tea. Too bad. Thanks to the totally flat, non-tactile button style that has somehow become standard on microwaves, coupled with how tiny each button needs to be in order to fit that many buttons on the face of the microwave, hitting the correct buttons to heat your food or drink requires a well-lit room and your full attention.

Thankfully, microwave user interface design is not a completely lost cause… You won’t usually find them on the shelves of your local Sears or Target, but there are some microwaves that manage to avoid “death by mega-button-pad.”

Panasonic Microwave

This is the microwave in the kitchen at my office, the awfully-named Panasonic “NN-SD681S Genius ‘Prestige'” ($180 on Amazon) It’s definitely a step in the right direction, with 14 raised tactile buttons plus a simple knob, but most of the buttons are still completely superfluous. What the heck is “Inverter Turbo Defrost” or “Inverter Melt & Soften”? No doubt some microwave engineer worked long hours coming up with these clever features, but seriously… why?

I don’t need my microwave to “sensor cook” my food. I don’t need it to tell me the time. I don’t need an entire button dedicated to “Pizza Slice” (I kid you not, that is a button on my microwave). I just need it to heat up food for a specified amount of time.

The really strange thing is that things have not always been this dire when it comes to microwave UI. Here’s a typical microwave from the 1970s:

1970s O'Keefe & Merritt Microwave
Source: Ranch Wife

That’s more like it. Two knobs and three nice, big, tactile buttons. It doesn’t get much more simple than that. Okay, well maybe it does…

I have been able to find one currently-available microwave that satisfies my simple use requirement of “heat up food for a specified amount of time” in the most elegant way possible. A microwave that sports a user interface that’s actually an improvement over microwaves of forty years ago, instead of a dozen giant steps backward.

Behold the Sharp 1000W/R-21LC:

Sharp Microwave

One knob. That’s the entire user interface. Zero buttons. Zero fancy-sounding features that never get used. Just turn the knob to the desired time, and the microwave heats the food. Lights blink around the knob to indicate how much time remains. So simple, so elegant. (Although I could do without all the superfluous text.)

I purchased this UI masterpiece at a surplus store, but I have also seen them at a “business” Costco in my area, or you can get it at Amazon for $280.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come in an over-the-range style, so I won’t be able to replace the 34-button monstrosity in my kitchen just yet. For now I’ll have to be satisfied with only having a microwave that’s actually user friendly in the basement, but since that’s where I’m relocating my movie room to anyway, that will do nicely.

[2015 Update]
After this was posted on HackerNews and BoingBoing, some of the commenters on those sites brought up some info worth sharing.

First, a few people complained that I didn’t answer the “why” question in the headline. As it turns out, Reddit user colorimeter addressed that in a recent /r/AskEngineers thread (hat tip to BoingBoing commenter t3knomanser):

Guess what: US appliance controls are all contracted out, and there is very little institutional knowledge that is retained across the designs. … They are mostly pathetic designs, because nobody in the corporate side of this business seems to know what they are doing anymore. The poor sods who do this kind of work are probably some of the most disgruntled engineers out there, since they literally aren’t allowed to do a good job of it.

Also, HackerNews commenter ZeroGravitas pointed out another modern microwave with a clean, simple interface, the Samsung MS23F301EAK/EU:

Samsung Microwave - Two knobs

All-Mail Elections Need to Go

As another Election Day trudges along, I would like to take a few moments to rant about an incredibly stupid aspect of election administration here in Washington State: The all-mail election.

There are actually a number of things that I think are idiotic about the way we run election in this country generally and this state specifically, but for now I’m going to stick to the topic of all-mail ballots. Here are the six reasons that all-mail voting is inferior to polling-place elections, with some totally random “Christian” art thrown in to keep things visually interesting.

1) Your all-mail voting means many voters no longer have a secret ballot.
When multiple voters live together (e.g. husband and wife, older children living at home, etc.), all ballots are mailed to the home and accessible by whoever happens to check the mail. There is literally nothing to stop a controlling husband/father from forcing his electoral preferences on all other members of his household. With physical polling places, this is not an issue since each person goes into the private voting booth alone.

2) All-mail voting encourages participation from people who don’t care.
Super-White Baby JesusGetting off your butt, driving or walking to the nearest polling place, waiting in line, and casting a ballot at a physical polling place requires at least some small degree of “giving a crap.” With all-mail voting, you never even have to leave your house to cast your vote. Frankly, I don’t really want people casting a vote if they can’t be bothered to expend the minimal effort required to go to a polling place twice a year.

3) All-mail voting provides more opportunities for lost, stolen, or damaged ballots.
Ballots are all mailed out on a predictable date, which means anyone whose mailbox is not secure could have their ballot stolen before they even have a chance to fill it out. After you fill your ballot out and drop it in the mail, there’s a chance that it gets lost in the mail and fails to make it to the county elections administrators, or caught in a piece of mail-sorting equipment, rained on, or otherwise damaged to a point where one or more of your votes are unreadable. Granted, this risk is small, but with physical polling places, the risk is zero since you get the ballot, fill it out, and drop it off with election officials all in the same building.

4) All-mail voting allows candidates undue influence “at the polls.”
On the day I received my ballot, my mailbox also contained political ads for two or three candidates running for various local offices. Why should the candidate with the money to send out a mailer and the luck of good timing be allowed to have an advantage like that over his or her opponent? With physical polling places, this is not an issue since candidates are not permitted to campaign or have any campaign materials at the location where people are actually casting their votes.

5) All-mail voting drags out Election Day.
Rapture FantasyWashington State’s current system merely requires that mail-in ballots be postmarked by election day. This means that election officials won’t have all the ballots in-hand to count until days or even weeks after Election Day. We could instead require ballots to arrive at the county election office by Election Day, but then we would risk disenfranchising people whose ballots were somehow delayed in the mail through no fault of their own. With physical polling places, all the ballots can be counted on Election Day, then the election is over.

6) All-mail voting wastes paper.
In addition to the ballot itself, inside the envelope containing my ballot for today’s election, there was a security envelope, a mailing envelope, a small flyer describing new congressional districts, and another listing off ballot drop box locations. Compare this to a physical polling places, where all that needs to be printed is the ballot. Let’s assume that the three envelopes and two small flyers weigh a total of one ounce. Multiply that by the 3,851,274 registered voters in Washington State, and you’re talking about 240,705 pounds (120 tons!) of wasted paper per election.

So, there you go. If I were Secretary of State, one of my top priorities would be to eliminate all-mail voting in Washington. It’s just a bad idea, and the problems it introduces far outweigh any perceived benefits.

P.S. (These arguments should not be construed to be making a case against legitimate absentee ballots. If you aren’t going to be physically present in your voting district on Election Day, or you are physically incapable of traveling to a polling place, you should of course still get to vote.)

PuffTris: Most Insane Tetris Clone Ever

Behold the most insane Tetris clone you will ever play: PuffTris

The more lines you match the more wildly the game board swings around in all three dimensions. It gets even more insane than you can see above, I just didn’t have that good of a game when I was capturing the video.

Another random cool bit about the game: The soundtrack is contained in a file called “pufftris.mod,” which when opened in a music player like Winamp displays the title of the piece as “zaggazogga,” and includes the comment (apparently in Swedish) “NU E DET BROTTOM! Ursäkta för att jag gör detta!” This appears to translate roughly as “NOW, IT’S A CRIME! Excuse me for doing this!” In my book, any game with a soundtrack called “zaggazogga” would be awesome for that reason alone.

I don’t remember where I originally got this game. According to the game’s closing screen it was released in May 1996, and I have had it floating around on various hard drives since high school. When I thought I had lost it in transition between computers, I tried numerous times to locate it on the internet with zero luck, and other than the reference on the game’s closing screen to an entity called “PuffSoft” and the game designer “Jesse,” there aren’t any clues as to who exactly created this game.

[2018 Update]
Some time after I published this post and video, PuffTris appeared online on the website collectingsmiles.com. Here’s the site description:

Collecting Smiles is an independent developer based in Stockholm, Sweden. Collecting Smiles was founded by Jens Andersson in 2007, while on sabbatical from his dual role as Creative and Engineering Lead at Starbreeze Studios in Sweden. He used Collecting Smiles to experiment with new gameplay types and share his findings with the gaming community.

I reached out to Jens on Twitter and confirmed… he is the original creator of PuffTris!

So finally after all these years, I can give credit where it is due to Jens for creating what is still my favorite version of Tetris. Be sure to check out his current game Yoku’s Island Express, coming to PC and consoles later this year.

[End of Update]

Therefore, I present to you here today the apparently world-exclusive, unauthorized re-release of the world’s most brutal Tetris clone:

Be sure to read the README.txt file. Since this game was released sixteen years ago for MS-DOS, the only way I’ve been able to get it to run correctly on a modern PC operating system is by installing DOSBox and running PuffTris through that. The README.txt file has step-by-step instructions on how to get the game running with DOSBox.

PuffTris has always been my favorite Tetris clone. It’s not overtly evil like HATETRIS, just plain insane. Plus the soundtrack isn’t half bad, especially by mid-90s standards.

Anyway, I hope that some of you out there can enjoy PuffTris as much as I have.

PuffTris Screenshot

Can Seattle Support Six Major Pro Sports Teams?

I was reading an article in today’s Seattle Times about a Metropolitan King County Council hearing on the Seattle arena proposal to build yet another sports arena in SoDo, when this bit stuck out to me:

[Councilmember Jane] Hague then wanted to know if the region could support so many teams. Counting the NBA and NHL, as well as the University of Washington football team playing in a new stadium, Councilmember Larry Phillips said the area could have seven major teams. He wondered if any other “midsized major market” supported that many.

“I think this area can support it,” [former Sonics coach Lenny] Wilkens said.

Phillips said he’d want to see a market analysis.

Traditionally the only kind of market analysis I do is for the Seattle real estate market, but once in a while I like to branch out, so I thought I’d give the Council a head start.

To get an idea of how reasonable it might be to have six professional sports teams here in the Seattle metro area, I took a list of the top 30 largest metro areas in the United States and counted up how many pro sports team each metro area currently has. For this analysis, I decided to exclude college sports and just focus on NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, and MLS. Las Vegas is the 30th-largest metro but has no pro sports teams so we’ll leave it off the chart. LA’s Inland Empire (Riverside & San Bernardino Counties, #12 on its own) doesn’t have any sports teams of its own, so I included its population with LA. I’ve also included the San Jose metro area population (#31) with the San Francisco population to better reflect the whole Bay Area.

Here’s the resulting chart, showing where Seattle sits today with four teams (NFL, MLB, WNBA, and MLS):

Number of Professional Sports Teams vs. Metro Population

As you can see, Seattle’s current collection of professional sports teams puts us slightly above the trendline of these 28 metro areas. If we were to add NBA and NHL teams to our roster, it would put us on par with Washington DC, a metro area with 63% more people than Seattle.

[Update: A friend of mine asked for a weighted version of the above chart, where the major sports (NFL, MLB, and NBA) count double. You can view that version here.]

Another informative way to look at this question is in terms of population per team. Here’s a table of that data, showing Seattle’s location with and without two extra teams:

Click on any column header to sort by that column.

Metro Teams Population Pop. per Team
Denver 5 2,599,504 519,901
Seattle (proposed) 6 3,500,026 583,338
San Francisco Bay Area 7 4,391,037 627,291
Minneapolis 5 3,318,486 663,697
Kansas City 3 2,052,676 684,225
Cleveland 3 2,068,283 689,428
Pittsburgh 3 2,359,746 786,582
Phoenix 5 4,262,236 852,447
Seattle (today) 4 3,500,026 875,007
Boston 5 4,591,112 918,222
St. Louis 3 2,817,355 939,118
Tampa 3 2,824,724 941,575
Washington DC 6 5,703,948 950,658
Cincinnati 2 2,138,038 1,069,019
Detroit 4 4,285,832 1,071,458
San Antonio 2 2,194,927 1,097,464
Portland 2 2,262,605 1,131,303
Philadelphia 5 5,992,414 1,198,483
Dallas / Fort Worth 5 6,526,548 1,305,310
Atlanta 4 5,359,205 1,339,801
Chicago 7 9,504,753 1,357,822
Baltimore 2 2,729,110 1,364,555
Miami 4 5,670,125 1,417,531
Houston 4 6,086,538 1,521,635
San Diego 2 3,140,069 1,570,035
New York 11 19,015,900 1,728,718
Los Angeles + Inland Empire 9 17,249,798 1,916,644
Orlando 1 2,171,360 2,171,360
Sacramento 1 2,176,235 2,176,235

At 875,007 residents per local pro sports team, Seattle is already 25% below the 28-city average of 1,174,483. If we were to bring both NBA and NHL teams to our market we would shoot to a full 50% below the average.

It would appear that the answer to Councilmember Hague’s question of whether Seattle can “support so many teams” would appear to be “probably not.”

As for Councilmember Phillips’s question of whether ‘any other “midsized major market”‘ supports six teams, the answer is no. Only five other markets currently have six or more professional sports teams:

  • Washington DC – 6 teams, 63% more people than Seattle
  • San Francisco – 7 teams, 79% more people than Seattle
  • Chicago – 7 teams, 172% more people than Seattle
  • Los Angeles – 9 teams, 393% more people than Seattle
  • New York – 11 teams, 443% more people than Seattle

Not even close.

Obviously a more detailed analysis would take into account incomes, recreational spending patterns, and other factors. That said, we’re obviously not hurting for pro sports teams here in Seattle, relative to the size of our market. So why exactly do we need to spend $200 million in public funds to build a new stadium and bring two new pro sports teams to Seattle?

[Update: Whoa, 164 226 comments and counting on the Seattle Times piece linking to this post. People certainly have strong opinions on this subject!]

[Update 2: …and it’s been posted on the Seattle P-I as well.]

[Update 3]
There have been a number of comments on the Seattle Times piece as well as here on this post about the various other factors that need to be considered when attempting to answer the question of whether Seattle can support six pro sports teams.

Although I did plainly call out that this was just a cursory analysis meant to answer the specific “metro size” questions posed by the Councilmembers, I decided to get the latest Personal Income data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to run a few additional numbers.

Here’s what the first chart looks like if you use Personal Income as the x-axis instead of population:

Number of Professional Sports Teams vs. Metro Population

I made a weighted version of this one, too if you prefer that.

For the non-stats-nerds out there, the R² value on the chart is the coefficient of determination, which is basically a way of measuring how closely correlated two sets of values are. In this case, total Personal Income and number of sports teams are 82% correlated, which is pretty high, and sightly better than the 79% correlation between population and number of sports teams.

And as long as I’m posting an update with incomes, here’s the table version, looking at personal income per local pro sports team instead of population per sports team:

Click on any column header to sort by that column.

Metro Teams $M Income $M per Team
Denver 5 $121,902 $24,380
Cleveland 3 $84,854 $28,285
Kansas City 3 $85,217 $28,406
Seattle (proposed) 6 $176,085 $29,348
Phoenix 5 $152,810 $30,562
Minneapolis 5 $154,479 $30,896
Pittsburgh 3 $103,039 $34,346
Tampa 3 $105,596 $35,199
St. Louis 3 $117,421 $39,140
San Antonio 2 $78,416 $39,208
Cincinnati 2 $84,611 $42,306
Detroit 4 $170,618 $42,655
Seattle (today) 4 $176,085 $44,021
Portland 2 $90,654 $45,327
Boston 5 $253,463 $50,693
Atlanta 4 $208,107 $52,027
San Francisco Bay Area 7 $374,249 $53,464
Washington DC 6 $323,536 $53,923
Dallas / Fort Worth 5 $277,516 $55,503
Philadelphia 5 $281,517 $56,303
Miami 4 $242,278 $60,570
Chicago 7 $435,413 $62,202
Baltimore 2 $133,587 $66,794
Houston 4 $281,842 $70,461
San Diego 2 $143,109 $71,555
Orlando 1 $75,289 $75,289
Los Angeles + Inland Empire 9 $691,121 $76,791
Sacramento 1 $86,943 $86,943
New York 11 $1,028,140 $93,467

At $44,021M in Personal Income per local pro sports team, Seattle is currently 15% below the 28-city average of $51,811M. If we were to bring both NBA and NHL teams to our market we would be at 43% below the average.

Here’s how the five markets with six or more professional sports teams stack up against Seattle in terms of total Personal Income:

  • Washington DC – 6 teams, 84% more income than Seattle
  • San Francisco – 7 teams, 113% more income than Seattle
  • Chicago – 7 teams, 147% more income than Seattle
  • Los Angeles – 9 teams, 292% more income than Seattle
  • New York – 11 teams, 484% more income than Seattle

It would appear that the answer comes out roughly the same when you factor incomes into the equation. Seattle still just doesn’t stack up with the metro areas that have six or more teams.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that I personally don’t really care whether Seattle gets a new stadium and two new teams. I’m neither a sports fan nor a sports hater. I’ve got no horse in this race, and nobody’s paying me to do this basic analysis. I just saw the Councilmembers quotes in the Seattle Times and thought it was an interesting question worth exploring.

Mint.com staff have a reading comprehension problem.

I’ve been a Mint.com user since early 2009. Unfortunately, almost a year ago Mint.com inexplicably stopped supporting Prevail Credit Union, where I keep my main checking and savings accounts, basically making Mint absolutely worthless to me.

Earlier this month, when Prevail announced that they were switching to a new online banking experience, I decided to ask them if this change meant that they would resume support for Mint.

Here’s what I asked Prevail:

I am curious whether this new online banking system that is rolling out tonight will also come with renewed support for Mint.com. If not, are there plans to provide compatibility with Mint.com in the near future?

And here’s the response I got the next day from a Prevail “Member Service Consultant” Crystal B. (emphasis mine):

We would love to offer that service to our members, but unfortunately Mint.com is not compatible with our website because transferring online account information to Mint.com violates our privacy agreement that we have with our web service provider.

Our new online banking system will also not be compatible with Mint.com because Mint.com will not sign a security agreement with our web service provider. Until Mint.com will sign a security agreement or until we move to another platform, Mint.com will not be compatible with our website.

Although I was of course disappointed that Mint would not be supported, I appreciated the prompt and succinct answer from Prevail. Armed with this information, I sent the following message to Mint:

I contacted my Credit Union to ask why Mint was not supported, and they gave me the following response:

“Mint.com will not sign a security agreement with our web service provider. Until Mint.com will sign a security agreement or until we move to another platform, Mint.com will not be compatible with our website.”

If you could please work with my Credit Union to sign the security agreement with their provider, I would really appreciate it. I used to be able to use Mint with these accounts but it stopped working a year or two ago.

Here’s the response I got the next business day from Jeffrey M.:

Thank you for contacting Mint.com.

We’ve been informed by our data provider that Prevail Credit Union is currently blocking our data aggregation efforts. Until the block is lifted, the issue you are experiencing with this account cannot be resolved. We are in the process of working to address this issue.

We apologize for this inconvenience and hope to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.

Have a good day!

Did Jeffrey even read my message? I know that Prevail is blocking Mint. I told him exactly why it is happening, and what the solution is. Totally unsatisfied, I sent the following response:

Hi, did you actually read my message in its entirety? Your efforts are being blocked because “Mint.com will not sign a security agreement with our web service provider.”

You didn’t really answer my question at all, which was “could [you] please work with my Credit Union to sign the security agreement with their provider.”

If you guys sign the agreement, my credit union will stop blocking you, and everyone can be happy.

Here’s what Jeffrey responded with about an hour ago:

Our apologies for the inconvenience.

Our Engineering team are still working on this issue. Please be advised that it may take time to fix the issue. We will keep you posted on any updates. Sorry for the frustration this has caused.

Have a good day!


EARTH TO JEFFREY. Hello? Is anyone at Mint actually reading these emails?

This is not an engineering problem. All that needs to happen is for Mint’s lawyers to call up Prevail’s lawyers, and sign a security agreement. How hard is it to read the words I am writing to you and give me a straight answer to my question?

Too hard, apparently.