FillUp, an automatic drink-mixing machine, was a side project that I worked on over the course of a few football seasons, during which time its iterations became the star of weekend tailgates, camping trips and house parties.
My role in the project included product design, prototyping, facilitating and documenting user feedback, writing the code for the chip, developing the app and building the marketing website.
FillUp was created in collaboration with a friend (a mechanical engineer and obsessive tinkerer) and fellow tailgater. The idea was born when we recognized an opportunity to leverage tailgaters’ desire to one-up other tailgaters with their team spirit and elaborate setups. From catering fancy food options to increasingly exotic lawn games, there's an innate competition in the otherwise light hearted environment, so we decided to get in the game by tackling the not-so-serious drink-dispensing dilemma for tailgaters wanting to outdo the opposing (tailgate) team.
We wanted a device that could transform the mundane, and sometimes messy, task of pouring a drink into an experience that would ignite enthusiastic conversation. All of this in a parking lot--so it had to be flashy, yet compact and functional.
In our early research we came across several drink-making products geared towards making higher-end cocktails, but none suitable for a tailgate, so we set off to create a version fit for our audience.
We initially defined our audience (early tech-adopting tailgate hosts like ourselves) based on our own by-weekly experience, then documented more design constraints that we identified through a combination of personal experience and talking with other tailgaters. These contraints would develop into FillUp's key features.
|Low maintenance: quick to set up, quick to break down||Needs to be easily assembled, disassembled and cleaned, with a large capacity for liquids to minimize refills|
|Fully operational in a parking lot||Can't have reliance on electric hookups, WiFi, etc. and can be easily transported|
|Easy-to-use to suit the casual environment||Operation needs to be intuitive (for hosts and users) so instructions don’t kill the mood|
We sketched countless ideas for the physical housing and "plumbing" that was responsible for pouring a drink, continually tested the interaction between user, app and machine, built rapid prototypes of the housing and spout using household materials, collected continual feedback from friends, and explored and tested hardware (duct tape sometimes works at preventing liquids from succumbing to that whole gravity thing) and software solutions.
Building FillUp was a constantly iterative process; we produced 4 fully functional prototypes that were tested in real time at our tailgates every few weeks.
In addition, we constructed several journey maps, including a host's setup on game day, a stranger passing by our product at a neighboring tailgate, and the experience of a “regular” who uses the product weekly. We used these to modify our design to make sure it would be approachable for all of our users.
Learning from Feedback
Throughout our design, build, and testing phases, we constantly learned from our users and adjusted our approach:
|There were two main reactions to initially seeing FillUp:
||We incorporated transparent plastics into our design to showcase the inner workings of the machine as it poured, which encouraged discussion and feedback amongst users in a way other tailgate props don't (no one asks you to explain how your new grill works).|
|From surveying users we learned the main ways people decide what to drink at a tailgate are:
||We altered the app navigation to start by asking whether the user wanted a shot or a mixed drink. Then came alcohol selection, and in the case of a mixed drink, presenting the options.|
|One consistent problem was that people weren't sure when FillUp was finished pouring their drink; users would pull their cup away too early and still-pouring liquid would spill, or they would hesitate and wait unnecessarily before picking up their drink.||We programmed LED lights on the machine to display patterns and showed an animation in the app while pouring. When finished, the lights flashed and an alert within the app notified the user that their drink was ready. As an added security measure, we installed a depth sensor that stopped any pouring if the cup was removed prematurely.|
* Plenty of people also prefer beer, which FillUp doesn't support because keeping it cold wasn't practical within our design restrictions
Logo & Branding Process
- Our original name, "The Drink Mixer", worked well enough amongst friends, but as more people got eyes on it at tailgates, we knew we needed something unique and more memorable. After some thought, we came up with FillUp — a personification pun that fit our design principles perfectly, while still conveying its purpose.
- Our logo started as a visual analogy of the machine's tanks but quickly lost its meaning as our physical design, and the number of tanks, changed. We needed something that clearly embodied FillUp's purpose and was immediately recognizable; we decided on the plastic cup — a tongue in cheek representation of FillUp and our glass half full (and pouring!) attitude.
- For the color scheme of FillUp's physical body and software components, we created a range of bright, strong tones, giving FillUp the attention it deserves even among loud and flashy gameday colors.
After several rounds of feedback, we began discussing the potential for bringing a production-quality FillUp to market. But we quickly came to realize that FillUp couldn’t be produced at a reasonable cost for our market without ramping up to a much larger production scale. This would have required outside funding, which we weren't willing to take on.
Even though FillUp wasn't something we intended to produce and market, we still wanted a good way to measure and evaluate our success. We decided that a good metric would be the amount of attention FillUp got from opposing team's fans at the next tailgate without any "marketing". Sure enough, we drew in several groups who insisted that regardless of which team won the game, we had certainly won the tailgate.
Tools & Tech
FillUp is controlled by a custom PhoneGap app that communicates over Bluetooth to an Arduino chip within the machine's housing. This chip controls the machine's LED lights, drink sensor and valves.