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What A Toaster Teaches You About The Future Of User Interfaces

Michael Meyer’s toaster may not have a touch-screen interface or retina display, but it’s got the right personality and set of behaviors—a lesson worth learning for all products.

The current model of good interaction design has run its course. Users have come to expect the rich, fluid, high-bitrate presentation and the direct manipulation and gestural interface control, as enabled by the latest generation of smartphones and tablets. For devices whose economics can support the internal parts cost required to deliver it, this style of interaction is simply table stakes. But while all product interactions need to be thoughtfully designed, rich screen-based interactions may not be the best direction. In fact, they are often just plain wrong.

Even when it comes to the most sophisticated forms of technology, personality, behavior, and emotions often have more of an impact on a user than screen-based interactions. Body language is tremendously compelling; we pick up on it faster and trust it more implicitly than any other language. In one of my current projects, a robot that interacts intensively with people, our team has come to understand that people’s ability to read the status and intent of the robot at a distance and on the fly is far more important than the screen-focused interactions that the technology supports.

In lower-tech products, where rich screen-based interaction is not economically viable, thoughtful design of personality and behavior can be the critical differentiator that captures both market share and a price premium.

For example, our Breville toaster is the most beloved appliance in my home. It speaks to me in a natural language. I can tell it I want to "lift and look" at the toast without losing its place in the process, and it knows how to toast "a bit more." Upon pressing "start," a row of lights fade in above the toastiness control, and they count down the time until done, so I know when to expect the toast to rise up from its slot. When it does these things, it does so calmly, almost with an air of expertise, like a person, rather than a machine. And it makes damn fine toast.

Most important, the toaster doesn’t need a graphics-processing unit and retina display to achieve this effect. The thoughtful coordination of silkscreened text, hard buttons, LEDs and geared motors, tied together with a very simple brain, gives the device a personality and set of behaviors that are actually more appropriate than a smartphone display, at a cost that does not require a data service plan to be economically viable. Certainly, it is more expensive to produce than an average toaster, but it also commands a 45% premium over competing good-looking-but-dumb-acting toasters. And it sells very well.

This approach of designing behaviors and personalities, rather than transactional screen interactions, offers an opportunity for products at both ends of the price spectrum to differentiate themselves from their competition. Like all things worth doing, it is tough. These personalities and behaviors will be different for each product, will draw upon unique modes of expression, and will require that we rethink our mainstream criteria of good interaction design. But the companies that can get it right will be the leaders in a new era of interactions and experiences.

[Image: tihis/Shutterstock]

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  • 4prongpitchfork

     ps..correction......*3  Requires automatic downloadable AI LCWU(Latest Current Word Use)interpreter and substitution codec

  • 4prongpitchfork

    Hmm, you must have missed the memo...

    Focus group feature want list
      Bread loaf storage unit....check
      Loaf detector...check
      Automatic loaf packaging removal and waste compactor....check
      Automatic Loaf insert loading cover and tray.....check
      Automatic moisture detection feedback circuit...check
      Automatic Slice Insert  ...check
      Automatic Insert alignment laser...check
      Automatic Lifter with sonic notification software and library selection via Smartphone ....check
      Automatic time span/heat adjustment feedback circuit ...check
      Cordless power ...................check
      Internal Mic.............check
      Upgradable CPU path
      Language interpreter......check
      Toast definition library and ...................check
      Library update USB port/flash drive  downloadable
      Mold detector/destroyer............... check( note see *2)
      Bread ID/Production date/and Use licence QR code reader.............check
      Heat coil proximity laser...check
      Texture analyser.....check
      Automatic molecular density overide...check
      Pantone color comparer feedback circuit with automatic dye applicator per Standards( ASME)...check
      Kitchen appliance network Cat6.1 port interfaced with Appliance Wifi network* ...check
      Appliance Language interface  ...check
      Artificial Intelligence self test circuit...check
      Sonic feedback detector(note..requires AI interface for language detection/analysis for cognitive                                                   obcenity filter response....check
      Self cleaning instruction set/ with internal video feedback interface and Standards comparer.*
      Fail self destruct initiator and  self waste remover...check
      Self diagnostic analyser with network interface for Corporate Product improvement oversight                 commitee analysis...see (*)  ....check

      (*) Upgrade path for dominant audio/video compression standards, MPEG and VCEG must be included in Codec package....check
      (*)2 Requires approval stamp per Healthy Fitness Zone (HFZ) Standards -....check

  • m1chelle

    The smartest toaster I've ever seen was just like my regular $30 toaster except that it had a clear panel so I could actually see when my toast was toasted to the right degree and pop it up then. Brilliant. 

  • Dave

    I was quite interested to read this article from the heading, but I have to totally disagree. This toaster is another prime example of an over designed, over engineered, and over complicated product. The fundamental principal of what a toaster is required to do has long been forgotten by so many companies. And this is a great example of that. Applying layers of features and functions to such a fundamentally simple product is a recipe for a short life span as inevitably, something will fail, and it will not be cost effective to repair. 

    These user interfaces can be applied in easier, simpler, cheaper and far more effective ways. For a start, just looking briefly at the photo and without being able to read the labels on each of those 5 buttons, I have no idea what they do. I can only assume one is an 'on' button and one is a 'lift' button. What do the other 3 do, and more importantly, why? The slider is the only recognisable and obvious control that has a become common feature, that anyone can understand and relate to, and does not need a label.

    How and why this is being compared to smartphone interfaces I have no idea. This is a completely different product and smartphone touch screen interfaces are irrelevant. If you are going to make comparisons, at least compare it to something relevant to the subject.

    To label this as a 'smart' toaster compared to those 'dumb-acting' ones is exactly the problem here. Making products 'smarter' and more 'clever' is exactly why so many people get confused when trying to understand how to use it. In the case of a toaster it should be simple and easy to understand. You shouldn't have to learn how to use a toaster (i.e. read all the buttons to know what they do), you should be able to instantly understand the product and interact with it. Those 'dumb-acting' toasters are probably easier to use, and isn't that the point of good user interface?

    The only thing this article teaches, is how the future of user interfaces should NOT be designed.

  • Tony Camilli

    Great article, but upon reading it I had to laugh light heatedly, and disagree. Recently I was looking at our own toaster (and reminiscing about every toaster I've ever owned) and thought "this is the epitome of failed design.". What have we all been taught from an early age? Don't stick a fork/knife/etc. into the toaster to remove the bread. Why would anyone do this in the first place? Because fundamentally, most toasters are poorly designed and don't extend the bread far enough. If toasters had a proper user interface, users would have never resorted to potentially dangerous work arounds to design inefficiencies.

  • John Eaton

    Exclusivity. Uniqueness. Relevance. Appeal. Some of the myriad attributes that get baked into a "designing behaviors and personalities" approach. Design can do so much, or so little, depending on the intent. More premium sales? Yep. A smile when it's "behaving" to make your toast? Yep. Not seeing that these are mutually exclusive outcomes. There is literally something out there for everyone.

    I personally appreciate the design...even if a bit over the top for toast. Not sure the interface (presumably coupled with reliable, high-quality operation) is worth it...but I also recall Christensen's comment that consumers want to "hire" a product to do a job...I believe this goes back the notion of listening to the customer, and let them decide how much to pay.

    Fun stuff on this site. Keep it up!

  • Edmundo Ortega

    Seems like 5 buttons and a slider is a bit overkill for a toast making interface. Old toasters had one control (the toast lever) which was self-explanatory, connected visually and mechanically to the function it performed, and did the job well most of the time. Then toasters got fancy and added a dial for darkness. Two controls that pretty much handle everything you'd want to control with toast. Everything else seems like marketing or edge case scenario design. I look at a toaster with 5 buttons, a slider, and multiple multi-color LEDs and think, man, at 6am, I don't want to deal with some UX designer's overthunk interface just to make my toast.


    Thank you very much for your article.

    I have a TEFAL toaster with the same features and I really like it!

  • Pawel Czarny

    2 bad (unsustainable) bread is the platform. Give us some new kick-ass design stuff for healthy foods instead :]

  • Anon

    At least provide sources for your statements...and please stop generalizing and stating your opinion as the only truth.

    Does it really sell "better"? Than what products in which market? Numbers?
    What is the price? How much more expensive is it? How much do you pay for those "features" compared to the "dumb toasters", you mentioned.

    Looks to me like the retailprice is something around 129$ in the US. So you pay 100-120$ for a few buttons that talk to you in understandable language?

    Compared to a state of the art phone THIS price/value-ratio makes it really seem very overpriced.

    Anf furthermore...who the hell on earth is overchallenged by toasters?

  • Eric Trouserbeast

    You're a butthead, Anon. This is a story about what the user interface teaches us - not everything needs a display. It is not an article about the price-to-value of a toaster compared to a smartphone. 

  • saidas

    I for one, can't wait until someone develops a Smartphone app that makes proper toast!

  • Nathan Hornby

    Also, interesting article.  Although my experience with toasters would tell the opposite story; providing a fantastic benchmark of everything that's wrong with user experience.  I'd put them right up there with office phones.

  • Nathan Hornby

    I've been looking for a toaster to compete with the Dualit 4 slot for a long time and have never come close.

    The 5mm raise function that comes on 99% of toasters actually drives me mad with its utter pointlessness.  But I also can't warrant spending £180 on a toaster, the ROI just isn't there for me.

    TOTALLY SERIOUS REQUEST: If anyone knows of a reasonably priced toaster with a decent raise function then I would be eternally grateful.