The June Oven is part of a new wave of kitchen gadgets promising to combine modern Silicon Valley technology with cutting-edge design. On paper, these products promise to deliver a new wave of efficient, simple device interaction. In reality, they often come with fine print attached. In the June’s case, the fine print may involve a tendency to turn on and preheat itself overnight.
Multiple June owners have complained about this happening to them when they were sleeping, according to The Verge. One owner with a Nest pointed at the oven caught the moment when the device snapped on at 4 AM and cranked itself up to 400 degrees. Two other owners have posted about similar incidents — one person actually left food in the oven that they’d cooked earlier, and woke up to discover it burned to a crisp.
According to June CEO Matt Van Horn, these problems can all be squarely chalked up to user error. “We’ve seen a few cases where customers have accidentally activated their oven preheat via a device, figure your cell phone,” he told The Verge.
So imagine if I were to be in the June app clicking recipes and I accidentally tapped something that preheated my oven, we’ve seen a few cases of that. It’s a really wonderful feature to be able to remotely preheat your oven, and it’s a completely new world that’s very exciting, and there’s things that happen…People have always joked about the butt-dial, like I didn’t mean to call you, and so these are just the types of things in software that we just have to be mindful of and build great features around to make our customers happy.
June has a problem here, whether the company wants to acknowledge it or not. Obviously it matters if the company’s oven has a flaw causing it to active and preheat without anyone ordering it to do so. But it matters just as much if customers are inadvertently performing this action without intending it. Unattended cooking accounts for a significant percentage of total house fires.
Smart Products Have a Knowledge Problem
Up until now, an oven has been an appliance that you started while you were standing in front of it. While it’s always been a good idea to keep flammable things away from an oven, every single one of us has, at one time or another, left something flammable near a stove. You’ve probably done so deliberately, especially if you’ve ever been dealing with a sudden rush of company or were short on counter space for food prep. The rule for managing the risk of an oven fire is to check if the oven is on before putting flammable things near it.
An oven that can turn itself on remotely is a different risk than an oven that can’t. There are many steps that June can (and possibly has) taken to reduce the potential threat, including building a good oven that isn’t overly prone to external hot spots. At the same time, however, it’s an oven — it’s going to have hot spots by definition. A human standing in front of the oven would automatically clear the area for any debris that might have built up around it. The oven does not “know” that it needs to perform this function. And people can die when computers make mistakes about what they know. Autonomous vehicles drive into stationary objects. Aircraft drive themselves into the ground, resisting every effort their pilots make to pull their noses skyward.
One important distinction between various autonomous vehicle problems or the 737 Max’s MCAS system, of course, is that the June Oven may not be doing this because of some baked-in AI capability. But this is less important than it might seem. What Matt Van Horn calls “user error,” I would call something else: Bad app design. And since June develops both its app and its oven, the responsibility for the issue lands in the same place.
If the problem is that end-users are mistakenly triggering the “Preheat” function in the app, the app needs to be designed in a manner that makes it much more difficult to tell the oven to preheat without being aware of doing so. It should not be possible to accidentally turn on the oven while looking through the app’s recipe book. June will distribute an app update in September that allows consumers to disable the remote preheat functionality, but allowing it will still be the default. Next year, the June Oven will be updated to recognize whether there is food in the device and will turn off after a set period of time if the end-user does not flag the oven to stay on.
The point in comparing the June Oven situation to the situation with autonomous cars or the 737 Max is not to pretend they are equivalent. It’s to highlight how integrating new capabilities into products requires manufacturers to think about how humans use them. A product that has the capability to upend common assumptions about how an appliance works needs to take particular care to guard against any risk of harm the change creates. Adding a little intelligence to a washer or dryer doesn’t increase the risk of harm, but anything that generates enough heat to potentially start a fire needs to be treated with care. The June’s growing pains are a small example of how companies and consumers are both going to need to adjust how they think about products if they want to change the ‘defaults’ people are used to living with.
The June doesn’t appear to be a very well-rated product in the first place — it’s a $600 toaster oven and the Wirecutter found its cooking subpar in comparison with the Cuisinart TOB-260N1. As added bonuses, the Cuisinart lacks Wi-Fi, has no integrated camera, and doesn’t appear to offer a recipe app that costs ~$50 per year to subscribe to.