Knowledge Management: Information Ergonomics and the Coffee Automaton


The coffee machine at work apparently wanted to discuss statistics with me.

It was a cool and drizzly day, and coffee was pretty much the beverage to match the mood before diving into the newly-accumulated emails that I hadn’t managed to get to on the bus.
However, instead of “Ready”, or “Processing”, or even the terse flashing sign that said “Take the Drink”, today the machine said simply said, “Statistics”*.

Now I quite understand the feeling, I love statistics too, and I cannot imagine that sitting atop a kitchenette counter dispensing one of six choices of coffee is the kind of occupation that even a machine would find emotionally satisfying, or apparently, intellectually stimulating.
The machine seemed oblivious to my cup under the spout, or the selection I had pressed, and since it has no auditory systems, talking to it seemed like a waste of time, if not likely to make people wonder more than usually about my mental stability.

It got me thinking that the little display was in the wrong spot, and almost all new-comers made the mistake of reaching for their half-filled cup when the noises stopped, and didn’t notice at first the LCD readout at the top of the panel that said “Processing”. They also wouldn’t know that if one waited a few seconds after the initial noises stopped, new noises and fluids would emanate, and when the beverage was complete the sign would change to “Take the Drink”.
The sign and the process are divorced from each other.

People obviously learned how the machine worked pretty quickly – especially if half their drink went into the spill tray, but still, that is very wasteful if not also messy.

Human brains are the most powerful computing devices in this part of the galaxy at least, and maybe even in the whole universe, and wasting processing time and getting them to learn even such a simple thing as to wait for a sign placed in a non-obvious place and a process that was initially unclear, is simply bad economics and very frustrating.

The trick would have been to have any signs near where the cup was put – because that is where the person would naturally be looking, and the signaling could have been part of the process – like Edward Tufte’s rail-track process-flows. These would be familiar to most people (and hence less learning required), and the process itself would be embedded in the signs.

Life is littered with these little time-wasting examples of poor engineering, and the net effect is to drag us down by enough to be worth noting. From the way a remote-control should fit the human hand to how a screen should work in your business application, information ergonomics should be part of the design.
Processes should flow naturally and require no taking of notes or memorization of data, and should prompt with appropriate values rather than expect memorization or external reference materials. The need to learn should be minimal and understanding should build on existing knowledge wherever possible – and additional learning confined solely to innovations unless absolutely unavoidable.

Our devices and inventions are here to serve us and should fit our hand, not the other way around.

As for my coffee, I did what any machine-psychologist would do, I switched it off at the wall, waited 15 seconds, and switched it on again.
“Ready” it said, and ready I was, and got my drink in a tick.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it.

*Alas, it was not an epiphenomenal sign of machine intelligence, but either an error of some kind – a passing spike or brownout perhaps, or just an unexpected situation uncatered for in the logic. Or perhaps some clever and mischievous person had a trick to put the coffee machine into a stupor just to perplex fellow workers.


Matthew Loxton is the director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.


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One Response to “Knowledge Management: Information Ergonomics and the Coffee Automaton”

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