Simple Kettle is Best Kettle

My parents bought a new electric kettle.

After nearly 4 years of regular trips up the centigrade scale, the rotund Hamilton Beach began sputtering out. Before a complete hot-beverage emergency could froth up, my mother began the arduous process of finding a replacement.

The old kettle.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

You might think that this would be easy, but you would be wrong. Kettles these days seem to either be made with flimsy material, poor ergonomics, 1 or a multitude of modes and configurations. Worse, the price of decently-made kettles has risen since the last purchase. In the end, only two finalists made it through the requirements grindhouse: 2 Simple Kettle, and Digital Kettle.

Digital Kettle has a 4-button control pad and an LCD display. It can boil to a precise temperature (in 5℃ increments), “Keep Warm” (also in 5℃ increments), and can hold the boil for the duration of a timer. The screen was on top, facing up, so you could only see it while standing over it. That screen also lit up, but only while you pressed buttons – there there was no obvious indication of the kettle being on, aside from the eventual boiling of water. I still don’t know if the settings reset every time, or if you needed to manually get it back to defaults.

Simple Kettle turns on and off and has a corresponding light in the switch. 3

If you’ve read this post’s title, then you already know which one was chosen. But this isn’t a story about kettles. 4 It isn’t even really a story about simplicity or clarity in design, either, though both are excellent goals. This is almost a story about user experience, but that’s not quite it either. I’m sharing a story about kettles to make a point about emotions.

Digital Kettle’s problem isn’t that it does too many things. It’s problem is that it leaves the person using it uncertain about what’s going to happen. People feel confused, uneasy, and frustrated. We didn’t want to use this kettle because it made us feel bad feelings. 5

You, me, and several billion other people boil water daily. Kettles don’t exist because water is cold; they exist because people need it to be hot. We need hot water to power our ambition with coffee. We need it to mend a broken heart over tea. We need it to ward off winter’s chill with hot chocolate. Emotion is the atomic driver of commerce. Your job as a designer, developer, and modern-day wizard is to build things for those living, breathing, thinking, feeling people. They’re already feeling things left and right before using your product, and they’ll keep feeling things throughout the entire process.

If you want people to use the thing you built, you absolutely must minimize the bad feelings and maximise the good ones.

And now we return up one level to User Experience (UX), because that’s what it is. UX design is designing emotional experiences. This is why Firefox started apologizing on errors with “Well, this is embarrassing”. It’s why Chrome displays a silly dinosaur and why Microsoft’s Cortana says “The internet and I are not talking right now” when they can’t connect to the net. These builders have recognized that you’ll be frustrated that it isn’t working, so they neutralize your bad feelings with a joke, or an apology, or a silly drawing.

Up another level to the goals of simplicity and clarity. These design tenets are just shortcuts to minimize bad feelings. When there are fewer things to go wrong, fewer things do go wrong. This is the philosophy behind Dirt: everything should do one thing and do it well; otherwise, we’re all in hot water.

Simple kettle is best kettle.

Notes:

  1. Weight distribution and handling confidence is a big plus when carrying around scalding fluid.
  2. My parents made graphs, even. Okay, that’s a lie, but it wouldn’t be out of character.
  3. I’m told by my electrical engineer father that it’s a neon bulb. I learned a lot more about neon bulbs than I really needed to, because of a kettle. I like my family.
  4. Though they are a hot topic. Ba-dum-ptsh.
  5. Under the logo of Digital Kettle’s maker, Moulinex, is the ironic motto “Life Gets Easier”.

Robin Miller

http://www.gentlemanscientist.net

View more posts from this author