the betacup: Demonstrating the value of user-centered design thinking

By Brynn Evans

There is problem with disposable paper cups: they aren’t recyclable.

Now you might ask: but isn’t paper recyclable? I, too, thought paper cups were recyclable, and thinking back to my behaviors, I’m almost positive that I’ve been dropping used paper cups in the recycling bin. Unfortunately, most paper cups are made with a wax lining on the interior making them NON-RECYCLABLE! If you happen to live in an uber-eco-friendly city like San Francisco, your “paper” cups may actually be compostable — but that’s another thing.

On the first day of Overlap09, Toby Daniels presented this very basic problem: disposable paper cups carry a heavy environmental burden, from the way they’re created to the way they’re just simply thrown away. At the same time, they’re super convenient for consumers — I walk into Starbucks or my favorite local Blue Bottle Coffee and my coffee is presented in a disposable paper cup unless I bring my own travel mug (or occasionally they have ceramic mugs for dining in). Blue Bottleactually doubles up on paper cups, the outer one serving as a hot sleeve.


Is it possible to solve the paper cup problem? How can we reduce our consumption of non-recyclable, non-compostable papers cups which have so widely infiltrated American society?

I quickly joined this weekend-long project as part of a 5-6 person team with the hope of brainstorming and prototyping possible solutions. I’m sharing our experience to illustrate the value of a user-centered design process — that effective designs will work within existing user behaviors to enact shifts in practice. In fact, this was possible even though we only had 1-2 days to tackle this problem, and even though we were unable to observe coffee consumers in their normal routines. (There were plenty of coffee consumers in our crowd…all of whom were drinking from the terribly ugly, small, and poorly made non-recyclable paper cups that the Asilomar conference grounds kindly provided. See cups —>.)

One woman approached me at the end of the weekend: “That paper cup problem, that’s a hard one. When I first heard the idea presented I thought ‘good luck’ to the poor souls who take that on. That’s gonna be impossible to solve.”

And so it might be; but that very challenge was the thing that drew me to the project. It was also a physical, tangible artifact that was deeply embedded in people’s work practices and social cultures, another thing that I felt suited to study given my training in distributed cognition and ethnography.

We had a four-pronged strategic approach to this problem (which albeit emerged organically):

walking exercise arrows

First, the team went on an hour-long walk outdoors, with each of us carrying a cup to immerse ourselves in the problems with both paper cups and travel mugs. But the outdoors part was key because, for us to remain as a group, we had to face each other almost in a circle, we practiced deliberate turn-taking (giving everyone a chance to chime in), and we weren’t constrained by computer screens or white boards. We literally just bounced around ideas in a semi-structured manner. We explored everything from the pros and cons of existing solutions to the practices that consumers engage in through the act of purchasing and drinking coffee. What emerged were a few threads with design principles that contributed to the majority of our final prototype.

Second, we let those ideas bounce around privately until the next day. While at first I was disappointed that our return to the retreat center meant we were launching into a new exercise, the next day I realized that having time to digest all the various ideas that were proposed let the few really promising ones percolate to the forefront of our minds. Therefore the next day, we were fresh and ready to go with the best ideas from the lot.

paper prototyping our user surveyThird, on the second day we began constructing a user survey that we will put on Mechanical Turk to get a mass of data from coffee drinkers. The act of composing a survey, however, made us focus deeply on the issues surrounding the practice and culture of consuming coffee. We talked a lot about the context in which coffee is consumed. Are people buying coffee with their coworkers (as a social practice) or are they drinking solo? What other things do people carry when they purchase coffee? At what time of day does coffee consumption occur? Morning time might suggest it’s part of a regular routine (which would require certain product designs); afternoon might suggest that it’s part of a work-place practice (which would require alternative designs).

Finally, we used a practice called bodystorming to illustrate both the problem and our proposed solution within a coffee shop setting. Dennis Schleicher introduced us to the bodystorming practice earlier in the weekend. Our bodystorm was really a live demonstration (think: a short play), but we presented it in quite a hurry, had to improvise several scenes, and were subject to audience questioning afterwards. All of these things actually led to a better understanding of the problem and solution space! [Aside: some tips on bodystorming.]


Our solution looked something like this: reusable travel mugs already exist (I personally have several), but people are not diligent about carting them around. This is probably true in part because they’re bulky, so we can propose a collapsible, pocket-size mug. However, structural integrity aside, pocket-sized reusable mugs may still not be a sufficient solution. Users are lazy, unlikely to change their behavioral practices — yet for a real solution to take hold, it will have to change behaviors in some way. The best approach to this, in my opinion, is to fit within existing practices and provide incentive structures that encourage a certain type of behavior.

When we were thinking about what coffee consumers’ incentives might be, three issues emerged:

1. how many coffee shops give out punch cards where you can buy nine and get the tenth free;

2. to-go users are often busy, rushed, or have things in their hands, making coin (and even credit card) transactions less than convenient;

3. coffee shops often get your order wrong, especially if you’re the triple decaf caramel soy latte with whip.

    Could we provide a “smart” collapsible travel mug that provided simple solutions with these three issues in mind?

    Our mug (a “betacup”) will therefore have a digital chip on the underside which serves both as the punch card and the debit card, and has a mechanism for remembering your drink. It could remember several drinks (which could vary by time of day) — and you’d be able to add or delete drinks at the shop.

    The solution continues: when you enter your participating coffee purveyor, there would be an “Espresso Line” for betacup users. When you arrive at the cash register, there will be a surface for placing your mug which would both read in your preferred drink order, debit your card, and you customer loyalty points, leaving you hands-free to tend to your crying baby or seal a business deal on the phone. Your only wait would be for the baristas to prepare the drink.

    Of course, this is an early solution, a result of just a weekends-worth of brainstorming and prototyping. But it’s also a demonstration of how user-centered design thinking can drive solutions to “paper cup problems.” The betacup isn’t just made out of a new type of material, with a new form factor, with a personalizable exterior — although it can also be all of those things. It is a design that tries to work within existing behaviors to enact a shift in practice. Understanding users and the context of practice are hugely important parts of the design process.

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