What the Indian Spice Box can tell us about optimal menu design

In my two years of living in the US and having to make Indian food for myself, I have learned the importance of the spice box. At first, cooking Indian food seems like a very daunting and labor intensive task. The oil that is used for tempering has to be heated to the right temperature, the spices have to be added in a particular order, and in precise amounts. In this scenario, having a box that contains the right spices at one place is the ideal solution.  As this article in the Boston Globe describes it:

“Timing is key in Indian cooking. Many recipes begin by heating oil first, then adding small amounts of spices in quick succession. The oil’s temperature has to be just right so mustard seeds pop, cumin seeds sizzle, and turmeric and red chile powders lose their raw edge without burning. The spice box is the most efficient and practical way of accessing the required spices easily: Open one lid and everything you need is right there.”

The spice box is a mainstay in every kitchen in every Indian household. The design is quite simple – a steel or wooden container (generally round) with smaller containers inside it. This simple design has been in use for generations, and it’s easy to see why. In its relative simplicity the spice box shows the importance of user-centered design.

The spice box holds the optimal amount of ingredients. The square or round box contains about seven inner containers, plus or minus two. Add more containers, and each individual container becomes too small, requiring frequent refilling. Too large, and there aren’t enough spices in the box, reducing its usefulness. The box was designed keeping the user and the aforementioned cooking process in mind, and that is one of the things that makes it such a great design.

The spice box is customizable. The user can add the spices of their choosing. Although some of the spices are common, there are certain differences in regional cooking styles, and the box allows the user to add the spices that they may require based on their preferences.

The spice box is easy to maintain. Replenishing ingredients is simple, and the frequency of replenishing the ingredients is not too much so as to dissuade the user from using the box.

What I like specifically about the round variants of the spice box, is that the shape both communicates and facilitates rotation- the user can move the inner containers around, or order them in a way that makes it easier to remember the order in which the ingredients are to be added. A square or rectangular box does not communicate or facilitate that as much, although I can see how even the rows and columns can help the user remember the order in which spices are to be added.

What struck me about the timelessness of the spice box design is that in many ways it is a triumph of user-centered design. It is a helpful to the user, and makes the task at hand, in this case cooking, easier by reducing cognitive load. One does not explicitly have to remember the order of adding ingredients- a quick glance at the box and the way the ingredients are ordered acts as a memory cue. It increases the ease of cooking, and the user does not have to read a manual, or remember complex steps before having to use it.

Imagine if someone were to design the spice box in today’s age- I would imagine designers and engineers getting carried away with the prospects, and potential affordances that modern technology brings. That would lead to “features” like a freshness indicator, a rotation device to hasten access to the spice you require, voice commands, recipe suggestions, and so on. It would have IoT connectivity options, a companion app, and perhaps even a crowd finding campaign. I digress.

While designing a menu based solution to a design problem, designers tend to get carried away with the design of the menu itself. The menu is meant to be a means to find the right tool or option to complete the task. It is thus imperative to understand the user’s workflow and identify potential breakdowns before adding design elements like micro-interactions. Of course, modern interfaces tend to have a multitude of features, and it is not always possible to make menus simplistic. But that’s not the point. The spice box isn’t just ubiquitous because it’s simple – it is because it was designed with the user’s needs and wants in mind.


One thought on “What the Indian Spice Box can tell us about optimal menu design

  1. Wow, Dushyant! A well thought out article about a box, which is “out of the box!!”
    Well done, keep on writing !!


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