I know what you’re thinking – Coffee has nothing to do with medical devices and another article about engineering and coffee is not going to contribute anything that hasn’t already been said. I get you. Hear me out though.

I used to drink the warm brown liquid that came out of my employer’s drip machines when I first joined the company. I lasted…. maybe 8 weeks before I realised that I had enough self-respect that I’d revert back to using an aeropress and hand grinding. During this time I also attempted to form strong opinions about tea, since I am in Britain, but aside from developing the ability to pluck a steeping teabag out of a mug with my fingers I still prefer coffee.

What did Einstein say about messy desks?

On a daily basis I would weigh 17 grams of beans, grind them to a medium-fine coarseness, place them into an aeropress, top it up with 250mL of water (just off the boil), steep for 2 minutes after agitating the slurry, then plunge. This would subject me to endless scrutiny for reasons beyond my comprehension. As far as I knew, my behaviour was somewhat typical of someone of my demographics. I couldn’t grasp why anyone would willingly subject themselves to the drip coffee. It smelled and tasted foul and no amount of milk or sugar would mask its taste, yet my coworkers consumed enough to energize a small livestock herd on a weekly basis.

The Ritual begins.

The Ritual begins.

Anyways, fast forward a year of what everyone in the company would consider abnormal coffee habits (haters gonna hate…), the higher ups decided we needed to have a swanky bean to cup espresso machine and I was going to be the one to lead the selection of finding beans to fill it.

The beast.

The beast. Also featured in your local Waitrose (because we drink so much coffee we need an industrial machine).

Now I’m sure you might think that since I’m an engineer, I’ll now use some form of engaging ELO mechanism for determining the best beans, like Sterling did with catfood preferences. Nope. The first thing I did was cover my ass. Hell hath no fury like engineers who don’t like the coffee they’re forced to drink.

There was a very short (literally one vendor) list of bean suppliers who were supported by the Partners in the company, so I went with him. Worst case scenario: people hate the coffee, I say it was the Partners’ choice and fade back to work.

Surprise, surprise, I have different taste preferences to the majority of my coworkers so the beans I thought were the best everyone hated. In fact, most of my coworkers have different taste preferences which leads me to the point of this self-indulgent post: The absence of negatives.

A client introduced this concept to me when they were arguing passionately that Dunkin’ Donuts has the best coffee in the world, which is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard, but let me explain.

The best *whatever* when served to a large population is going to be the item that offends the least number of people. It’s the coffee that’s not too bright, not too dark, not too sweet, not too bitter, not too fruity, not too… anything – The epitome of fast-food coffee. Warm brown, as my colleague Jon calls it.

If the consumer can’t find anything they dislike about it then it’s hard to hate it. They may not immediately rave about it, post something to instagram, and become an unpaid brand ambassador, but they’re also not going to actively avoid it. So when it came to beans, I had to try and find the coffee that angered the least number of people. It took some effort but I haven’t had anyone complain in a while.

What’s my biggest take-home from this? I frequently engage with user/stakeholder research, asking questions to figure out what exactly someone needs from a new design, or what current products aren’t providing them with. It’s all too easy to anchor on a soundbite, that one quote from that one interview that stood out above and beyond. It’s that piece of information you drop into a presentation to instantly justify your design decision. And it’s wrong!

Just because you’ve found something, anything, be it a feature or an annoyance that resonated with a single user (or confirmed some suspicions you held personally) it doesn’t hold any significance in the bigger picture unless you’ve tested and validated the claim. Just because I found a coffee bean that I loved didn’t mean the entire company shared that opinion. By compromising on what I believed was the best coffee, we now have beans in the hopper that everyone in the company seems to enjoy.

Check your personal beliefs at the door, prepare to compromise, and recognize that you’re not designing for yourself or the most sophisticated of users. You’re designing for the Dunkin’ Donuts of the target population. Warm Brown Design.

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Apologies for the absence. Some of my latest posts can be found on my employer’s website, and I was even published in a magazine in the fall. The run up to Christmas was tough but I’ve got a few posts in the works, so hopefully I can return to putting out regular opinion pieces in the coming weeks. This latest post was in my Drafts folder and needed to percolate for a bit before I could finish it. Thanks for reading.