Addicted to novelty since 2001

Laundry, Chicken, iTunes and Levels of Abstraction in User Interface Design

Last month I was at my friend’s place in France, doing some laundry. Her washing machine lit up like a cheap stereo, which struck me as awesomely French.

There was a dial on her washing machine with big numbers like 3000, 6000 and 1200. I believe these were measures of ‘tr/min’ (as per this photo of a washing machine brand called ‘Malice’). Is that ‘tour’, the French word for ‘turn’? It doesn’t really matter–I assumed it referred to revolutions per minute.

I was baffled as to what to set the machine for, and craved some less specific settings like “linen”, “wool” or “super-wash”. I’ve been doing laundry for over 20 years, and have no idea what speed the average washer barrel revolves at.

Is Five Right for Chicken?

Fast-forward to our villa here in Gozo. We’ve got a great gas range. Here are the controls for the oven:

Oven Settings

That’s a timer on the left, and the temperature setting on the right. As you can see, you set the oven to a temperature between 1 and 8.

Here I have the reverse problem. I want less abstraction–I just want to set the damn thing to 375° to bake some chicken.

Set It to Totally Awesome, Please

The lesson is that my (and possible other’s) preferences change from device to device. I want more abstraction in my washing machine than my stove.

This is also true of software. iTunes has this hilarious setting called ‘Sound Enhancer’. It’s on a slider, and the online help says I can use this setting to “add depth and enliven the quality of your music”.

Why would anybody set this to ‘Low’? Why even bother with something called a ‘sound enhancer’? Why not just set it to ‘Totally Awesome’ under the hood and get rid of the user setting altogether?

On the other hand, I want really granular control when converting WAV to MP3–probably more control than iTunes offers out of the box.

The right approach, I think, is to organize the settings in noob-journeyman-expert groups, enabling users to remove layers of abstraction if they want. That’s easy enough in software, but far trickier in the kitchen and laundry room.

5 Responses to “Laundry, Chicken, iTunes and Levels of Abstraction in User Interface Design”

  1. Will

    The gas is called “Gas Mark”. There should be a conversion table somewhere on the net for Gas Mark to degrees F or C

  2. JohnB

    Yeah, 5 (375F) is the one you’re looking for but most of my recipes would set it to gas mark 4 (350F).

    You have missed one of the truly mouthwatering statements on television: Nigella Lawson telling you to set your oven to gas mark 5. (Google Videos is your friend.)

  3. Where Did Large Go?

    […] background in technical writing has apparently made me highly sensitive to how devices and control mechanisms are labeled. I always get a little perturbed when technology […]

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