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The kitchen: it can be a wind-down oasis where we share a meal with those closest to us, or a space of purposeful chaos, where we skillfully orchestrate a myriad of timers, temperatures and tasks. As the heart of the home, a thoughtful, well-designed kitchen can make all the difference in the world.

At Drop, when we talk about design in the smart kitchen, it’s not about incorporating a connected fridge into the golden triangle, or ensuring that your Home Connect oven aligns with your color palette. Great design isn’t just aesthetics — it makes problems disappear without you knowing how.

Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible.

Jared SpoolSpool has been working in the field of usability and design since 1978, before the term usability was ever associated with computers.

Reducing the Mental Load

The kitchen contains a plethora of problems, or Jobs To Be Done. Even if you love cooking to unwind, the list of decisions can be very real and often overwhelming. There is the balance of planning meals for varying tastes in your home, grocery shopping to find what you need, cooking in the time you have to do it, and that’s before you even have to start worrying about burning what you are cooking — it can be a lot to take on. This is why we see cooking happen much less midweek, because of our busy schedules. But what if choosing to cook was so effortless and rewarding that it is always your first choice?

The value of the smart kitchen is not in owning “cool tech,” it is the potential to leverage technology to ensure those appliances make the problems disappear, make the jobs we have to do easier, and make the results better.

Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.

Joe Sparano

The opportunity for great design comes in uniting all those interfaces, sensors, motors, heating elements, screens and appliances into one experience that doesn’t add to the task list, but is so intuitive that the person using it feels it has always been this way. That is what the team at Drop is laser-focused on. This is far from easy in the connected kitchen — the technology that makes all that happen is a deep, fragmented, stack with a slow development cycle.

Famously, Alan Kay said, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware”. Given all of our experience in hardware design, we now work deeply with many of our appliance partners on the physical appliance design. We also have a rapidly growing firmware team to manage the user experience from the appliance all the way to the cloud — this is the only way to deliver a truly magical UX in the kitchen.

Weighing Our Options

Drop Scale being used with the Drop Recipes app to make a cocktail.

When we were designing Drop Scale — a digital scale that allows you to add ingredients by weight in real-time using the scale paired with a mobile device — there was one problem we immediately saw: people were over-pouring.

It was an issue with latency that was at the center of our “wow” moment for the user. They were supposed to be able to pour away and we’d tell them exactly when to stop on the Drop Recipes app.

The fix?

We changed the loading algorithm to make it logarithmic instead of linear, invisibly encouraging the user to pour more slowly while approaching the target. Showing an ingredient at two thirds when it was half ensured the perfect pour and the problem was solved, without a user ever knowing.

Logarithmic weighing in the Drop Recipes app, as it looked in 2015.

The design wasn’t just a slick screen, it was looking at every piece of the stack (such as re-writing some of the Ti Bluetooth stack to minimize latency) and making sure they were designed to fit together. This exemplifies Drop’s design-first approach, from how we conduct user testing and write firmware, to how we develop APIs and talk to our partners about connected appliance hardware.

The Juicy Details

Aesthetics over usability (where something is beautiful but produces more work for the user) is not good design — it causes problems instead of solving them.

One famously controversial example is the Alessi Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer by Philippe Starck. From the product video, using this squid-inspired lemon-juicer looks like a seamless process, but the reality is very different. It’s awkward to hold, it’s unsteady on smooth surfaces, and a slight variation in pressure causes the legs to tip over and skitter across the table. Most importantly, the juice and bits go everywhere but into the glass. The task it has to complete — provide fresh-squeezed juice — was the second priority to a physical design that is better as a sculpture than a kitchen tool.

While the Salif juicer has become an interesting talking point for Alessi, juice seems to be a magnet for devices that don’t address user pain points.  Juicero, the company that raised $120 million from investors for a $400 WiFi-connected juicer, shut down after only 16 months.

The juicer only worked with pre-packed juice packets, and it was sold at a high price-point because it was packed with technology — it could scan the QR codes on the juice packs, connect to WiFi to check their expiration date, apply thousands of pounds of force to release the juice.

But… the expiration date was printed on the packets. The juicer wouldn’t work if it couldn’t connect to the WiFi, and when Bloomberg released the video above showing the packets could be just as easily squeezed by hand it was the final nail in the coffin for Juicero. Critically, although in itself it was an aesthetically pleasing piece of hardware, their machine didn’t solve problems for its users, and it was an expensive design mistake that ultimately collapsed the company.

Constraints are a wonderful thing in design — Juicero didn’t have cash constraints, so it tried to redevelop everything (including the whole supply chain) without focusing on the problem to solve first.

Design in Our DNA

Walnuts laid out on a blue background,

At Drop, design guides everything we do and helps us stay disciplined on why we’re doing it by focusing on the root of the problem — something that isn’t done enough in the smart kitchen and has hurt the space.

But it’s not easy, and here’s why — the human brain works like a sorting machine: it has evolved to subconsciously approach everything with an automatic classification system based on our past experiences. When we take in new information, our brains process that information based on what it has seen before, and this can make changing those classifications quite difficult.

For instance, you can see a light switch that looks very different from any light switch you have seen before, but because of the shape and location, you classify it as a light switch. Great chefs like Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and Hestan Blumenthal of the Fat Duck famously play around with this concept: tricking the brain into thinking a food is one thing until you eat it. We see the same problems in the design process and have to force ourselves to rethink these preconceptions by tricking our brains to go farther.

A Toast to Design Thinking

Toast popped out of a toaster.

Let’s say I asked you to design a new toaster. You’ve seen toasters before, so perhaps now you’re picturing how many slots it will have, how big it is, the dials and color of a roughly rectangular appliance. Your brain knows what a toaster is, and so you know generally what direction you’re going to approach the design with.

The problem with this is that it leaves little possibility for innovation. Applying design thinking to this requires us to step back and break down what the task actually is: how do I caramelize the sugar in this slice of bread in the shortest time possible?

And once you frame the problem like that, you start picturing flamethrowers and lightsaber blades. You’ve been forced out of the categorization and can start picturing better, smarter innovations. To avoid getting caught in the flow of operations, you have to rethink problems at their premise, questioning your own assumptions.

We believe too many people are trying to build a “smart connected kitchen.” This approach is forcing many into a “technology for technology’s sake” mentality. The market is littered with unused appliances and poor connected experiences for this reason.

Drop, along with our appliance partners, delivers a far more valuable solution by challenging ourselves to build an experience that will have the user choosing home cooking because it is effortless and rewarding. Even in these early stages, we are very proud to be proving this strategy by having over a third of our connected appliance owners cooking through the app more than six times a month.

To learn more about how we apply design thinking to solve problems, please contact Cynthia West, VP of Global Sales.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is the CEO and Co-Founder of Drop. An award-winning product designer and entrepreneur, Ben co-founded Drop in 2012 to spread the love of home cooking by making it effortless and rewarding.