Design can be free

As consumer devices get ‘smart’, they tend to sprout a large number push buttons. It’s almost cliche at this point to complain about them. The tiny buttons, hidden modes, and Konami Code interaction encourages mistakes and forces frequent trips to the user manual. Of course, they are survivable, but we don’t like them.

As a UX designer, these products feel like such a waste as they could easily be so much better. I’m not suggesting an expensive redesign but a basic reworking using what they currently have. I’m certainly not the first one to complain about this, so why is problem so persistent? Many of these products are from big companies, surely they’d know better?

I’ve discussed this topic with colleagues and there is a certain resignation. Extreme cost pressures and ‘feature list’ mentality tends to make this type of overly complicated and fiddly device inevitable. The assumption is that we’re basically stuck with these types of products as the market rewards companies for them. Unfortunately, a cheap device with a long list of overly complex ‘features’ still sells. 

I refuse to believe this. Mostly because fixing these devices is often quite easy. Design can be free. You can have a lower cost device that is still well designed.

A Tale of Two Coffee Makers

Let’s compare two different coffee makers as they represent a market with significant cost pressures. I’ve picked one that is mostly bad and one that is mostly good. But to be fair, they both could be improved. To make things a bit more complex, they even have different levels of functionality. The point here is to just call out different approaches and how a great design can still have modest hardware costs. 

Here is a coffee maker you can buy from Melitta for $129:

This is actually fairly expensive for a basic coffee maker. It has a sleek physical appearance and I assume it makes a great cup of coffee. But take a look at that display and control surface! I get twitchy just looking at it.

I got this from their website:

The Aroma Tocco lets you program the brewing time with its five controls. Just use its intuitive LCD with Touch Control to set your preferred time, strength, and temperature.

There is so much I have to say about this…

Confusing hieroglyphic icons

The uber-minimalism is clear. It’s an attempt to make it pretty and clean. It’s like an iPhone app using flat design to remove information from the display. Aside from the standard toggle power icon, I have no idea what these icons mean. I’m assuming the M and H are minutes and hours, but if so why are they reversed and so far apart? (I couldn’t find the manual online) And even the power icon is weird as it’s not a toggle, it’s a START button.

And how would you set your preferred temperature? It’s there I’m sure, my point is that it isn’t obvious. This type of minimalism does look great, but it’s also opaque.

Glass buttons

This is surprisingly common on higher end devices. To make the display a single sheet of glass that is easy to clean, it uses capacitive buttons under glass. It actually succeeds at looking nice! But it also makes the buttons much harder to push as it requires a fairly firm press to be read properly. In addition, there isn’t any travel feedback so it’s hard to know when it ‘activates’. Now imagine having to press one of these buttons repeatedly to change the minutes from 01 to 47…

No On Ramp

Yes, the On/Off button is likely the press-and-forget option, but there are options hidden behind these other buttons and none of them are obvious. There is no clear path to becoming more skilled in using this device other than reading the manual. Now I want to repeat what I said before: designs like this are survivable. People learn to use them. This isn’t a disaster. My point is simply that it could be better.

For a striking counter-example, look at this model Ninja coffee maker for only $79.

The  control panel is far more approachable.

Such a difference! Now, to be clear, it’s visually busier, which may bother some, and I do have a few quibbles with their overall visual design, but in general it’s just so much easier to get started. 

Better Clock

The Ninja has the HOUR and MINUTE  buttons displayed right below the clock. Setting the time is simply a matter of pushing any of these buttons at any time. There are no modes and no need to “confirm”. It’s completely stateless. This is a perfect example of “bad” hardware but with great software that works as you’d expect. Would I prefer a slim little rotary dial to make it even more elegant? Of course, but the simple push buttons, in this limited case, are reasonably adequate.

It’s much less clear how to set the clock on the Melitta. I assume it has to do with the M and H buttons but being flipped is kind of freaking me out. Something odd is going on there.

Clear “Brew Mode”

The Ninja has three buttons stacked on top of each other to select which brew style you’d like: a smaller batch, Classic, or Rich. All three of these flow into a visually distinct BREW button. This is visually guiding you to make a brew choice, but with a default so you literally just have to put in the coffee and push a single clear button to get started.

Yes the Melitta does have the very odd toggle button that’s not really a toggle button. So I’ll grant you it’s ‘just a single button press’, but it’s so much less obvious than this. Besides, the Ninja approach gives you much better onboarding to variations, making a smaller batch or a ‘rich’ batch is very obvious so you get to use your machine in a way that suits you better. Again, with no manual required.

Secondary buttons

The Clean and Power buttons are clustered at the bottom, diminished slightly by their location. It’s easy to ignore them. This is the power of a visual hierarchy. I just “know” that these buttons on the bottom are not immediately of use and I can just not worry about them when first learning to use the device. And please note that the on/off button toggles the power on and off so the icon actually makes sense unlike the Melitta.

Text Labels

The Ninja also uses actual text on the button labels. This is far superior to just using icons as the buttons actually say what they do. There is no need to consult the manual. Note I’m not a fan of all of their text labels but in general, it’s so much easier to know what each button does. To be clear, using icons makes it easier to ship in different countries, but I’d argue this is a value to Melitta, not the consumer. Also Melitta actually uses M and H on their buttons so they aren’t even international. It’s like the worst of all possibilities.

Real Pushy Buttons!

Yes, they will get a bit dirtier but they are so much easier to use! They have a clear tactile sense so you KNOW you’ve pushed it. What’s so surprising is that physical buttons like this are actually cheaper than the glass + capacitive buttons the Melitta uses.


Neither product is perfect but I strongly prefer the Ninja for the simple reason that it understands that the first requirement of a consumer product is to be obvious, not pretty. The Melitta over-indexed on pretty. Of course visual polish is important but not when it compromises ease of use. So much can be done with better visual structure even if it adds a bit of complexity. It can promote and demote actions so a user can walk up and know “I should start here”.

While it’s generally a good idea to limit the number of buttons, it’s not always the case with hardware. Putting the hour/minute buttons right next to the display makes it not only obvious but also modeless to set the clock.

The power of text labels is massively underappreciated. Icons can make things look pretty but they make learning a product much harder.

So many products could benefit from these simple types of revisions. In many cases, you can significantly improve the product and not even change the hardware all that much. The purpose of this post was to show that design can be free.

I know, it’s not always this simple. There are many forces pushing a product around. But I hope this walk-through shows that even inexpensive devices can use visual structure, button style, proper defaults, and text labels to rethink the overall flow and experience of a product. It’s not just what you see but how those visual elements prompt a different, and simpler flow through your product that makes a big difference.

PS: Any smart device maker out there, I’m happy, for no cost what-so-ever, to give your product a review and brainstorm ways to improve the flow and layout of your product. I’m retired, I don’t want to sell you anything. I just want devices to be better.