When Hot Coffee’s Cool: The Keurig Coffee Maker

by Hugh Beyer, Traci Lepore and David Rondeau    08/15/2011

The perfect cup of coffee. It should be strong, hot, tasty, and convenient. Achieving all those qualities at once has proven difficult—vast amounts of human ingenuity has been lavished on methods to get the flavor out of the beans and into the cup. Generally, it’s been a trade-off—the convenience of a percolator at the expense of flavor; the flavor of a press at the expense of a multi-step process of grinding beans, boiling water, and combining it all in the press.

The new one-step coffee makers are changing that, so much so that a number of people in our Cool Study identified the Keurig coffee maker as one of their favorite cool gadgets. So we thought we’d have a look at the Keurig using our Cool Concepts and see how it stacks up. Following our process for a Coolworthy review, we used the Cool Concepts to identify particular strengths and issues and augmented that analysis with several interviews of Keurig users.

What it does

You’ve probably seen a Keurig around by now, but just in case you’ve missed it here’s what the Keurig does. It’s an electric coffee maker but rather than have a hopper to hold a filter and grounds, the coffee comes in little sealed plastic cups (K-Cups). You drop the cup in the holder, snap it shut, press a button, and a few seconds later the Keurig fills up your mug with steamy caffeinated goodness. From time to time you have to refill a tank with water, but the tank is easy to remove and replace.

And that’s it. That’s the whole story. You don’t even have to wait for the water to get hot, because the Keurig keeps a mug’s worth of water hot for you. The Keurig will deliver other hot drinks—there are K-Cups for tea and hot chocolate, and a wide variety of coffees—but they all operate the same way. Choose, press button, done.

More, the Keurig isn’t limited to hot drinks—there are special K-Cups for iced drinks of various kinds—made especially strong so you can pour them over ice and they won’t get diluted.

The result is a coffee maker that people don’t just like—they love it. In fact, we talked to people who have gotten rid of their old coffee makers—and others who kept their large coffee maker just to handle groups. We’ll talk more about that below.

Why It’s Cool

What? Hot, fresh coffee at the press of a button? If you care about coffee at all how could that not be cool? But let’s unpack the experience a bit and see if we can articulate just what about the experience makes it work so well. The first four Cool Concepts are embodied in the Wheel of Joy, including Accomplishment, Connection, Identity and Sensation. These concepts describe how a cool technology affects life.

The Keurig plays into the Cool Concept of Accomplishment in several ways. First, of course, is how it fits into the life. Making coffee is nobody’s idea of a real job. Baristas, we love you, we honor you, especially at 8:00 in the morning, but we don’t want to be you when we’re trying to get the kids to school or we’re running between meetings. The intent of making coffee is to get the coffee. So, as our users emphasized, the Keurig fits into life beautifully.

Even if I’m looking for a break—I got up from my desk to get a cup of coffee because I need a mental shift of gears within or between tasks—I don’t really want to get sucked into a complicated task just for coffee. The Keurig gives me just what I want without interrupting my day. The core of the cool of accomplishment is maintaining the unstoppable momentum of life, and the Keurig does it very well.

Ordinarily you might say a single-cup coffee maker couldn’t affect people’s relationships much. But the Keurig has an interesting affect on social dynamics.

Sharing a cup of coffee is an old ritual, of course. But with the Keurig, the coffee we share can be tailored to each person present. You want decaf? Go ahead. You want flavored coffee? Can’t think why, but that’s your option. No one has to compromise and we can all get the coffee we like. What’s more, discovering and sharing new K-Cup flavors becomes a game among Keurig aficionados. Finding them, sharing them, talking about them—it all becomes conversational content, something friends can talk about together to reinforce their relationship.

People who care about coffee love coffee so much that they consider a Keurig an appropriate gift. Look at the wonderful thing I found—you can have one too. And then we can talk about it together. Users we interviewed talked about how the Keurig becomes a shared experience, something they could talk about and do together with friends.

Of course, hanging out around the coffee pot is a major way to socialize and cement community at work, and the Keurig supports that too.  Delivering one cup of coffee at a time means people hang around the coffee maker while the mugs come out. No one wants to stand around while a pot of coffee brews. It takes too long—there are even old sayings about watched pots and how long it takes them to boil. But a mug comes out in a few seconds—and the next in a few seconds more—and the next a few seconds after that. Meanwhile a small crowd is clustered around the machine, receiving the cups as they come and chatting.

But if you’ve got a crowd wanting coffee, then you will want a backup. The main reason our users talked about keeping their old coffee makers is that when they have a crowd and want to make a whole pot, the Keurig doesn’t help. There’s an opportunity here, we think, that we’ll talk about below.

The Keurig really shines in the dimension of Sensation. The coffee it delivers is fresh-brewed and tastes that way. It titillates our sense of taste and creates that “Ahhh…” moment of slowing down for a break. Keurig decided to open up their proprietary sealed cup, so they can offer a large variety of top-quality brands. The result is higher quality and more varied flavors, leading to more sensual choice. Delivering coffee sensation is critical because it is, after all, their main differentiator over the traditional office coffee pot—the coffee is better than low-grade coffee that has sat on a burner all day. And delivering top-notch flavor is one place where their competition stumbles, as reviews such as this one at Bloggle make clear.

The final three Cool Concepts make up the Triangle of Design: Direct into Action, the Hassle Factor, and the Delta. These concepts explore how well the tool or technology works in itself.

The Keurig is a prime example of Direct into Action. Pick the coffee, press the button. It’s just about as direct as can be. There are two buttons on the interface—coffee, and more coffee (little and big cups). There’s one mechanism—lift the handle to drop in the K-Cup, shut it. And there’s one container for water that just lifts off. The Keurig demonstrates the core attribute of Direct into Action: from thought to result with hardly any individual actions (one being the best) to get there. More options just leads to confusion and more thought to get the result. The user might have to figure out which button to use, which really means figuring out how the coffee maker works. As it is, there’s none of that. It’s just—direct.

As the flip side of Direct, the Keurig has almost completely eliminated the hassle associated with coffee. No filters to run out of; no coffee grinder taking up counter space; no grounds jumping all over the countertop; no water to measure or boil. No cleanup afterwards, because the K-Cups are self-contained even after use. You never find yourself with coffee but out of filters, or with plenty of filters and no coffee.

Even the use of the machine itself is straightforward, and illustrates how important it is to get the details right. The review above dinged Keurig’s competitor for making it hard to close the lid on their cartridge—a small but significant interruption getting in the way of the simple cup of coffee. The Keurig’s K-Cups didn’t have that problem.

These single-cup coffee makers introduce a new way of getting to your cup of morning coffee, but it’s not totally new. Anyone used to the last generation of coffee makers should have no trouble with them. There must be a place for the water, usually around back or at the side—check, there it is, a visible, clear plastic tank. There must be a place for the coffee, usually on top at the front—check, right under that handle labeled “LIFT”. There’s a place for the mug, low down in front—yes, it’s right there. And there’s a button to start the machine somewhere—on top, lit up in blue when the system’s ready to go. Keurig has tied into the expectations of coffee-drinkers so that their main innovation—the K-Cup—isn’t confusing or a difficult stretch.

The Cool Opportunity

So the Keurig is cool and its coffee is hot. But could they do better? Do our Cool Concepts suggest ways they could increase their coolness factor (and, potentially, market share)?

The Keurig’s biggest failing is also its greatest strength: it doesn’t deal with crowds. It’s a single-cup coffee maker. Could they support multiple coffee drinkers at a time? Gang up multiple K-Cups and deliver several mugs at once, perhaps in a larger-scale office model? Or provide larger K-Cups for delivery into a carafe? Either way, a recognition that people drink coffee together, as well as singly, could give the Keurig an extra edge.

Another part of sensation is the way color and line draw people in. In our research we’ve found that striking colors and extreme design are sometimes just fun and sometimes help reflect people’s identity. The Keurig doesn’t try to address sensation at this level at all—they are a fairly standard, decently designed countertop appliance. So another opportunity might be to use cool colors to sit on your counter, and shapes that might remind you of coffee makers of the past—but function with incredible directness

Even as it is, though, the Keurig is definitely one cool coffee maker. We know because it passes the acid test for cool. Asked what they would do if their Keurig was taken away, the usual response is a shake of the head and, “Oh, no. Now that I’ve had it, I couldn’t do without it. I could never go back.”


The Coolworthy Column: Every month we identify—or, more often, people identify for us—things that are cool. We have no preconceptions about what might be cool concerning any product we review. We rely on the guidance of the Cool Concepts informed by our field research. When people say, “That’s cool!” about their products we prick up our ears and, if it’s interesting, we’ll do an analysis of the product or technology to figure out just why it’s cool—whether it is indeed coolworthy. Our analysis consists of a heuristic analysis against the Cool Concepts augmented by a few field interviews with users of the product.

Get in touch with us if you’d like us to review your cool technology—or your competitors’!

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Hugh Beyer

Hugh is a technical geek, a user-centered design guru, Contextual Design coach, and occasional writer. Read more...

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Traci Lepore

Traci has a quirky passion for combining creative disciplines like design and theater. Read more...

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David Rondeau

David is an interaction designer, design researcher, and Contextual Design coach with a love of art, science, and history in his blood. Read more...

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