How a Silver Sharpie Fixed a Dribbling Coffee Maker

April 14th, 2014:

Like most offices, at Goddard, life between 8:00 and 8:30 AM revolves around the coffee maker. The carafe for our particular coffee maker is the type in which the lid must be partially unscrewed to release its liquid energy. The problem with it is that it never produced a smooth pour. It was never a huge problem, but when pouring a cup, it would generally chug, dribble, and otherwise not pour as you would expect it to. Most people chalked it up to the fact that coffee carafes never pour all that well, and went on about our day.

On one particular morning, a few people had gathered while making coffee, and were lamenting the fact that the carafe poured badly. Our industrial designer (naturally) Marshall made a simple statement of;

“You guys know you have to align the dots, right?”

The awkward silence that followed indicated that no, no one else had noticed any dots. Upon closer inspection we noticed that there were two raised bumps on the molded top half of the coffee pot. One dot was on the rotating lid, with one on the fixed pour spout. Neither was higher than a few thousandths, and since the components were molded, the dots were the exact same color as the surrounding plastic. Once aligned, the carafe produced a mighty caffeine waterfall.

The following day, Marshall colored in the dots with a silver Sharpie, and the obviousness of the alignment practically smacked you in the face.

The interesting portion of this whole story is why no one had noticed this before, and what it can teach us about developing useful products.

Consider the Use Environment - An office before coffee is akin to the time before fire was discovered; hazy, dark, and not a lot gets done. Trying to discern a raised bump from a similarly covered surface requires a level of attention that will not be granted in the pre-caffeine state.

The product worked poorly, but not poorly enough – Alignment or no alignment, coffee was delivered to the cup. However, when used “properly” the product was much more user friendly. When it is not clear how a product is to be used, people will assume they are using it correctly if it produces something close to what they expected. Highlight when a product is being used correctly, and in-correctly, and users will have a better experience.

Prior History Matters – People are used to coffee carafes working poorly. So when yet another one works poorly, people see it as being like all the others. To set your product apart, make it better, and then make it clear how and why it is better, in addition to educating users on how to get the most out of it.

No one reads the manual – This feature is probably in the manual, but yea, we didn’t read that.

Consider the other options – Surely this “fix” was the cheapest option, but there are likely other solutions that greatly enhance usability at minimal cost. A stripe of paint, two stickers, a stopping feature or even a larger bump are all solutions which may have avoided this issue.

In the end, a good product starts from the bottom up, the bottom being the end user. Who is using, where, when, why, and how? When starting there, everything else falls into place, because you always have the user data to fall back on when decision making.

- Gerard Libby, Mechanical Engineer, Goddard Technologies