iPad UX Review: Epicurious vs. BigOven / 04.12.2011

by Suzanne Ginsburg

Cooking in the pre-iPad days usually involved me printing out online recipes and stuffing them into a folder.  When it came time to make the recipe again, I could never find the old printout, so I’d print out yet another copy.  I considered bringing my laptop into the kitchen but images of an olive oil soaked keyboard often led me back to printouts.  My iPhone was a decent compromise but the screen size is a tad too small, allowing me to see only ingredients or only directions, not both at once.

Hanfree iPad stand: http://hanfree.co/

And then the iPad came along.  The form factor combined with the kitchen-friendly stands make it an excellent tool for the home chef.  To understand how the iPad could be an even better kitchen tool, I reviewed two popular iPad cooking applications: Epicurious 3.0 and BigOven 2.1.1.  Through this exercise, I learned what aspects of the user experience work well and what areas could use improvement.  The review covers three parts of the apps:

  • Opening Experience
  • Finding Recipes
  • Viewing Recipes

Opening Experience
Both apps use photography on their opening screens but BigOven’s approach is more engaging.  Instead of showing the same stock image every time as done by Epicurious (Figure 1), BigOven cycles through colorful recipe photos overlaid with the recipe name, recipe author, and a “Make this tonight” call to action (Figure 2).  This approach has a similar feel to Flipboard which highlights one article image on their opening screen.  All Recipes, another cooking app, also uses photography but it shuffles through six images at a time.  The idea is strong conceptually but the implementation could be improved—images overlap awkwardly and the sliding animation feels gratuitous (Figure 3).

Figure 1: Epicurious Opening Screen

Figure 2: BigOven Opening Screen

Figure 3: All Recipes Opening Screen

Finding Recipes
BigOven takes traditional search a step further.  For instance, in addition to standard text and category-based queries they have a canned query called “What’s cooking around me” which displays recipes posted by nearby home chefs.  They also have more engaging titles that will undoubtedly speak to most users, e.g., “Use up Leftovers.” While these search options are appealing, there are some usability shortfalls.  For example, neighboring pop-over menus link to each other and revising queries requires two steps back (Figure 4).  Additionally, standard search features like sorting are not available.

Figure 4: BigOven Search Results

Epicurious’ search has slightly more traditional functionality but there are still some usability flaws. For one, why not call the “Control Panel” just “Recipes”?  Second, the different categories in the “Search” tab (e.g., Cuisine) don’t appear actionable and the options within these categories are not discoverable (Figure 5).  The latter issue could be easily addressed if they were to show icon edges for the far right and far left items.  Lastly, the sort options in results would be more effective above the results, sans tabs, since the current vertical treatment is less readable and suggests that the list will be filtered rather than sorted.

Figure 5: Epicurious Search Results

Viewing Recipes
BigOven has two different recipe views: “Overview” and “Prepare.”  “Overview” has all of the recipe information: introduction, photos, ratings, ingredients, serving and timing info, author info, and preparation info (Figure 6).  The “Prepare” view is more streamlined since it’s supposed to be used during the actual cooking process (Figure 7).  This view defaults to a larger type but has a control to change the type size if desired.  Both views include the far right button with sharing and metric conversion functionality.   To improve discoverability, the metric feature should be closer to the ingredients.  On a related note, it would be helpful if users could adjust the number of servings and have the app recalculate the ingredients accordingly.

Figure 6: BigOven “Overview” View

Figure 7: BigOven “Prepare” View

Epicurious offers one recipe view with large type for easy reading (Figure 8).  The ingredients are accessed via a pop-over which unfortunately conceals the instructions when used.  Additional recipe information—reviews, about, and nutritional info—is accessed via tabs along the bottom.  Given the limited amount of information in “About” and “Nutrition,” the tabs seem like overkill.  Moreover, the tab’s pop-up interaction makes it difficult to view the entire recipe.

Figure 8: Epicurious Recipe View

Theoretically, an alternate view for cooking makes sense but the one offered by BigOven isn’t different enough to warrant a separate tab.  On the other hand, All Recipes and Betty Crocker offer distinct experiences worthy of their own views.  In the Betty Crocker app, each screen includes one step written in large type and a preview of the subsequent step (Figure 9).   If there’s a duration associated with a step, the app will embed a timer within the recipe text.

Figure 9: Betty Crocker Recipe View

The Weber On the Grill app also has this timer functionality as well as embedded how-to videos and the ability to annotate parts of recipes (Figure 10).  Related enhancements that would add value to these apps include 1) the ability to share and find trends in annotations, and 2) the ability to tap and hold terms for definition and purchase related information, e.g., some users may wonder: “What is nam pla and where can I buy it?”

Figure 10: Weber Recipe View

Summary & Recommendations
Given that these are essentially first generation iPad apps, the Epicurious and BigOven designers and developers should be commended for their excellent work.  Starting out with little or no models to follow is an exciting, yet daunting, undertaking.  Those of us who will design and build future cooking related applications can benefit from their early work.  In particular, below are five recommendations for individuals who plan to create apps in this domain.

Entice users with photography. Starting out with form-heavy screens or stale stock photography is unlikely to draw users into your app.  Entice them with a range of mouth-watering photos that link to your recipes.

Keep search simple, yet powerful. Most home chefs will be pressed for time as they try to figure out what to make for dinner.  Forcing them to choose between a large number of search options may complicate their lives further.  This doesn’t mean you have to dumb down search; just make sure each option you offer truly enhances the experience.

Provide specialized cooking views, only if they add value. Making the text larger isn’t enough to justify a separate cooking view.  In that case, why not just add a font size control?  If you’re going to provide a specialized view, you need to go beyond the obvious and think like a cook.  If cooking is outside your expertise, take time to interview other cooks.

Let users access additional advice as needed. The iPad is a connected device.  If users need additional information about an ingredient or method, they should be able to access it from your app.  Look to e-books for elegant ways to access more information, yet not overload your designs with too many links or icons.

Leverage the cooking community. Recipe reviews and annotations tend to be visually separated from the actual recipe but they can offer a great deal of value.  Look for ways to integrate that kind of knowledge into recipes.  For inspiration, consider how Yelp highlights trends within their reviews.

If you want to see how the iPad is used in the kitchen, check out these Flickr photos:
Photo 1: Grandma using iPad while she does the dishes.
Photo 2: iPad hung with yarn on a kitchen cabinet knob.
Photo 3: iPad on traditional stand, resting on a stove top.

Good luck with your apps!


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