Caffeinated Usability

We have the neediest coffee maker. It’s great having free, freshly ground espresso at the office, but that machine is constantly yalping for one thing or another. Waiting for your espresso to brew gives you time to think about usability.

The coffee machine has a one-line, 10-character LED display, which it uses to cryptically beg you for attention. (The latest: “Descale machine.”) I found a co-worker one morning, exasperated with trying to guess its needs. “I’ve put coffee in! What is its problem?” The machine was alternating between two words, “grounds” and “empty.” Believing that the grounds were empty, my co-worker was adding more to the hopper. Turn the sentence around, though, and you realize the tray for catching used grounds needed to be emptied. The coffee machine's LED display cycles between Empty and Grounds.

I recently read Microinteractions by Dan Saffer. He gives a great explanation of what a microinteraction is, a single use-case interaction with a device or application. Dismissing an alert on your phone, setting the target temperature on the oven, even turning on a lamp are all microinteractions. Getting these right is what makes an application “intuitive.”

The coffee maker could scroll the words or just use an LED display with two lines of text. At least it is consistent: all messages are imperative commands, rather than declarative statements. Having seen other, less ambiguous messages from it led me to parse “empty” “grounds” correctly. And error messages in applications should be instructions, telling us what to fix instead of just complaining that something is wrong.

The coffee machine’s not off the hook, though. There’s a button you press to select the strength of your coffee. One press means “mild,” two means “strong,” three means “stand the spoon up in it,” and I hope that’s the one you wanted, because there’s no cycling back to the beginning. Subsequent button presses do nothing.

What microinteractions are you designing into your applications?

About Sharon Cichelli

I am a Principal Technical Lead at Headspring, developing enterprise-changing software and coaching teams to deliver value without death marches. I am a .NET developer, open-source contributor, user group organizer, technical blogger, pinball fan, and Arduino enthusiast.
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  • VanillaIke

    This reminds me that my refrigerator has an “Ice Off” button but no “Ice On” button. It’s funny to me to press “Ice Off” to turn the ice maker on.

    • scichelli

      It.. what? That… right. If I need to read the manual to use my refrigerator…

      Related, I was in a restaurant restroom that had a very fancy faucet at the sink, which required a small sign with instructions. If your faucet needs instructions, you’re being too creative.

      Thanks for the Ice Off/Ice On. How funny.

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  • My toaster has 3 dials. The dials themselves are almost completely uniform, there is only the slightest beveling to determine which thing the dial is pointing at.

    For any operation the toaster requires 2 of the 3 dials to be set properly. Since you can’t see what the dials are pointing at it was next to impossible to use properly.

    I got so frustrated how horrible of a user experience the toaster provided I knew I had to fix it. I took a sharpie and colored the pointers of the dials so you could actually see what it was pointing at. This atleast made it usable. It’s still extremely confusing from needing all the dials properly aligned.

    They really should not have bound so many elements to the dials. The mode selector toast/broil/bake really should have been a selector switch instead of a dial. But it was clear that the toaster manufacturer seeing that it needed 1 dial for the timer, that they only wanted 1 control unit, the same dials.

    • scichelli

      Oh my goodness, that sounds frustrating. How do you make a toaster confusing? Well, give it a set of controls that require a degree in combinatorics. Good grief.

      One place I worked had a toaster with a Cancel button. Over and over I’d see people wrestle to force the plunger up, because since when does a toaster need a Cancel button?

      But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve probably released a few toaster cancel buttons into the world. Ah well, always learning…