Friday, May 16, 2008

Everyday Things: Plastic Spoons

(WARNING: This post consists of Grade "A" nit-picking)

One of the perks of being an engineer is that you pay attention to how things work, how they are put together and what they are supposed to do versus what they actually do. I like just picking up an object and trying to figure these things out. Occasionally what I notice isn’t the sleek design or excellent functionality. It isn’t respect for the fact someone’s father worked overtime and missed his son’s baseball game to get this design just right or someone’s mother is on the phone most weekends to help the plants make XX million a year without complaint. What I notice instead is that this object is a piece of crap.

Case in Point:

You’re thinking, it’s a just plastic spoon, what’s the deal? Why are you bent out of shape about a cheap, disposable utensil? Because it’s a badly designed, cheap, disposable utensil. I’m only using this spoon for as long as it takes me to eat a yogurt (approx 2.5 minutes). If the utensil is so poorly designed that it annoys me in this short period of time, then it’s quite poorly designed indeed. In the time it takes me to eat a yogurt, here’s what I noticed:

1) The “scoop” of the spoon is too deep but also too narrow. This means it’s very difficult for your mouth to get out the yogurt in the bottom of the “scoop”. The best spoons are deep but wide that way you can easily slide the food from the spoon into your mouth.

2) Now the plastic used by this type of spoon is pretty flexible. So in order to get the yogurt out of the bottom of the “scoop”, you can flatten it with your tongue. Except these spoons usually have flash (excess material) around the edges from the injection molding process. This flash has usually been flattened while in the mold-press so that it’s razor-thin and razor-sharp, easily cutting into the sides of your mouth. Flattening the spoon with your tongue increases the cutting potential of this excess material.

3) The “ledges” on the underside of the spoon are too large. Yogurt gets stuck under there and the only way to get it out is by licking the underside of the spoon. Which is not something I want to do at work with everyone walking by my cubicle to get their morning coffee.

This particular brand of plastic spoon has a lovely textured handle that frankly does me no good. Perhaps the makers would have been better served to spend the money from the fancy texturing on making a properly functional spoon instead. Of all the things designers could have learned from software engineers why did they have to pick up the “cover woeful lack of function with pretty, pretty features” habit?

A plastic spoon doesn’t get a lot of engineering street-cred because it’s such a simply designed and made object. Spoons have been in use for centuries. Currently, plastic spoons are produced via injection molds of robust but simple design: 1 gate, 2 ejection pins, cavity ID, injected with cheap and ubiquitous plastic. There’s no rocket science here. However, no matter how simple the fabrication process or “typical” the object, every single design should be able to function without annoying the hell out of its user. This spoon doesn't not meet that criterion. It is an invisible, disposable object that becomes glaringly noticeable in the worst way.

People will forgive a computer for being annoying or even a car because on some level, they understand that these are complex machines that in certain respects aren’t fully known until they are built and used. I wonder: What is the excuse for a poorly-made plastic spoon?

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