Coffee and Ritual: Designing the coffee experience at home and at the counter

Associate Design Director
Engineering Director

About the salon

Everyone has daily rituals that provide a sense of calm and a brief respite from the day, like brewing and savoring that first sip of coffee. The daily ritual of preparing that cup—from grinding the beans to pouring—is part of what makes drinking coffee so enjoyable. Design plays an integral part in elevating this daily routine, whether at home with your trusty kettle, favorite filter, or sleek espresso machine, or in a local coffee shop. As more and more consumers become coffee connoisseurs, how can we, as designers, continue to design products and services to help grow the sector?

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Our panelists

Liz Grasing is the Global Category Director at OXO, the leading producer of household tools, including kitchen, cleaning, and home organization products. They’re internationally recognized as a leader in the practice of Universal Design principles.

Clay Hoffman is a Senior Manager of Beverage Product Experience at Starbucks, one of the world’s best-known and best-loved companies. They’re dedicated to serving ethically sourced coffee, caring for the environment, and giving back to the communities where they do business.

Stephan von Muehlen is the founder and CEO of Poursteady. Poursteady’s automatic pour-over coffee machines bring unprecedented speed, precision, and reliability to commercial coffee retailers–and better coffee to their customers–by combining automation, information technology, and design.

The evening’s discussion was co-led by Smart Design’s Associate Design Director Julianna Miller and Engineering Director Charlie Paradise, and informed by Smart’s expertise in creating meaningful products and experiences through human-centered design—including work for Poursteady and OXO award-winning work including an IF Design Award for the OXO 8-cup coffee maker. We asked our three panelists, all experts in different areas of the coffee business, why coffee has become a ritual, how brewing and drinking the beverage involves emotions and theatrics, and how the industry must create experiences for both the casual and most passionate coffee drinker.

Understand and honor the ritual

Panelists agreed that coffee is a global experience, one that is tied to special moments and memories—and for a growing number of consumers, more of a ritual than a habit. “There’s some positive emotion to it,” said Starbucks’ Clay Hoffman, defining ritual as a reward and “a daily occurrence you enjoy and really want to do…and go back to.” Even though that ritual can change—during COVID-19, for example, many Starbucks customers switched from their typically neutral, unflavored coffees to sweeter offerings “with a bit more intrigue”—the beverage is “a tool for people to get through their day or just keep going, as a kind of escape.”

Picking up on this idea, Liz Grasing of OXO noted that ritual, unlike a habit, implies being more aware of what you’re doing. When brewing coffee, whether it’s a pot of drip or a single-serve shot, “you pay attention to the process and are really involved in it—the beans you are grinding, the grind size, the amount of water, everything. You are centered in the process.” She says that’s why most coffee marketing materials depict someone with their mouth on the cup. “They’re trying to get you to be in that moment when you desire that sip of coffee and you get to drink it because that’s part of the joy of making coffee.”

For Stephan von Muehlen of Poursteady, acknowledging and respecting the precise, intricate rituals of coffee making is critical, as his company’s product semi-automates the pour-over coffee experience—a labor-intensive method of brewing coffee preferred by some coffee shops. “We tried to honor the artistry and science of making the best cup of coffee,” he said. This includes honoring what von Muehlen described as “the long journey” of coffee from the grower to the roaster to the customer watching the barista freshly grind and brew the perfect cup just for them.

Design the coffee experience

Hoffman concurs that coffee “doesn’t start or end with the beverage.” At Starbucks, it begins with the reason why someone comes in to get a drink that day, be it to celebrate an accomplishment, to relax, or as an escape—“It’s their moment of joy.” Then maybe they post an image of the experience on Instagram, saying something along the lines of “this is my perfect order [and] they made it just for me.” This reflects the bigger trend of personalizing beverages—the amount of syrup, the type of fruit, or the beans. “They’ve taken control of how they want the beverage to represent themselves,” Hoffman asserted. In that sense, “coffee is tied to so much more than just a beverage but the entire experience around it.” 

At OXO, the focus is on providing the right functionality and tools for each consumer’s needs, while also nudging them along to try new things. For example, Grasing described how a pour-over product for home use employs a built-in tank to distribute the water evenly over the grounds—“like a pour-over machine with training wheels” for newcomers to the method. This not only lowers the threshold to enter the coffee space but also makes the process just hard enough so that the consumer feels a sense of satisfaction with the end result, reminiscent of the so-called “IKEA effect” in which people overvalue their furniture because they themselves assembled it. That’s why there are OXO products for someone who just wants to grab a good cup of coffee—without the fuss or worrying about bean quality, grind sizes, and ratios—and a person with more time and desire to experiment and move up to craft coffee. “It’s not so much about the end result but the ease of the journey,” Grasing stated.

Von Muehlen noted that the challenge facing Poursteady to translate at-home coffee making into a machine for retail was to avoid the impression that a “robot is doing this for you.” The design that emerged combines the “performative” components that go into making a pour-over coffee while maintaining the smell, taste, and presentation that influences the coffee experience. As such, the machine features a light over the pour arm “and the light is in such a place where you can see the shadow, and you can see the steam coming off the grounds” The experience is further elevated by the mesmerizing movement of the robotic arm. Another subtle detail that celebrates the process and ritual.

Cultivate the coffee nerd

Our panelists acknowledged that coffee tastes are evolving to a higher level, with many people becoming what von Muehlen lovingly calls “coffee nerds,” as evidenced by the growth of specialty coffee during the pandemic—and an uptick in sales for the smallest commercial espresso machines for use at home. This shift from simpler entry-level coffee to more informed consumers poses a unique opportunity for the industry. “I would love for us to be making products that when [consumers] come back to the world that their new elevated tastes can be met where they are, in the specialty coffee shops they go to. That’s where we could see our audience grow.”

For her part, Grasing admitted that, like many people, she was fond of drip coffee makers to the point where her daily cup has become more of a habit or something she does without much thought. But moving to the more complex process of making pour-over—adding a shot of nerdiness, you could say—can take coffee back to its essence. With pour-over, the drinker has to focus more intently and get all the parts right, and need more time to do all the steps, and that in turn allows you to enjoy the process more. We can also mindfully drink coffee, she argued, comparing it to mindful eating. At a time when it’s very difficult to stay focused, “it’s nice to be real, for a moment.”

Recognizing that coffee today means so many different things to people, Hoffman says that Starbucks has adopted a more flexible model to adapt to what customers want. For some, a pumpkin spice latte might be their go-to drink, while others prefer almond milk instead of regular. Or they might want to try the roastery’s new style of espresso that isn’t so dark. What consumers are saying is that coffee can taste like more than just coffee—say, fruit or chocolate or caramel, or whatever is of interest to them. This is especially true for the younger generation, he believes, which is always looking for ways to stand out—and being experimental and creative with coffee is an outlet to do just that.

Conclusion

Coffee can be a creative platform, as well as reprieve and respite from a stressful day. It can be a passion or a hobby, or an indulgent experience you can both personalize and share with the world. With this in mind, designers and brands have introduced products so that consumers can better appreciate making and drinking coffee as an enjoyable ritual. And at a time when the craving to connect with others is stronger than ever, Hoffmann points out, coffee helps people find that connection.”

Tools for now

Recognize the importance of ritual
To create products and services that allow consumers to build rituals, develop a deep understanding of what makes moments special and meaningful to them. Ask how the design will help encourage consumers to elevate everyday experiences to rituals.

Know where your consumers are
As tastes and behaviors shift, sometimes in dramatic ways, be flexible and adaptable to meet changing and often unexpected customer needs. Meet them where they are, with the tools and knowledge they’re familiar with, but also introduce new ideas to increase engagement with a brand.

Offer a pathway to personalization
Consumers want to express themselves in unique ways and stand out in a crowd. Provide exciting and meaningful experiences for them—with products and on platforms—that tap into emotions and allow them to experiment and be creative.

About Julianna Miller

Julianna Miller is an Associate Director of ID who has a passion for working in the gray area between ID, UX, and strategy to bring new products to market. She brings expertise in user-centered product innovation with over 13 years of experience and has worked across the healthcare, fitness, beauty, and CPG industries. Her notable clients include Hydrow and Guide Beauty, both of which received IF Design Awards and recognition for Fast Company.

About Charlie Paradise

Charlie Paradise is a project director who has a knack for bringing together technical experts, brand owners, and designers to deliver concepts to the real world. He leads Smart’s sustainability practice and brings expertise in innovation, with experience working across the CPG, housewares, and pharma industries. His notable clients include Unilever, PepsiCo, and SC Johnson, and has been published in Fast Company.

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