How to Fail at Coffee Machine Design

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Like most software startups, Zorroa considers coffee to be a critical element to a productive workspace. For our team, good coffee at the push of a button can make a huge difference in the time it takes to get through a development sprint or pull together an event plan. We consider ourselves pretty tech savvy so when our coffee machine “malfunctions” repeatedly, we start questioning if the problem stems from user error or if there’s a design flaw to consider.

Seemingly Solid Design

Our coffee machine has the typical features—with a few notable programming functions and the ability to adjust the strength of the brew. It’s also rather sleek looking plus the added function of a bean grinder. Other than that it's pretty unremarkable and the four-step brewing process is simple to commit to memory:

  1. Add water
  2. Put a new filter in the basket
  3. Select # cups of water you added—our machine grinds the beans “to order”
  4. Press start

Clearly, it’s not rocket science—so how has our team managed to fail at making a simple pot of coffee on five separate occasions?

Troubleshooting

Coffee machines should be easy to use, but poor design can cause unintended results. In our case, the result was coffee and grinds overflowing and flooding the kitchen. After evaluation, we came up with potential root causes but were able to eliminate each one after a single test.

Dejected at our inability to solve the problem, we decided to brainstorm over some fresh caffeine. The team meticulously went through the four-step process and waited. We listened to the hot water wash over the grounds and then to our horror, hot coffee and grinds suddenly started flowing out the top of the machine and onto the floor.

A Single Unobvious Flaw

We discovered that a misaligned pot wasn’t engaging the stopper on the bottom of the filter basket, preventing the coffee from flowing into the pot! There's a ring in the base where the pot sits as the coffee brews, and one could easily place the pot just a little off center. The result? You guessed it—coffee overflow and a flooded kitchen!

Relieved that we finally solved the mystery, we placed signs at the coffee machine warning of the perils of a misaligned pot. We should probably send it back based on our UX principles alone, but when used “correctly” it does make a tasty cup of coffee. Sadly we've still had a brewing misadventure here and there, even after warning our team members about the special attention needed for this machine.

Leveling Up

It turns out our little coffee maker has over 500 negative, one-star reviews on Amazon.com. Most reviewers clearly lacked the resolve to troubleshoot their brewing failures, but those who persisted typically discovered the same design flaw as the Zorroa team. There’s a sense of relief knowing we weren’t alone in our coffee misadventures. We’ve since moved on to a new coffee machine and we’re happy to report our brewing fails are a thing of the past. Our team’s experience, however, is a heartfelt reminder of the difference user-centered design can make on a product’s success.