Design Critique: Sunbeam Microwave Oven


I care very little about advanced features on a microwave. If it were solely up to me, I would not own a microwave, but I lost that battle. I chose this particular one almost solely based on aesthetics–it was the right size for a small piece of countertop in my kitchen, and it all but receded into the black counters so it wasn’t such an eyesore. Since it’s here, I use it to melt or soften butter and set a kitchen timer. That’s about it. In both of these tasks, I encounter a few design issues.

Design Problem #1: Poor mapping and feedback for power level control

Anyone who has put butter in a microwave realizes that it’s all too easy for it to go from frozen to molten in a matter of seconds. If I’m looking to soften butter, say for a recipe that calls for room temperature butter, but I’ve forgotten to take it out of the refrigerator earlier in the day, I often try to microwave it at a very low power setting in small increments, to soften it. To change the power setting, the task starts off simply enough – there is decent visibility for this function, given that there is a Power button (but don’t try to press it before you’ve entered the desired cooking time, as you’ll just get beeped at – this is an additional design flaw, in that this constraint serves no obvious purpose and the feedback from trying to operate the microwave in this order, two loud beeps, tells the user nothing helpful as to why it isn’t working). Once the user enters a time and presses the Power button, the display changes to “100,” but there is poor mapping as to how to change the setting. My first instinct would be to look for a +/- button to increase or decrease the power. In reality, the user must infer that the number displayed correlates to percentage, and use the number pad to punch in a new power level. The user should then press Start, and the cooking time begins, with the display showing a countdown. Nowhere on the display does the power level show, however, which is slightly worrisome to me, as I feel I can’t be sure if the new power setting really took. Furthermore, the next time someone goes to use the microwave, it would be helpful to see whether the power setting reverts to 100% or stays at its previous setting.


  1. A few additional indicators on the initial screen once the Power button is pressed would be helpful. A small percent sign (%) next to the numbers would make the setting clearer and make it more obvious that the user is to punch in a new percentage.
  2. Provide feedback after power level has been changed! Simply put a small field in the corner of the display that indicates the power level for the current cook time. This would allow the user to see that their action of changing the power level was successful, but also to see that power level reverts to 100% for the next cooking session, so that no butter is unintentionally melted, instead of softened, in the process.


Design problem #2: Poor feedback on the timer function

As with the power setting function, this timer function starts off simply enough. Once the Timer button is pressed, the display changes and prompts the user to enter a time desired. It is then intuitive enough to press Start. However, once the timer has been running for 5 seconds, the timer display disappears and reverts to the Clock, with no indication that the timer is running. Almost every time I use the timer, I set it and then come back less than a minute later, thinking, “Oh no, I forgot to press Start!” (which is usually untrue) and not knowing how much time has elapsed. If the user wishes to check the timer, they must press Timer again, which will display the time remaining for another 5 seconds. If the Timer button is pressed twice, out of frustration for example, the Timer resets and prompts a new time, which cancels out the old timer.

SOLUTION: Once the timer is set, leave the time remaining on the display screen. This will provide adequate visibility to the task being carried out, and will prevent the frustration of resetting the timer inadvertently.