The User Experience Design Problem with Irons

You’re getting ready to go to an event and you notice that the clothing you wanted to wear is wrinkled from hiding in the back of your closet for a while. You obviously need to iron it in order to go out looking presentable but your relationship with your iron is quite rocky given that a lot of your technique is mainly guesswork. There’s a light that goes on and off at seemingly random intervals. At some points, the metal plate is burning too much; at other points, it’s not even on at all.

How exactly does one really use an iron?

I think the most confusing part of irons is not in their handling during ironing (I mean, you just glide the iron over the wrinkly clothing to flatten and smoothen it out) but in the preparation of getting to that point.

After I’ve plugged it in, is there an on/off switch? What is that red light indicating? Why is the red light blinking now? Why did the heat stop when I didn’t turn it off? How do I even turn it off? Can I turn it off?

Ironing, for me, is a general case of what the hell is happening here and how do I control it so I can finish my task and get out?

Well, after some searching on the interwebs, here’s what I learned:

Irons don’t operate like normal machines because, well, they’re not normal machines. Irons are not meant to be permanently plugged in the outlet; an iron is a get-in-get-out type of tool. You leave your TV plugged in whenever with no consequence. Leave your iron plugged in whenever and you will experience the consequence: a home full of flames. Otherwise, you’d just be burning the house. As a result of such, there is no “need” for an on/off switch. The assumption is, if you plugged it in, you’re going to use it at that very moment. So, it’s on. If you want to turn it “off”, unplug it.

That’s according to one source.

According to another

  1. Many irons do actually have on-off switches.
  2. Of those that do not, many have an off position in the settings dial.

So, what is the truth? And what is that red light doing if it’s not telling you that the iron is on?

Apparently, it’s telling you that it’s heating up. In my experience with ironing, the heat came and went as it saw fit. In a similar manner to waking a sleeping computer monitor, I would jiggle the handle to “wake up” the heater. However, I have now learned that that jiggling wasn’t to wake up the heater, the heater was, in fact, on. All I was really doing was moving it to another setting with different temperature settings which would require the heater to warm up to that new setting; I wasn’t actually doing anything for the setting that I was on.

  1. All irons have a thermostat that turns them off when they reach their required temperature.
  2. Modern irons have a timer that shuts them down if they remain idle (for safety as well as power savings).

What I’ve concluded is that irons are designed with a lot of assumptions around the user’s goals and needs. You need to heat a clothing item at a certain temperature to get out the wrinkles and we’re only going to tell you when it’s heating up. Otherwise, assume it’s on, assume it’s at the temperature and setting that you want it to, and assume if you don’t move it for too long that you’re done using it.

I see a lot of design flaws with these assumptions, though. With too many assumptions comes the issue of what is happening when those assumptions aren’t true?

The auto-off feature is a great solution to the problem of what if I accidentally left the iron plugged in/on and I don’t want to burn down the house but …

What if my power source isn’t getting to the iron for it to be on?

What if I turned the dial is turned to a certain setting but the heat isn’t at that setting?

What if I unplugged it but the plate is still hot?

My proposed solution:

A thermometer in addition to the fabric dial: There is not enough user feedback with turning a dial to nylon because a user will be unable to know when there is an issue with the dial temperature if there ever is one in terms of setting the iron plate to the appropriate heat levels given the type of fabric. One is forced to rely on hope that when it the dial points to nylon, it really is at nylon temperature, not heating to cotton levels by malfunction.

A well-designed iron needs to implement a thermometer to provide the user feedback about the temperature of the plate allowing the user to perceive if there is a disconnect between the fabric setting and the heat of the plate. This thermometer should have two elements: the current heat of the plate and the goal heat of the plate. As the plate is heating up, you will perceive that it is not yet at the temperature desire but are reassured that the setting is correct, you just need to give it a short moment of time to heat up. Next to this current temperature display is where the current red light can be placed. Currently, irons use the red light to indicate that the machine is heating but that system is unclear. A blue/red lighting system would allow the user to see that the unit is in the process of heating when the light is red and is done when the light is blue.

Placing the light next to these indicators implies their correlation in order to limit the confusion of the purpose of the red light. By having a blue light, the user also does not need to wonder why the light disappeared had they not understood that it indicated the process of heating. Turning the red light off points to a status being taken away and for some users, this can lead one to think the iron or heat is off; which is not the case. Whereas, switching the color of the light indicates that the status has changed but the iron is still on. Along with the matching thermometer temperatures, the user can infer that the blue light indicates that the iron is done heating and is at the desired temperature if they had not come to that conclusion based on the light being blue alone.

When the red light on current irons turns off, the iron could either not be working anymore or could be done heating. This two-light system provides feedback of when the iron just simply isn’t working similar to other devices: if the lights aren’t turning on, the device or power source is not working.

Furthermore, having this thermometer indicates to the user even when the iron is unplugged/off whether or not it is hot which current irons do not do. Just as it is safe to have stoves indicate that they are hot despite the burners being turned off, an iron should indicate its temperature to a user that it is hot and dangerous despite being unplugged BEFORE the user finds out through painful experience.

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