The context for this project was coffee/tea making. In this particular case, I chose to design a control for a micro-interaction involved in loose leaf tea making, specifically, a modified tea strainer that would help to prevent overfilling the teapot and inundating your freshly made tea with unwanted tea leaves. The primary goals were to increase discoverability, strengthen feedback, and make the interaction forgivable and recoverable.
I began my exploration into this subject by simple participatory research (i.e. making tea and coffee). Since I am much more practiced at making tea than coffee, I decided to focus on all of the interactions involved in making a pot of tea. First, I listed out roughly 30 separate interactions involved in the process. This was by no means an exhaustive list but provided an adequate framework.
I then chose 10 of those micro-interactions to explore more fully using Don Norman and Jakob Nileson’s principles of usibility: goals, affordances, constraints, conceptual models/mapping, signifiers/visibility, and feedback.
The specific teapot that was the subject of my research was my family’s Chatsford teapot, which is a well made, sturdy teapot meant for everyday (multiple times a day) use. The teapot is made up of three separable pieces; the body, the lid, and the strainer.
There is a slight divot in the strainer in which a tab located on the lid sits. This was designed so that while pouring tea into your cup, the lid stays in place and is at no risk of falling off and shattering on the floor. This divot, therefore, is the maximum fill line for the pot. The inside of this particular pot is quite dark, however, and so it is quite difficult to see this line. There is no other signifier on the strainer to let you know you are in danger of overshooting the mark. In addition, since tea leaves tend to float on top of the water before they become waterlogged and sink during steeping, it only takes a slight miscalculation for tea leaves to spill over before you can react.
I began to brainstorm various modifications to the strainer and sketched them out. These ranged from a simple ring around the interior circumference at the fill line, to a digital strainer that notifies you when you reach the top. In the end, I decided to go with a mechanically simple modification, as tea strainers used as much as mine tend to become quite stained/clogged and need to be cleaned easily and often.
Because the modification had to be simple and unobtrusive, one of Dieter Rams principles of good design, and not have many unnessesary parts when a simplier solution would achieve the same effect, I chose to focus on maxmizing the visual discoverability of the fill line, and a slight physical constaint to tea leaf contamination because of overfilling.
I decided to pursue the design with two low relief rings. The ring at the fill line would use surface tension to gather leaves and a bright color to signal the fill line. The second ring, also a bright color, would be placed diagonally along the height of the strainer so that it could be easily read from above. It would mark intervals with cups of tea produced with volume of water poured, which is an interactional problem that only occured to me during my research into liquid measuring devices.
I began prototyping my design with foam core to see if the rings would be too bulky or inconvenient. Having determined that they were of low enough profile to not significantly hinder cleaning, I moved on to what I though would be my final prototype.
I disassembled my foam core prototype to make templates, which I then used to cut out pieces of milk jug plastic. I chose milk jug plastic as it was a good proxy for the molded plastic of which the original strainer was composed. I also obtained a door screen repair kit to use as the mesh, as well as a rubber faucet fitting which I could cut to size for the rings. I soon discovered, however, that milk jug plastic does not have the depth of foam core, nor does bend as easily has I had hoped. The resulting prototype, was sloppy and unwieldy, and so I decided to try a difference approach.
Fortunately for me, I managed to find an old strainer badly clogged and stained from years of use. I cut out the old mesh and replaced it with the door screen material to serve a a proxy. I then cut and painted the rings and glued them inside. The structure of old strainer made the modification that much clearer, and was superior to trying to make my own strainer frame.
For this particular control I used the existing framework for the strainer. This seems the most effective solution because the dimensions of this teapot are very specific. You need the tab to lift the lift the strainer, the divot to accomodate the lid, and the existing height and diameter to fit properly into the teapot opening.
I chose to cut my top ring to a width of about 3mm; wide enough to be clearly visible and corral tea leaves but not so wide as to hinder leaves exiting the strainer when inverted to empty.
The rings themselves must also have a narrowed, rounded edge. This would help tea leaves to slide off of the rings when the strainer is being cleaned.
While not completely visible in this prototype, the diagonal ring would have inscribed and darkened tick marks to show the cups of tea produced as you fill the pot. The opposite side would show the volume of water you were pouring into the pot. To help dispel confusion as to whether the measurements are meant to indicate an amount of tea leaves or water required, “fl oz” would be clearly visible at the top, signifying that these are liquid measurements. The diagonal ring is slightly wider (4mm), as the marks inside had to visible enough to read.
As the strainer was red, I chose a light, bright contrasting color for the rings so that they would call attention to themselves and increase discoverability. This green also worked will with the cobalt blue of the teapot. The colors altogether maintained the style of an attractive, yet not overly fancy, modern, or fussy teapot.
Ideally, the next step for this design would be user testing. There are some assumptions made (that the rings will not get in the way of cleaning) that need to be verified.
In addition, the issue of material needs to be addressed. The rings, in order to continue to be visible, have to be stain-resistant and durable. Possibilities could include a rubbery plastic substance or hard molded plastic like strainer frame.
In addition, the strainer may last longer and not become as stained or clogged if it was made of a less porous substance, such as ceramics or metal. Designs using these materials would be worth exploring as well.
As teapot systems are quite varied across cultures and taste regimes, different forms of teastrainers, to fit different shapes and mechanisms could also be explored. Perhaps a more modern teapot strainer would utilize more subtle colors, or a geometric tea strainer might utilize square outlines instead of circular.