When Design Creates Work

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Emma and I biked from Brooklyn to the Highline this weekend and rewarded our effort with coffees from Chelsea Market. It was a gorgeous day and the place was bustling but a slight miscommunication with a coffee bar cashier revealed (a) the strain a gorgeous fall day can place on a tourist trap and (b) the importance of reviewing a design after launch and making sure it works.

"espresso w/milk"? Why?

"espresso w/milk"? Why?

We were both in the mood for something milky and frothy but when I glanced at the simple menu I didn't see "latte", "capuccino", "flat white", etc. When it was our turn to order I asked the exhausted looking cashier "Do you serve lattes?" She answered with a combination of frustration and disdain: "Lattes are espressos with milk" and then gestured to the menu. Sure enough, one of the four items was "espresso w/ milk" and I had somehow entirely missed it when I was looking for "latte".

EMBARRASSED, SYMPATHETIC, AND ANNOYED

At this point I was embarrassed: Did she think I was a tourist who didn't know what went into a latte? (She would've been onto something if she thought I didn't know the difference between a latte and a cappuccino.)

I was sympathetic to this judgmental cashier: How many times that day, that week, that year must she have had that same dumb conversation?

And I was annoyed by the coffee bar's management: Why hadn't they fixed a design that creating problems on their front lines?

THE DESIGN WAS THE PROBLEM

I'll take it as a given that the coffee bar's management believed that "espresso w/ milk" was a good way to describe their drinks when they designed the menu. Maybe they liked how clean it looked or that this generic description would create an environment where customers would feel free to order whatever variety of espresso w/milk they liked. Regardless of what they thought of their design, in practice it was causing frustration.

As Emma and I joined the Highline throngs I wondered whether the coffee bar managers had thought to check whether their design innovation was working once they had launched and, if they had, whether they had concluded that the unsophisticated tourists were the problem. And I wasn't sure which would've been worse: That they never asked or that they asked and didn't fix the problem created by design.