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Making the Complex Device Simple

We’ve been doing some navel-gazing of late, as is required during a company rebranding. While homing in on our core value propositions, we’ve noticed a common thread running through all our work (research, strategy, mechanical and electrical engineering, and industrial and interaction design): We make the complex simple.

At the same time, one of our clients, Dustin Sell, launched his Kickstarter campaign for a project that went into development about a year ago: the BRUVELO Smart WiFi-Connected Pour-over Coffee Brewer. From the beginning Dustin has stuck to a very clear vision for Bruvelo: to brew the best, purest cup of coffee. To match his focused vision, the machine we engineered and designed had to be uncompromisingly simple to use, and it had to produce a cup of coffee that’s uncompromising in its quality.

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Bruvelo — a complex device made simple.

This confluence of rebranding and Dustin’s Kickstarter made me think how Bruvelo is a perfect example of our “making the complex simple” proposition. That phrase can sound awfully abstract without a solid example to illustrate it. This is a great example because we got to take on Bruvelo’s mechanical and electrical engineering, and industrial and interaction design. We relish such an opportunity for our disciplines to work side by side on a project to create a holistic simplicity strategy.

Boiling Down the Complexity

I’m a casual coffee drinker, so I had no idea how complex coffee-making can be. When we started working with Dustin, he came to us with graphs for the ideal measurements for each parameter to produce the desired TDS, or total dissolved solids, to qualify a cup of coffee as competition-grade. (As an engineer, I appreciate being able to quantify coffee.) He already had some spec development under his belt — enough to define his ideal process. He wanted the beans to be ground to a certain level of fineness. He wanted to be able to weigh them to a certain accuracy. He wanted to be able to heat water to a specific temperature, plus or minus a small tolerance.

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Helped along by a copper heating coil, Bruvelo maintains 199⁰F throughout the entire brew process.

Making a cup takes around ten steps, and he envisioned a machine that would do all of that with the push of a button. He was determined — you could even say he was obsessed! His enthusiasm was infectious.

The key to a complex device is to make it feel simple. The work is to create simple, robust solutions using the fewest parts made of the most appropriate materials. The goal is a machine whose streamlined inner mechanisms enable its distinctive form and pleasing user experience.

Sometimes that requires a bit of complexity in itself to deal with manufacturing tolerances and limitations. If you look at any one of the device’s functions, each has a whole system behind it that is made up of a number of mechanisms. No one of those steps is uber-complicated, but altogether there’s practically a whole computer inside of this coffee maker. (Industrial design site, Core77, called it “quite possibly the most high-tech consumer level coffeemaker ever” in their post, The Bruvelo Makes Coffee Smarter.)

A Few of the Moving Parts

We approached each function with the goal of boiling down its — and the whole system’s — complexity. Here are a few examples:

  • The brew chamber was a puzzle. We figured out how to minimize its parts and pieces but still have a chamber that can be easily disassembled, reassembled, and actuated.
  • We spent a lot of time making sure the grinder was easy to disassemble for cleaning. We tested various types of gauges before deciding on a strain gauge to weigh the beans very precisely.
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One of our mechanical engineers, Jason Zerweck, figuring out the brew chamber puzzle.

  •  The sprinkler head took a lot of trial, error, and testing. Coffee connoisseurs are sticklers for covering their grounds evenly for a nice bloom or aeration phase.
  •  Water filtration is a simple concept, but we had to design a novel water-filter canister that would hold up inside the system. The carafe wanted to plug into it and into the system so the user could easily remove and replace it.
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Bruvelo’s carbon block water filter and canister.

Interaction design was another challenge — my colleague, Bill Horan, did a great job bringing forward only the essential steps to guide Bruvelo’s users through the brewing process. He and his team designed a pared down workflow and user interface for the touchscreen embedded in Bruvelo’s glass base. Just as Dustin envisioned, there are plenty of moving parts perfectly calibrated to produce a perfect cup of coffee, but those parts don’t get in anyone’s way.

We designed a user interface for the embedded touchscreen that is as pure and simple as the inventor's vision.

We designed a user interface for the embedded touchscreen that is as pure and simple as the inventor’s vision.

That Jobs Guy

There is more to say about this project, but we’ll leave that for the case study. I’ll end with a quote from Steve Jobs, who everyone quotes, but only because he has some really good quotes. Case in point: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Dustin came to us with clean thinking, and it was our pleasure to partner with him on developing a complex, clean product. We’ve learned a lot about coffee, and we’re having fun seeing how people appreciate the design as the numbers rise on Kickstarter.