Bad design

09 May

Bad design is everywhere, and it doesn’t have to be that way. I suppose that’s why I make such a fuss when one of our products or features seems to be poorly designed. I want to do better!

Here’s an example of bad design that isn’t our fault:
Everyone in the office has trouble using the coffee pot at one time or another. People get grounds in the water reservoir, overflow the basket, or get burned by steam when they open the lid. I have witnessed people do all of these things, and I have studied the design of the coffee pot. I understand how it works, but I still managed to overflow the basket myself, creating a horrible mess and (worse) delaying my caffeine intake. Why is this coffee pot so hard to use? My cheap coffee pot at home works just fine. I had no difficulties with the coffee pot at my previous job.

It’s the design. The basket and water reservoir are in the same “compartment”, covered by the same lid, and the component that stops the flow of coffee if the carafe has been removed (so you can pour a cup before it’s finished) is a mechanism that is half in the basket (spring loaded stopper) and half in the lid of the carafe (the shape of the lid pushes up the spring, allowing water to flow).

Every element of the design of this coffee pot is directly related to the ways that people manage to mess up their coffee:
If they are not careful about adding coffee to the basket, they will get grounds in the reservoir. The proper way to avoid that problem is to remove the basket, add the coffee and put it back in. The basket does not sit evenly on the counter because of the spring loaded mechanism on the bottom, so it discourages people from adding grounds this way.
Having one lid that covers the reservoir and the basket causes steam to be trapped in the coffee maker, so if people open the lid during the brewing process (say, because something else is messing up) or shortly afterwards (say, to clean up), they will have their fingers burned.
The spring loaded stopper does not stop the brewing process, only the dripping into the carafe process. If the stopper remains closed, water and grounds will eventually overflow the basket into the reservoir, into the carafe, and all over the place. The stopper remains closed whenever it is not in contact with the lid, so if someone accidentally leaves the lid off, or leaves the lid open “to make sure nothing gets in the way” (as one of our interns did), it’s an instant mess complete with ruined coffee.

Compare this to my coffee maker at home, the water reservoir is completely separate from the basket, which swings out on a hinge so that any spilled coffee grounds end up on the counter, not in the water. The mechanism that stops the drip process when the carafe is removed is a small lever that is depressed when the carafe is placed in the coffee maker. It stops the flow of hot water into the basket, thereby halting the brewing process whenever the carafe is removed.

This is an ideal design in every way, especially the lever to stop the brewing process. The only component required to let the water flow is the carafe, which catches the brew. If the carafe is not present, no coffee is brewed and no disaster ensues. Use of a lid is entirely optional.

So why is our coffee pot so horribly designed? It’s not like coffee pots are a new technology, and it’s not like they’ve just been this lousy all along, my coffee pot is older! They could have just copied the design if they couldn’t think of their own. I don’t see how the manufacture of my coffee pot style would be any more expensive than the one we have at Grooveshark. Mine was under $10, after all.

The only thing I can think of is that manufacturers just plain and simply do not care about usability for these essentially disposable appliances. Customers do not pay attention to these details until it’s too late, or they blame themselves for their inability to use them, so good design just does not matter.

But design does matter if your company is not satisfied with mediocrity. One need not look any further than Apple to see the result of putting a heavy emphasis on design and usability. The success of the iPod and iPhone are the direct result of that emphasis. If the iPod worked like a Sansa and the iPhone worked like my old Motorola phone, where would Apple be right now?


Leave a Reply


  1. Andrew wise

    May 9, 2008 at 7:55 am

    its not a matter that the company doesn’t care, but rather that isn’t their focus. Most traditional blue chip companies work top down rather than bottom up.

    So for this coffee pot the executives decided they wanted to produce a coffee pot, accountants told them they could only spend $3 to produce, engineers added in 15 different features and when it comes to designing it there are already so many cooks in the kitchen and constraints that a designed-focused product is impossible.

    Apple is very rare in that their CEO is an artist, how many other consumer products companies have design-oriented CEOs.

  2. Jay

    May 10, 2008 at 5:06 am

    I would certainly describe the scenario you laid out as not caring. If there is no emphasis on design and usability, then they do not care.

    I agree that Apple is very rare in a lot of ways, which is why I used them as an example. I want to emphasize however that the type of design that I am talking about isn’t about art at all. Something can be very pretty yet entirely unusable — that would still be poorly designed. I don’t think we (the general we, not we @ Grooveshark) need CEOs who are artists, or even designers, we need people who understand design principles and ergonomics, and companies willing to invest the time and resources into making the products usable.

    Part of the problem is actually that the looks of products get far more focus than their usability. From a short-term economic standpoint, this makes sense. Most people make purchase decisions based on things like price and how the product looks. It’s generally very difficult for consumers to test out the usability of a device and weigh that in with their purchase decision. But obviously well designed products can gain more momentum long-term. When the people who buy those products start raving about them and evangelizing, and people buy your device (i.e. an iPod) instead of something with a worse design (i.e. a Sansa) because everyone loves them and hey, they had a Sansa once and they hated it, then emphasis on design can really pay off.

    But it’s easily overlooked in many cases, and who’s going to evangelize a coffee pot anyway? Our coffee pot looks pretty decent as far as cheap coffee pots go. It’s somewhat sleek, it looks to be pretty self-contained and un-complicated: I’d imagine that whoever bought it probably made the decision based on price and looks, just like I was talking about. But it’s still a horrible coffee pot and I would certainly avoid similar designs in the future. If it wasn’t the same exact brand as my old coffee pot that’s well designed, I’d actually avoid the company altogether, but they’re obviously capable of making a decent product.