A case for a prettier recipe box

I’m a software aesthete. I like to spend my life using programs that work elegantly and beautifully. While this is partly why I prefer using my Mac to my PC, it really comes down to the individual software and tasks. There are some phenomenal PC programs that I find are a pleasure to use (Microsoft Excel 2007 is just wonderful to chart and graph in), and there are Mac programs I’m more-or-less forced to use for one reason or another that could really use some more thought into how they work. (I’m looking at you, Script Editor!)

One place that I never thought to see such a divergence in elegance was in recipe software. Look, it’s a database, right? Recipes, cookbooks, ingredients, and even shopping lists. Sounds like a job for unformatted text and a decent search function.

But when my wife bought Cook’n, the best selling recipe software on any platform (or so they claim), I found an amazing study of software design and usability.

Cook’n may not actually be the best selling recipe software (how could DVO enterprises know?), but it’s almost certainly the most aggressively marketed. The website looks like a weeknight infomercial, but is strangely compelling. DVO also sells recipe packs for a pretty penny to fill out your library. These folks are making money.

This marketing has made the program popular, much like, say, Wordpad is popular. But for all its lack of style, it is not without distinguishing benefits. I couldn’t find a single forum/feature request site among the other contenders that didn’t say “So and so uses Cook’n, and it can do this, why can’t your program do it?”

And it’s true, Cook’n does a whole lot. It has a gigantic database of ingredients, nutritional analysis, shopping list creation, meal planners, and more. It probably has the longest feature list of any recipe book program out there, and believe me, there are no shortage of them.

But here’s the thing, Cook’n is old. It looks and acts like a Windows 3.1 program (one giant window with, of all things, a full color picture behind it; giant toolbar buttons; no keyboard shortcuts; and garish, gigantic, fonts with ugly gray-on-black layouts), and can’t even figure out how to save out files some place useful. (Its database is stored in the Program Files directory along with the application, so forget multi-user support; and even worse, when you export a recipe, it sticks it in that folder and tells you only the sub-folder – you have to search your whole hard drive to find it!)

Data entry is tedious, with numerous modal windows and a very unforgiving workflow. Browsing your recipes is similarly tedious, as everything is buried in a cookbook, course hierarchy. There’s no way to just browse every recipe at once. (It does, however, have a serviceable search which is a good alternative if you have some idea of what you want) Generally speaking, the program feels kludgy and requires you to work its way, wholly unwilling to give the user any freedom in how they want to access and work with their recipes.

So, hey, A+ on features, but the program’s an exercise in frustration to use!

When you look at the competition on the PC, there’s a variety of different approaches.

Some make a strong effort to be prettier and more browseable. Others have workmanlike interfaces that hide great features and lots of power and customizability for the user. And there are some that, frankly, make Cook’n look cutting edge.

Where things really get interesting, is when you look at the recipe organizers in the style-conscious Mac space.

Here there’s a variety of approaches. I won’t go into details on each of them, but if you care, TidBITS covered them in detail not too long ago. But let’s just say that there were a few things that stood out:

While some were ugly, the vast majority were pleasant to look at. Thought had gone into how to best present recipes.

They were powerful. While only one (MacGourmet) came close to Cook’n in overall features, there were many that had lots of nifty tools to make a cook’s life easier.

They pushed boundaries. Two programs offered instant importing of recipes from numerous popular websites. They even went so far as to have a generic HTML import so you could pull in a recipe from anywhere you saw it listed. (e.g. Your favorite cooking blog.)

One of them, Yummy Soup, really took the prize for elegance. It’s easy to use, capable (albeit weak in the menu planning department), and has a web import ability that borders on magic. But then you start using it and realize that you can really use it as your only recipe book in the kitchen – it has a beautiful full-screen view, and even lets you use the remote that came with your Mac to flip through recipes if you have a lot of pots on the stove. It also meets the requirements of a real foodie, letting you browse your recipes purely by picture, as though it were a photo library.

Managing recipes is boring and tedious. It’s data entry. These programs make it fun to enter new recipes and seek them out. Many programs are very open and let you easily share recipes with other users of the same software.

It astonishes me that anyone would saddle themselves with Cook’n. It’s an engineers choice. A corporation’s choice. A list of features and checkboxes thrown together in a way that forces a cook to meet the requirements of your database.

I challenge you to try Yummy Soup and Cook’n both for a week. If you’re OCD and need to know the exact nutritional value of everything you eat, I’m sure you’ll stick with Cook’n. If, however, you love cooking and eating, I guarantee you’ll be adding recipes with gay abandon and burning holes in your oven mitts if you get into the ‘Soup. Or, hey, try out all the other contenders out there. It’s a buyer’s market!

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Written on June 2, 2008