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3 Ways to Improve the Usability of Recipes

by Kirsten Peters , 17.11.2008

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

I am currently teaching myself to cook by experimenting with different recipes I find in books and online. These recipes are my guides, which help me learn different techniques to create delicious meals. In my culinary adventures, I have noticed that most recipes follow the same basic format of listing the ingredients and the steps involved, as shown in Figure 1.

figure 1 - recipe

Figure 1a: A recipe layout from Cooking: A Commonsense Guide

figure 1b - recipe

Figure 1b: A recipe layout from the 1974 edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook

While working with these types of recipes, I have discovered some common characteristics that have confused me and led me to make mistakes. With just a few minor tweaks, I know mistakes like mine can be avoided. Here are three things that would make recipes more usable, not to mention make me feel more confident in the kitchen:

Set realistic expectations.

It was really frustrating to realize that the meatloaf I was making recently was going to take a lot longer to prepare than the recipe said it would. I also didn't like it when I found out halfway through preparing a frittata that I needed to use a type of pan I didn't own. I wish I had known this ahead of time and avoided these unpleasant surprises.

Recipes should provide an accurate time estimate for preparation and cooking. This estimate should include things like the time to boil the noodles or chop the vegetables. Recipes should also provide a list of pans and tools needed, especially if they require a unique item that may need to be purchased or pulled out of storage. This information should be listed as close to the top of the recipe as possible.

Make recipes accessible to everyone.

I have learned many techniques since I started cooking: sautéing, poaching, julienning... the list goes on. However, I am still a beginner. If all that a recipe says is "reduce sauce to desired consistency," I have trouble pin-pointing exactly what that means. It can be discouraging when I have to go through a mountain of reference materials, searching for information without which I cannot move on.

To make recipes accessible to all users, additional information needs to be provided. This can be accomplished using an insert describing the basics or an appendix of detailed instructions that is referred to within the recipe. A picture, like the one in Figure 1a, is also a good way to show how the dish should look when it is complete or to illustrate how to "flute" a pie crust, for example.

Minimize mental workload.

While cooking, I often have to look back and forth between the step-by-step instructions and the ingredients list. And that is in addition to dealing with time pressures and outside distractions. When I am constantly moving my eyes between the two sections, I have been known to transpose the measurements of two different ingredients or even miss an ingredient.

One method of reducing the mental workload is to align the ingredients and cooking instructions and organize them by step, as shown in Figure 2. Using this layout, I no longer have to keep jumping from the top of the page to the middle or bottom when trying to complete a step.

Figure 2 - recipe

Figure 2: Recipe with ingredients and steps aligned taken from Zonya Foco's Lickety-Split Meals for Health Conscious People on the Go!

It is important, though, to ensure the breaks make sense and that each action is a separate step. While this may create more lines, it will make the directions easier to follow. However, it is also important to keep in mind that recipes should not take up more than one page or two facing pages, if in a book. I find it even harder to follow a recipe if I have to flip a page in order to read on.

Recipes are used by cooks with all levels of experience, all of whom want to succeed. By making just a few adjustments to the common format, recipes can become more approachable and easier to use, so beginners like me have a greater chance of success.

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