Kicker Tea Project: Introduction

Several years ago when I was working on the first edition of my book Designing for Interaction, one of the first people I interviewed was Marc Rettig. I asked him, What can interaction designers learn from non-interactive tools? and at the end of his response, he said, “I’d love the chance to take a serious interaction design approach to something like a tea kettle.”

Kicker Studio is doing just this.

As consultants who specialize in new technology, a lot of our work is under NDA, so every once in a while, we do a project just for ourselves. (Last year it was the Kicker Conference Phone.) This time, we wanted to design a product for the home and we focused on an activity many of us enjoy: tea drinking.

We didn’t know what the actual product was we were going to design at the end of the project, but we knew we enjoyed making and consuming tea and, since tea drinking is on the rise, that there was probably room in the market for another product in the space.

We started out with contextual research. We interviewed tea drinkers (including several Brits), took pictures of people’s tea stations, talked with a tea barrista at Samovar, and interviewed the owner of the tea shop Leland Tea and the online shop Andrews & Dunham. We also did an online survey, which got nearly 350 participants.

What were looking for in our research were details about the process and rituals of tea making, not only to find out where problems are in the process, but also to find out what works and thus what we don’t want to disrupt when it comes time to design the product. We were also looking for the emotional content of tea: how it makes people feel.

We were also trying to find out the kinds of tea drinkers there are in order to narrow down our target audience. We found three broad categories:

  • Baggers. People who mostly use teabags for brewing tea. They don’t want to deal with the mess or time for brewing looseleaf tea. They don’t care about things like water type, water temperature, and timing is less important to them. Convenience is the most important aspect of tea making.
  • Leafers. People who use both teabags and looseleaf teas. They may or may not care about water type and temperature, but figuring out the steeping time and the leaf:water ratio is important.
  • Aficionados. People who wouldn’t be caught dead using a teabag. They do care about using filtered water, water temperature, infusion timing, and pretty much everything having to do with the brewing of tea.We decided to focus on the last two user types, as we didn’t think there was much that could be improved for the first group, many of whom throw a teabag into a mug of water and microwave it.

    We put each point of the tea making process on an index card and strung them together into a large, five-foot tall flow, filling in the gaps as we learned more from research. Here’s a part of it:

    There are four main physical pieces to the tea process: the kettle, the pot, the infuser (often part of the pot), and the cup/mug. We heard a number of flaws about each piece: from physical injury (burning), to just annoying (leaf fragments getting into the tea).

    We decided to focus on the pot and the infuser for this project. This allows us to address these issues:

    • Accidentally steeping too long
    • Not knowing how much tea to put in
    • Not knowing how long to steep
    • The mess involved with used tea leaves

    We didn’t want this to just be an industrial design project, however, so we’ve asked ourselves the questions: What if we added sensors/networking/data to a tea pot? How could that help users without being intrusive into the tea ritual?

    We also looked at the words people used to describe tea making, so that when it comes time to consider the qualities of the interaction and the form, we keep those in mind. The main ones: calming, refreshing, refined, soft/mild, warm, social, rewarding/luxury and healthy. What’s interesting is that as we started conducting a competitive analysis, only some of the products on the market reflect these characteristics. Most of the electric tea makers adopt a style that is more in line with what we imagine the characteristic of coffee, not tea, would be.

    Part II of this project >>