A tale of two (user-centered) teas.

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User Experience design and usability can be a really challenging thing to explain.  What makes it even more difficult is that everyone seems to have their own interpretation of it. Invariably the word “design” trips most everyone up, often making it synonymous with visual design.  But the aesthetics are really just the proverbial icing on the cake.  The innards, the skeleton, well, that’s the good, invisible stuff that goes unappreciated.  And when the user experience is done well it seems so effortless…so un-designed and unmediated, if you will.

Which brings me to my tale of two teas.  We often talk about several concepts in UX:
  • User Behaviors & Goals
  • Pain Points
  • User-Centered Design
Much like User Experience Design, these concepts are often very abstract. As I was peeking into my overflowing cupboard today, it struck me that I have two tea mugs that illustrate what good and meh user experience is like.

First, let me tell you a bit about my tea-drinking behaviors & goals:
  1. I bore easily — meaning my tastes change frequently and I can only take so many supermarket teas. As a result, I often buy loose leaf tea from specialty shops.
  2. I value convenience — meaning if I could, I would prefer to have something in a tea bag format because it’s easier and faster to prepare.  However, specialty shops sneer at tea bags, so I’m left to deal with leaves instead.
  3. I’m lazy but still I try to compost my tea leaves — meaning that even if I could find an interesting tea in bag form, it usually contains something obnoxious like a staple in the middle of the tea bag and I feel a bit guilty whenever I have to throw it out.
To carry this over to a syllogism, this means that I’ve been more or less forced into two possible solutions:

Option 1. A disposable paper tea filter

Option 2. A reusable metal tea filter/infuser

My pain points with these solutions?
Different types of laziness (remembering to go to the store vs. the pain of washing) have caused me to dabbled with both solutions.  Here is what I’ve learned along the way:

Option 1: Inconvenient. Requires extra “stuff.”
Requires me to remember to keep a supply of paper tea filters on hand.  I have to make a trek to a Japanese grocery store to find the unbleached kind.  I also have to keep another implement, a clean spoon, at the ready so I can scoop the tea into the filter.  

Option 2: Messy to use & dispose of. Undesirable experience.
The “egg” metal tea infusers are kind of messy–tea leaves and dripping hot water can go everywhere.  Dumping the leaves is usually a messy experience too because it’s hard to tap the contents out.  Some metal filters also let finer leaves through, so that you’re drinking mouthfuls of tea bits, ugh.  

Now, if I was to translate all of the above into User Goals, here’s what I’m trying to solve:
I want to find a fast, easy way to drink specialty teas and an convenient, earth-friendly way to dispose of the leaves once I’ve used them.

Which brings me to Exhibit A & B.
Exhibit A: The beautiful mug.

This double-walled glass mug with a custom-sized filter that sets inside of it is beautiful to look at.  Modern and airy, it makes me feel designer-y just looking at it.  But peel away that veneer, and you’re left with a filter that scalds you when you try to remove it because it has nothing to hold onto.  Also the filter doesn’t work with any other mug, so I have to keep both of them clean.  And if you do manage to not accidentally dump the contents into your mug, then where do you put the thing?  I have to use an ill-fitting ceramic soy sauce bowl to contain it.  Dumping out the leaves is another messy endeavor.  More often than not, I end up chucking the leaves into the sink disposal rather than deal with it.

Exhibit B the less beautiful mug:

Not too bad too look at, but not quite the looker that Exhibit A is.  However in its favor, it has a handle meaning that I can easily pull it out without burning mystel and easily tip and tap it into the composter.  It also came with another accessory: a filter-holder/mug lid.  I can catch the run-off from the filter and then use it to keep my tea warm.  This filter also custom-fits the mug but has the added bonus of being usable in many other standard sized mugs.  

Can you guess which one I use?  The one that solves for more of my pain points of course!
  • I don’t have to go to the Japanese grocery store.
  • I don’t need a spoon because it’s big enough I can just dump the tea directly into it.
  • It comes with a “built in” way of catching the mess.
  • The holes are very small so that no leaves go through.
  • I can easily dispose of the leaves by tapping them out.
And voila, there you have it, a very non-tech example of user-centered design.  You’ll also notice that I own both, but Option A preceded Option B.  Which tells you that I didn’t even know what a good user experience of this product was like until I found it.

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