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.


  1. 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. 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.)

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