The case of Tea meets Tech: The Kicker Tumbler.


Rather than trying to isolate it to a screen based ‘device’, we believe technology can be added into the real world in order to make objects smart. Much as an alloy strengthens metal, technology can enhance any object. To make it better. Streamlined. More efficient. In other words, technology gives great tools an added kick.

This doesn’t mean we want to see screens and buttons everywhere. Instead, we want technology to be invisible. In other words, we want technology to work behind the scenes. It should integrate into our daily routines seamlessly without us being consciously aware,“Hey, I’m using technology now.”

To put our thinking to the test, we set about imagining how technology could influence a topic purposefully devoid of technology – tea.




To make an interface disappear, it has to fit perfectly into the context of use. This means not only visually, but also functionally. It has to keep the user engaged in the task, rather than interrupting with an additional layer of operating an interface. It is necessary to understand the ecosystem around the interface to understand what it means to fit into that context.

We started this project by investigating the ecosystem of tea. Perhaps a teapot would be our solution, but reframing the ecosystem of making tea through an emerging technology lens could lead us to something entirely new and different. We knew it would lead us to understand what it means to fit into the context of making tea.

We were interested in the rituals of tea making; we wanted to know what currently works in the process and what components should be preserved. To get the answers we needed, we turned to experts and aficionados for contextual research. We interviewed tea drinkers (of various nationalities), took pictures of people’s tea stations, talked with a barista at Samovar Tea House, as well as interviewed the owners of Golden Star Tea, Leland Tea Shop and the online shop, Andrews & Dunham. We also did an online survey that drew in nearly 350 participants.

We listened to the users’ stories. We looked at the words people used to describe tea making. Calming, refreshing, refined, soft/mild, warm, social, rewarding/luxury, and healthy were the main qualities people identified with during the tea-making process. We confirmed the rituals of tea had a lot to do with the sensory experience: the warmth, the color, the taste.

We also found that there was a very precise art to making tea. Tea leaves need to be handled gently. The water must heat to exact temperatures. The steeping requires specific timeframes.

We put each point of the tea-making process on an index card and strung them all together into a five-foot tall flow, filling in the gaps as we continued our research. We identified four main physical pieces within the process: The kettle, the pot, the infuser (often part of the pot), and the cup/mug.

We then mapped people’s behavior during the tea-making ritual to the tactile cues needed to complete the process. What sensory (visual, audio, tactile) cues helped them to make decisions on when to move to the next step of the process. For example, many tea drinkers know when the tea has steeped long enough by the color.

Understanding the current issues and workarounds that people have with today’s tools also help us to determine what types of emerging technologies would be best in a given situation.

After collecting our observations, four major issues became apparent for people making tea:

  • Not knowing or having control over the water temperature.
  • Not knowing how much tea to put in.
  • Not knowing how long to steep.
  • Not noticing the time and accidentally steeping too long.

We knew technology could be used to solve these problems.



Next, we took a look at the marketplace. Most traditional, “non-smart” teapots are built the same. We found that the lines are simple—there’s a handle and a spout, they’re made from very little plastic, and the natural materials insulated both the tea and the tea maker. The teapots that caught our attention were the ones made of glass because they highlighted the tea. These observations shaped the industrial design requirements: delicate, minimal and natural, with a focus on the tea.

When we looked around at what was happening with technology and tea we found that 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: quick, high tech, strong, intensity. There was plastic. There were digital displays.

But there were also clear ideas of what was most important to a tea drinker. There were lots of heaters. There were lots of timers both for steeping and for boiling. From our contextual research, we knew there was a reason for that. The timers and heaters were essential. Clearly we were on to something.

We decided to design a combination kettle, pot, and infuser because there were only a few examples of these in the space and we felt sure we could use technology to intuitively combine them. The focus of our design work was inspired by the major user challenges we identified from our research.


We devised the following set of Design Principles to guide our work:

Respect the Ritual.

Re-create the steps without adding anything new. Nothing that feels like a dramatic change.

My Tea, My Way.

Allow tea drinkers the flexibility and control to make tea how they like it. Allow for adjustments on the fly.

Not Just Taste.

Design for sight, smell and warmth, too. After all, tea is about stimulating the senses.

Digital Tools,
Analog Experience.

Maintain the low-tech process involved in using a traditional teapot. No screens, no buttons.


We also generated these Design Requirements to stick to our principles:

  • Tea must be visible while brewing (Show off the tea, don’t hide it.)
  • Easy to clean and machine washable
  • Easy to stop infusion
  • Easy to restart infusion (No automatic separation of water from leaves.)
  • No drips after infusion or when pouring
  • No need for an additional trivet
  • No plastic touching the tea (Plastic’s a no-no. It adversely affects tea’s flavor.)
  • Be able to watch the tea leaves expand
  • Indicate suggested leaf amount
  • No “stomping on the leaves” (Avoid French-press style because that’s meant for coffee)




We set out to create a shared concept or metaphor to anchor our design thinking. This acts as a central idea that all the different design disciplines — Research, Interaction, Sensory (Visual/Audio/Tactile), and Industrial — can universally relate. It also helps the user create a mental model of how to operate the product. The more simple the mental model, the more intuitive the interface.

We let the ideas brew for a bit. We spent a lot of time spontaneously saying, “It’s like…” or “Imagine this…” and “What if….” Then we started sketching.

As we looked over the sketches, the requirements, and the design principles, we started to combine some ideas, and chose a direction.

At this point we were still “ideating” and “concepting” designs. We didn’t pay too much attention to the sketch in the initial session, since it was one of dozens we created. But it kept coming up in conversations. We refined it and that became known as the Hourglass Concept.

The Hourglass Concept is basically this:

In our combination tea kettle and pot, water heats on the bottom of the device while tea leaves get placed into an infuser at the top. Once the water heats up to the right temperature for the type of tea, you flip the pot over and the water lands on the tealeaves. When the tea is done steeping, you flip the pot back over. Remove the cap, pour the tea, sip and enjoy. It’s simple, clean and maintains the soothing feel of the tea making ritual.

We all got excited about this concept. Not only did it meet most of the major design goals we had for the product, but it also had a unique and beautiful shape that was driven by its functionality. We green-lighted and moved forward to the next stage.




Based on our initial sketches, we created several rounds of prototypes. Some were made of rough plastic bottles, there was a printed 3D model in the batch, and even an Arduino with a tilt sensor taped to a glass tea jar.

Each one helped us concept how we’d want to interact with the device and helped establish technology touch points. Early on, we determined that we needed to avoid screens and buttons. However, without those elements, how would the user be able to communicate with the technology?

We had all sorts of possible solutions—from capacitive strips to physical sliders to big plates that spun. These felt too invasive and unnatural to the process of tea making. So we kept thinking about how to make the technology require less attention. We drew inspiration from mechanical timekeepers, hourglasses and egg timers, and noticed that rotation was tied to an idea of time. What a great idea! We determined the physical interaction with the teapot its self would be the interface.

The minimal interaction and industrial design required some subtle but clear sensory cues to work. We used the physical prototypes to find efficiencies in the physical and sensory design, in order to clearly communicate the necessary steps to the user, without drawing more attention than was required. We decided on subtly illuminated, glowing graphics with large enough targets to casually engage the technology.

Prototyping Solves Problems

The prototypes also helped us to discover and address some serious issues, both psychological and mechanical. The first was psychological: the (not unjustified) fear that the top cap might not be secured completely, so that when the pot was flipped over, 16oz of scalding water would gush out, perhaps right onto your lap. We fixed this by adding an audible click once the cap is fully screwed in place.

Another issue was a fear of burning your hands when picking up the pot to flip it. The prototypes helped us determine that a double-walled glass would make this issue go away. We spoke with a glassblower to determine the feasibility and ease of manufacture. Based on his suggestions we modified the overall form and made further refinements to the concept based on a better understanding of the technology.






You fill the device with tea leaves and water. Rings mark the inside of the infuser showing the recommended amount of loose tea to put in based on tea type. Adjust for weaker or stronger tea. The water line is indicated by the natural break in the form. A full pot can make about 2 mugs of tea.



The placement of the teapot in the base selects the type of tea. The light glows to let you know which tea type you’ve selected. It also indicates that it’s heating. A whistle-like chirp will let you know it’s ready to be flipped for brewing.



Flip the pot over and the timer on the top of the cap begins to count down based on the tea type selected. Adjust the brew time as desired by tapping. Each segment is programmed for one minute. The seconds fade counter-clockwise until the tea is done brewing. When the light goes out, the tea is ready. You can also send a message to your mobile phone to let you know the tea is ready. Smart-phone, meet smart-teapot.



Flipping the hourglass right side up stops the tea infusion. Simply unscrew the cap and pour. The lip is designed to catch drips. As for the leaves, they’ll remain in the cap for re-steeping or easy disposal. No mess. No hassle. Just a good cup of tea.






Not to mention, the incorporation of the technology is fairly transparent. It doesn’t add steps. You don’t have to put the pot on the base and push a series of buttons to get the right temperature. Instead, you just place the teapot on the base, and that’s it.

We admit, our pinkies stand proud over our Kicker Tea Tumbler. It respects all the values intrinsic to tea, while adding a kick of technology to make it that much better. We like to think of it as super-powered tea making.

Tea, anyone?

Download PDFs about the process and design.

To see how we can help you on your next project, contact us »

New blog post: Eyes on the Road! Or why my car should NOT be a giant smartphone on wheels: hours ago