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I was at a friend’s place for a pot-luck dinner last weekend. We were all hanging around in the kitchen and I happened to be standing by the microwave. The host handed me a gravy boat and asked, “Hey, can you nuke this for a minute?”

“Sure, no problem,” I said confidently. I put the gravy boat in the microwave and closed the door. My eyes then searched for the “Min Plus” button. After all, that’s how my microwave works. Aren’t they all the same?

Nope. This one was littered with unfamiliar controls. Some obviously dealt with power levels, some set a timer. There were other controls for defrost functions, a cluster of specialized “one touch” buttons for Popcorn, Baked Potato, etc. But there was no “Min Plus” button to be found…

How do I just turn the damned thing ON??

Taking a guess, I pressed 6-0-Start, assuming that would give me 60 seconds. It works on my microwave – and my sister’s too. Surely it must work on all of them?

Nope. The panel beeped with every press of a button, but beyond the beeping, the microwave stayed dark and silent.

Hmmm. Maybe I have to enter a power level first? So I pressed the “Power Level”, then 9 (figuring 9 would be highish). Then I pushed “Time” and 6-0. THEN I pushed “Start”. This has GOT to work, right?

Nope. By now, the other party guests had noticed the long series of unproductive beeps coming from the microwave, and they started to snicker. “Hey Straker, how many years did you spend in university?” one asked sarcastically. The kitchen exploded with laughter, and everyone’s attention turned to the moron who couldn’t figure out how to use the microwave.

To the amusement of all, the scene continued for another agonizing minute or so, as I tried any number of pushbutton combinations in a futile attempt to bring that dead hunk of metal and plastic to life.

I eventually bluffed my way through with a cheat. I pressed “Popcorn” figuring that would at least turn the stupid thing on. It did, and a round of well-deserved applause erupted. I bowed in triumphant victory.

So… what’s going on here? Am I really a hopeless techno-peasant? Well perhaps that’s part of it. But I like to think there’s another reason I looked like such a fool: when it comes to microwave operations, there’s no established standard. Every manufacturer uses a different scheme, so you can’t transfer what you’ve learned from using your microwave and apply it to using someone else’s. You’re left feeling – and looking – stupid.

And what has any of this got to do with web design? Easy. If you don’t want to make your visitors feel stupid – if you want them to be able to accomplish their tasks easily – stick with established conventions.

Sure, it’s nice to break new ground with a new and “better” navigational system or whatever. But think twice before taking such chances. Remember yours truly at the helm of a microwave. Don’t make me use the “Popcorn” button to reheat the gravy. Trust me, it doesn’t work well…