What Emerging Tech Coding UX Can Learn From Cookbook Recipes

I have a confession to make: I’m a recovering cookbook addict. I still buy cookbooks, but only two or three times a year (okay, maybe four or five times). While I was a cookbook addict, I acquired a pretty good sized collection.

And of all the cookbooks I own, not one of them uses pictures instead of words to describe their recipes.

Some of the cookbooks do contain pictures. Most of those pictures show what the food will — in theory — look like once you finish the recipe. A few use pictures to walk you through a particular cooking technique. But the recipes themselves are described using words.

Despite that, many people who aren’t professional cooks can figure out how to make these recipes. How many actually make the recipes they read is a question for another day. But if my and my friends’ experience is any indication, when recipes don’t get made it’s not for lack of being able to read them.

Cookbook recipes use words whose meaning aren’t obvious to beginners. For example, here’s a recipe for a black bean and sweet potato chili (minus the ingredients list):

In a large pot heat the tablespoon of water or vegetable broth. Add the onion and garlic, stirring constantly so it does not stick. Add the salt, cumin, chili powder, and oregano. Cook for 30 seconds.

Add the sweet potato and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the tomato, water, and beans. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Ensure the sweet potatoes are cooked.

And here’s a recipe for chocolate pudding:

In a small pot, combine sugar with 3/4 cup water; bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.

Put all ingredients except for chocolate shavings in a blender and purée until completely smooth, stopping machine to scrape down its sides if necessary. Divide among 4 to 6 ramekins and chill for at least 30 minutes. If you like, garnish with chocolate shavings before serving.

(By the way, in this recipe author Mark Bittman shows you how to make really good chocolate mousse where one of the main ingredients is… tofu. I kid you not. It took me two years before I was ready to try making it — not because I couldn’t read the recipe, but because combining tofu and chocolate sounded absolutely disgusting. Turns out it tastes ridiculously good, which a friend of mine is convinced is one of the signs of an impending apocalypse)

If you’re an absolute beginner, you won’t know how to read these recipes. You’ll need to learn a few things before you can use them. In the chocolate pudding recipe, for example, what does it mean to “bring to a boil” and how do you know when the “sugar is dissolved”? What is “stirring” and how often should you stir the ingredients so you’re “stirring occasionally”?

But figuring this out isn’t rocket science. There are millions of beginners who with some help from family or friends, classes, or just messing around learn how to become good cooks.

That doesn’t mean that the degree of complexity or weirdness of the terms used in recipes doesn’t matter. It took a while for the world of cookbook authors to figure out what kind of words and what degree of complexity worked for beginning cooks, let alone to standardize the meaning of the terms they used.

It’s certainly worth exploring if coding using a visually oriented system is a better way to go than writing text. But as the decades of experience with cookbooks shows us, sometimes a picture isn’t worth a thousand words. And sometimes only a handful of the right words is all beginning cooks need to rock it out.

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