About a month ago, I was at a Wendy’s while on vacation in Wisconsin. Work could not be further from my mind, as all my attention was on the tower of beef-n-cheese melty goodness that I had just sat down to eat. I was all-consumed in my beefy effort when, planning and debating on the next bite, when, to my great distress, I noticed a little drama going on in the corner of my eye. A little old lady was trying to get a coke.

“What’s dramatic about that? Was she fighting off thugs with a cane? Maybe she was berating her hard-of-hearing husband for not trimming the pogonias properly? Was she in distress, having some kind of french-fry induced heart-attack?”

No, questioning internet reader, she was just getting a coke. But the drama stemmed from where she was getting the coke; it was a Coke Freestyle machine.

I haven’t put much thought to their design up until that point. I’ve seen them springing up more and more often, but never paid all that much attention. They look sleek, modern, give me the option to put cherry in my whatever, and seem to be a pretty big accomplishment for the soda industry as a whole. PROGRESS!

As I started to think about my experiences getting a beverage from the Freestyle in the past, and I realized that when I’d used one myself, it had been a bit frustrating and slow. Do the abundance of options give me pause? Perhaps that’s the explanation. But I think the real issue here is that this particular breed of machine is an effort to reinvent the mechanism many machines use, the lever.

The lever is a simple machine. Everyone who’s been thrown off a see-saw pretty much has a PHD is Howtousealeveromics. Ergo, we know how to use a conventional soda machine. As a result, this is the user flow that results:

Before Coke Freestyle:

It’s simple. You can have a conversation while doing this. You may even be able to chew gum at the same time. When you’re in a rush, you can grab your sporks and assorted pre-packed condiments in one hand and fill up your 64-oz, bladder buster in the other.

Now, with Coke’s new-fangled machine, this is your user flow:

With Coke Freestyle:

Am I being over dramatic? Yes. Of course. I’m trying to prove a point here. All of the above user flow steps have happened to me. And I design interfaces. I know touch screens, I know touch events, I immerse my self in digital interactions all day, but I still manage to screw this system up about half the time.

Now, back to the case of the dramatic little old lady. What experience does she have with touch screens? Does she even know how to use them? Does she think that the screen is just a tv with a coke advertisement on it? What required learned behavior might she be missing for the interaction to make sense? Does she even want to use the machine? Would she be intimidated by it? Can she even read the font size?

What required learned behavior might she be missing for the interaction to make sense?

With technology that I don’t understand, I’m often worried about screwing something up, and I’ve been around computers my whole life. What is this lady going through?

Well, this is the scenario that she did go though:

She walked up to the machine, stared at it for a painfully long time (which is why I started to notice her), and then began to interact.


Notice the plural there. She literally started poking the machine using the same posture as a nose tackle uses with the ground at the line of scrimmage. What’s the problem, you ask? Knuckles are offset from each other. If you tap with great enough effort, after knuckle #1 touches the screen, the force of the hand makes good old knuckle #2 the screen as well, which results in 2 nearly simultaneous touch events.

She would touch the screen, and then immediately touch the icon that appeared in the sub-menu.

Dasani-> Dasani with lemon…..……. Back.

Dasani-> Dasani with lemon………… Back.

Dasani-> Dasani with lemon………… Back.

I was in pain for this woman. I knew that she didn’t want the option that was being presented to her over and over again, but every time she touched the machine, it took her two levels deep. And did so in a way that was nearly instant; I doubt she even knew that she was touching it twice.

What’s the obvious solution to this problem? Is there one?

“Tom, don’t be silly. She should be told to use the machine with only one finger, and then she’ll get it. She’s using it wrong.”

Well, hypothetical reader in my head, your answer would solve her problem, but it wouldn’t solve the big problem.

“Get to the point man. This article is dragging on.”

Fine. My point is that she was not using the interface incorrectly, the interface was designed incorrectly. She knew what she wanted, she knew where to go to get it, she knew she had to tap on the screen. Any interface that doesn’t anticipate how she would interact with it is wrong. The user is always right.

“Any interface that doesn’t anticipate how she would interact with it is wrong.”

I don’t know the design thinking that goes on at Coca-Cola. I’m not trying to say that the team behind that interface is sub-par, or naive. I’m sure that they are avery knowledgable group. But this specific example of a poor user to machine interaction taught me two reasons why UX design processes are so important.

First, I learned the importance of user research. It should have revealed that little old ladies don’t know how to use this interface. It should have anticipated that the demographic that drinks soda might not know what is going on. It should have been tested in every way possible to try to make the user less confused as to what part of soda-pouring process they are in. The design should have played off of known conventions to make sure that even if users aren’t sure how to use a touch screen, they’d know how to use this one. Apple did it with skeuomorphism in the early iPhones, Coke should have done something similar.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I learned that UX design plays a huge role in not only determining the best solution to a single problem, but also in determining what the real underlying problem is. Only then, can you come up with a solution. What research told Coke that people wanted touchscreens for soda? I don’t know. Why was that the solution they came upon? Why try to re-invent the lever? Why throw away decades of learned behavior? Why slow down user’s ability to consume their product? Was the solution thought of before the problem was well-defined? I learned that it’s always important to question a solution until I know it is THE solution.

I have the benefit of not understanding the ins and outs of why Coke does what Coke does. I’m sure there are a ton of bureaucratic hoops to jump through with every decision they make. I’m sure they see a great value from the Freestyle machine, and that some people’s interactions are less fraught with error as mine.

I’m also sure that a little old lady in Wisconsin got Dasani with lemon, and she has no idea why.

Design at www.basedash.com. Formerly Principal Designer @Asurion. Personal site -> www.tomjohn.design

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