August 16, 20224 min read

Why your stove is hard to use?

In this post, I'll try to answer the burning question of stoves and their burners - why do we repeat mistakes when igniting them?

Last Updated August 16, 2022
A macro photo of a gas stove burner flaming
Photo by Avinash Shet

Imagine a scenario - the sun is rising, and morning starts. You wake up and get up from your bed. You shamble to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee. You put a kettle on the stove alongside other pots and ignite the burner. In the meantime, you’re doing other stuff - comb your hair, wash your face or turn up the radio and make a little dance. After a while, you go back to brew a coffee. But water doesn’t boil. You would swear to the Flying Spaghetti Monster you ignited the burner. And you ignited the burner. . .but the wrong one. In this scenario, it’s easy to blame yourself. You were sleepy, and your brain was just getting started to function. But mistakes like that occur at different times of the day. And especially when you’re using someone else’s stove. Are we so stupid that we can’t remember what four (usually) knobs are doing?

Memory = knowledge in the mind

No, most people can remember four elements well.[1] The problem starts when the number of elements grows. is an example of an IPv4 address. You would need to type such a series of numbers to find any website on the internet if there were no DNS servers. They are like a phone book that translates human-friendly hostnames ( into IP addresses. Modern phone books - contacts in our smartphones - are also there to help our brains. We are pretty bad at remembering a series of random characters. Log in to a website you weren’t using for a while and see for yourself. So, why do many systems burden our memory? Because it is convenient for machines and their designers. Combinations like phone numbers don’t make users’ lives easier. Fortunately, technology is more user-friendly now. We store passwords and numbers on our devices. The best way to help human memory is to make it less necessary. It’s easier to complete a task when the needed information is easily accessible in the environment.

“Knowledge in the world”

“Knowledge needs to be in mind, you know?” Ok, you got me. It’s not a precise definition, but it simplifies reasoning, so I stick to this division: knowledge in the mind and the world. “Knowledge in the world” is any environmental information needed to accomplish some goal. We don’t need to remember a keyboard layout to use it. Every key is labeled. Knowledge about what keys are doing is in the world. I memorized the qwerty keyboard layout. It speeds up my writing, but it requires time, and it’s not necessary. You don’t need many hours of typing practice to use a keyboard. A gamepad needs a little practice to use. It has fewer buttons than a keyboard, but you need to memorize all. In most games, there is no time to look at the gamepad. There are conventions, but usually, you also need to learn which button is responsible for a particular action. I play Ghost of Tsushima on PlayStation 4 now. Jin Sakai - a legendary samurai - is the main protagonist. He has many techniques and weapons under his belt (literally). After dozen hours in the game, I sometimes still don’t remember what button to push to equip something. But I don’t need to. Pressing the R2 or L2 button displays menus with stances and weapons.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot with R2 menus displayed.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot with L2 menus displayed.


Ghost of Tsushima is an example of a balance between knowledge in the world and the mind. It requires remembering the buttons only for fundamental actions, like jumping, aiming, or attacking. On-screen menus help with equipping items. They clutter the screen, but only for a second when you switch weapons. Most of the time, UI is minimal. Both types of knowledge have pros and cons. In day-to-day functioning, we need them both.

Knowledge in the worldKnowledge in the mind
Information is effortlessly available, provided it’s visible.Information is in memory. Otherwise, recalling something may take some effort.
Interpretation replaces learning. A designer is responsible for ease of explanation.Learning requires time and effort. The process will be less painful if the information is structured.
It’s slower because of finding and interpretation.It can be efficient, especially when learned well. Automated with time - doesn’t require conscious thinking.
It can be unappealing or unaesthetic, especially when a designer has to include much information. Unskillful usage can cause clutter.Nothing has to be visible. It can create a more appealing and aesthetic look, but with the cost of learning and remembering.


Mapping illustrates the power of combining both types of knowledge. Let’s go back to our stove. Most stoves have four burners. Remembering which knob to use shouldn’t cause any trouble. Yet, we sometimes have a problem. Why? Because of poor mapping between knobs and burners. Mapping is a technical term borrowed from mathematics. There are different definitions based on context. But, saying simply - it’s a relation between elements in two different sets. Between knobs and burners, there is also a relation (one-to-one). The problem is that it’s unnatural. Most stoves, I saw, map two-dimensional grids to one-dimensional series of knobs.

Typical gas stove.

Sure there is information about the burner above the knob. But it requires a little effort to interpret. We could remember the mapping even if it wasn’t natural. But there is no standard between manufacturers. So using someone’s stove or buying a new one usually requires learning new mapping. Some stoves split burners into groups of two. But, mapping is still ambiguous.

Gas stove with knobs and burners split into groups of two.

How to make it unambiguous? There are some more natural mappings. We could just put knobs directly on the elements they control. There is no room for error.

A mock-up of a stove where knobs are placed on the burners.

In the case of burners, it’s not practical - they will melt. So, we could put the knobs as close as possible to the elements they control.

A mock-up of a stove where knobs are placed near the burners.

It is unambiguous and more practical. But, reaching for knobs in the back could be difficult.

The third best mapping could be recreating burners’ positions with knobs. It is a little less clear, but reaching for knobs is easier.

A mock-up of a stove where knobs are arranged the same way as burners.

Why don’t manufacturers map stoves that way? Maybe it’s about convenience or habit. The qwerty keyboard layout is also not the best in terms of efficiency. But it is a layout of typewriters widely distributed, so we stick to it. Maybe it’s the same case with stoves.

I read about mapping and types of knowledge in the book by Don Norman, ”The Design of Everyday Things.” It’s a great read. I think there is a good reason many people recommend it. Even if you’re not interested in design, you should read it. You won’t look at everyday items the same way.

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Software engineer with polymath aspirations.

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