Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reverse Engineering

For anything I buy, whatever the price point, whatever it's intended use, I just assume that it will have certain characteristics. I assume it will be attractive and stylish. I assume it will work as intended. I assume it will offer good value for the money. I assume it will be so intuitive that I never need to really try and figure out how it works. And I assume it will be well designed and engineered so that its use will be all but effortless.

After all, with the critical feedback loop that is the internet, can any company afford to release a product that doesn't meet those criteria? Thirty second after anything hits the virtual shelves, someone somewhere has gotten their hands on it, torture tested it, and posted an online review giving it three stars, or four thumbs up, or five ducks. And if it doesn't measure up? Well, lo to the firm that puts out a can opener who's self adjusting blade doesn't self adjust correctly to a can of StarKist tuna. Within minutes of Amazon announcing it as a special of the week, KitchenGal will be up with a post that says, "Tried to use and splashed oil all over my blouse. Do not buy."

Still, the overwhelming majority of comments posted online are generally positive. That's not to say they're aren't complaints and negative reviews for just about anything. But any smart buyer will take a look at the overall universe to get a sense of the landscape. Maybe you check out a couple of "expert" reviews from recognized professionals.  Then you look at the specs as published by the manufacturer, and how the product measures up against that empirical yardstick. You scan the posts from the huddled masses, getting the overall drift as to real world experience. Finally you put the word out to friends and neighbors to see who's got what, who likes what, and who has a coupon code and knows where to get the best price with free shipping.

Still, maybe I expect too much.

Turned out we needed a new coffee maker. The old one was in the process of giving up the ghost, sputtering, not getting hot and occasionally burping loudly while splashing grounds up and about. Worst of all, it was intermittent in its bad behavior. Several random times it misbehaved for my wife. I listened to her travails, then proceeded to make a pot with nary a problem. She went to her office grumbling, about it, me, whatever. But then it screwed me as well, and not withstanding the smile that quickly crossed her face, the battle was joined.

She asked around and did the research, sending me a few links for this model or that. After all, we both used it, so we both should have a say. Like her, I read about one's "stylish design" and another's "brewing pause feature." There were glowing user reviews: "Jackpot! Great coffee! Temp is right on." And counters as well: "Would be nice if there was a light on the small clock." There were even cryptic ones: "Seems a little jankie." I confess I had to look that one up. (According to the Urban Dictionary, jankie means "something messed up, wrong, stupid.")

Finally, we (read she) weighed the positives and negatives and made a choice. A brand new Cuisinart model, it seemed adequate to the task. You add water and grounds, press a button and out comes coffee. Some buttons make perfect sense: "Brew" and "Program" are obvious. Others are more cryptic: "1-4" indicates... what? Even after reading the instructions, which say it "provides double heating of the water," I have no real idea of what it does.

But my biggest quibble is in the filling portal. I hate to go all Andy Rooney on this, but did the engineers who designed this ever think about actually using it? You have this big pot. You have this little opening. It's all but impossible to pour all the water down the shoot without spilling some on the counter or down the side or onto the hot plate. Sure, it can be done, as long as you pay careful attention. And when was the last time you paid careful attention BEFORE you had your cup of coffee? Huh? Huh? Do think Apple would have made an iPot with a water intake module that small? Huh? Huh?

Sorry. I'm done now.  I'll be fine. It's early, and I just need a cup of coffee.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to read the paper with, well, a cup of coffee. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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