Shortly after I started working at my current job, we replaced the old school drip coffee machines with Keurig machines. For those unfamiliar with them, Keurig makes coffee machines that let you insert a little sealed plastic cup into the machine, press a couple of buttons, and have coffee emerge. Cleanup is as simple as throwing a little gob of plastic into the trash.
The Keurig people have built the skill of making a cup of coffee into the device itself, making it easy for people to get consistent results. Not good results, mind you, but consistent results, which is something that we know people care about. Plus, you get coffee that seems fresh, made just for you! And you get to exert choice over what kind of coffee you put into the machine. You get custom made coffee and the ability to choose (within the constraints of the system, of course). Just make sure you only buy Keurig brand coffee cups. They frown upon you using off-brand coffee.
Of course, Keurig, besides making terrible coffee, is super wasteful. Granted, you waste less coffee using this system. Generally speaking, people have no idea how much coffee to use when they’re brewing it (this is the skill that Keurig builds into the artifact). But you are using a bit of plastic every time you make a cup of coffee and tossing it in the garbage afterward (these cups can’t even be recycled). Keurig coffee is not exactly an ethical choice.
Should a UX person participate in making a product like the Keurig machine? Should we make products that devour natural resources and create unnecessary waste, and terrible coffee to boot? In a perfect world: No. We don’t live in a perfect world, though, and living in society means choosing which compromises we’re going to make.
The discussion of sustainability in UX is thought-provoking but, I would say, not really relevant to most people’s lives. UX people don’t often get to participate in discussions of what to build; we’re usually brought in to help figure out how to build it. Without the ability to influence what gets built, we’re left with two choices: Participate or starve.
So while I’d love to live in a world where Keurig doesn’t exist, I wouldn’t blame any UX person that was involved in building it. If it’s any consolation, though, the design of the Keurig machine is so bad that I can only conclude that there isn’t.