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Poor Design Can Be Bad—for Your Health

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What happens when convenience turns to contusions? In many consumer products, accidents could be prevented with a few design tweaks. Image: William Clark, Flickr

I have always been impressed by the design of the coffee grinder. Here you’ve got a supersharp metal blade spinning around in a buzzing blur and chopping the living bejesus out of those coffee beans. But you never—never!—have to worry about the same thing happening to your fingers. The only time a coffee grinder works is when the top is closed, which effectively eliminates the peril of losing your digits. The blender and the food processor, on the other hand, come with no such guarantee. Granted, you probably shouldn’t be sticking your hand down into the spiraling blades but, hey, accidents happen. The coffee grinder’s design does not allow for such accidents.

But every once in a while I come across a design that is the anti coffee grinder. One that is so plain dumb, I think I actually lose brain cells over it. This time, it’s the instant soup cup.

I stumbled on this befuddling design in a recent Planet Money piece on the hazards of CupNoodle instant soup and its Styrofoam cousins. Apparently, the tall, narrow shape of these cups—combined with the flimsy material and almost overflowing fill line—make it extremely likely for them to tip over. Which means scalding-hot ramen noodle soup spills all over unsuspecting victims who are just trying to heat up lunch. In some cases, they suffer from burns serious enough to require skin grafts and several days in the hospital. Plus, they’re still hungry. Not so fun.

Soup burns might not seem like a huge problem, but you’d be surprised. They represent almost 8 percent of all burn admissions, and can have lifelong consequences, including permanent scarring and joint damage. They’re also a particularly pernicious type of burn—apparently noodles cool much more slowly than water, prolonging the damage. Further, young children are frequently the victims of these treacherous treats. Eight out of the 12 hospitals that Planet Money spoke to said they see instant soup burn injuries in children at least a few times a week.

What makes it so infuriating is that the solution is a simple design tweak. To build a better instant soup cup, all you have to do is adjust the cup to a slightly wider, shorter shape. According to this study by David Greenhalgh, once that simple change is made—Wallah!, the chance of a spill plummets dramatically. Greenhalgh and his colleagues actually compared the precise angle at which 13 different instant noodle cups spilled and found that the one with the broadest base didn’t tip over until it reached a 63.9-degree angle (compared with the narrowest, which flopped at 17.5 degrees). Here’s a picture of those angles.

The paper was published in 2006, so this isn’t exactly breaking news. Yet those instant soup cups have stayed stubbornly tall—and dangerous. Clearly, CupNoodle-maker Nissin Foods has higher priorities than preventing little kids from being rushed to the emergency room with horrible blisters all over their face and arms.

But design flaws with serious health consequences don’t just limit themselves to the kitchen. Since conducting the soup cup study, Greenhalgh has shifted his attention to another household menace, this time in the living room: the fireplace. Traditionally, fireplaces were either raised above the floor on a step or had barriers in front to keep children (and adults) away from hot surfaces. “Now, many fireplaces are flush with the wall and there is no guard against toddlers touching them,” Greenhalgh recently told me in an e-mail. “Toddlers explore their world with their hands (and mouths), so we are seeing an increase in palm burns in young children.”

Other examples don’t involve burns, or even object design. Typeface design can have big health implications (and no, not just Comic Sans font–induced anxiety). The poor readability of traditional highway signage has been implicated in all sorts of vehicular accidents, which is why many states have now replaced Highway Gothic with Clearview. Information design can also have health consequences, which is why this new way of visualizing arteries (to diagnose heart disease) could save lives.

Build a wider cup, adjust a few letters—in many cases, a simple design tweak can make a world of difference. And if you need inspiration, just think of that coffee grinder.


Lena Groeger About the Author: Lena Groeger is a graduate student in New York University’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program. Before moving to New York she worked as a graphic designer for Brown University Health Education, and before that studied philosophy (the obvious choice for a science journalist). You can check out her Web site, follow her on Twitter, and find more of her writing on Scienceline. Follow on Twitter @lenagroeger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jerzy New 3:59 am 12/13/2011

    I remember this famous court case against McDonald’s, which was forced to write warnings that tea can be hot.

    Now: time to warn Americans that a cup can trip.

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  2. 2. bigtruck797 10:32 am 12/13/2011

    See “Turn Signals are the facial expressions of Automobiles” (ISBN 0-201-58124-8) by Donald A Norman for more discussion of poor design. The book is somewhat dated but still relevant. It seems most things are designed to sell, not to use. Few designers put themselves in the role of user.

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  3. 3. mra012 12:03 am 12/14/2011

    “Wallah”? Really?
    Try “voila”. It’s French.
    Good grief.

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  4. 4. moconnell2 1:39 am 12/14/2011

    Your critique of the soup cups is backwards. The cups are made thin and long for the very reason you suggest- a smaller angle gets you to the goods. These cups are supposed to be used to sup your soups by drinking them. Making the angle needed to tilt the soup into your mouth more extreme would just lead to more spilled soup on a person’s face.

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  5. 5. gsbock 1:56 pm 12/14/2011

    Ditto what moconnell2 said.

    A mug is vertically proportioned so it fits in your hand, and is easy to control. An added benefit is that it doesn’t slosh much. Your cup photos are silly; if the bowl-shaped cup are tipped as you illustrate, the contents still flow out, allowing the same burns to occur. Having the bowl stay upright is little consolation.

    It is empirically true that wide bowls slosh more easily, and are harder to hold than a cup. It is also empirically true that parents who do not supervise toddler’s access to boiling hot noodle cups spend more time in the ER than parents who give their kids carefully warmed noodles.

    Before you defend your thesis, you might consider that an entire industry of product designers might not be entirely stupid.


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  6. 6. night81 5:07 pm 12/14/2011

    “Clearly, CupNoodle-maker Nissin Foods has higher priorities than preventing little kids from being rushed to the emergency room with horrible blisters all over their face and arms.”

    Its not all their fault, people could simply just stop buying these products. Then there would be no more burns from them.

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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 3:59 pm 12/17/2011

    How does one DRINK soup? Whoever even tries to do that? It has all the chunky and gooey stuff in it, so it requires the use of the spoon. You don’t drink out of the cup: you pour it into a bowl, or you eat soup with a spoon out of a cup in which case the broader the cup, the easier it is to scoop it with a spoon.

    Another good design: a microwave oven cannot switch on when the door is open. This was subverted back in 1999 in an interesting way – a microwave oven factory in Serbia made a large batch of ovens that can work when the door is open. Those microwave ovens were then placed by the Serbian military in various places away from population centers to attract radiation and heat directed NATO missiles. Apparently it worked like a charm, and many missiles were wasted and much human life saved by this ingenuous bypass of a safety feature.

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  8. 8. sciencegoddess 2:44 pm 12/27/2011

    I certainly use a fork with ramen soup to get those long noodles to my mouth without them slipping everywhere and then I drink the broth. :)

    In Japanese culture, they do drink their soups. Quite noisily, I might add. It’s considered polite. I wonder if Maruchan has considered how Americans consume soups vs. the Japanese.

    Every time I think of ramen, I think of Yokohama’s Ramen Museum

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