Back to blog

Design Disasters: AMC’s Simulated Butter Dispenser

We come across a lot of bad design in our everyday lives, both online and offline. For most people, it tends to go unnoticed as they browse the Web, shop for groceries, drive their cars or dispense your own butter on your popcorn at the movie theater. That is, until something goes wrong and whatever you were using doesn’t work as expected.

As designers in the interactive space, we’re blessed/cursed with the ability to see all these nonsensical things that confound and disturb, even when we’re not at work. Things that range from tiny to massive. Why does that door handle look like you can pull it to open, when in fact you have to push? Why are parking and other wayfinding signs so difficult to understand? Why does the ATM have so many buttons when we only use 3-4 of them at most? Why was an offshore oil rig equipped with an emergency shutoff valve that can’t be manipulated underwater?

These kinds of questions can drive you mad if you focus on them all day, but it’s precisely that itch, the nagging urge to question the way things are, that make us great at what we do. Any of my friends can probably attest to the times we spend together where I’ve gone bonkers at some of the poorly designed creations people are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.

Of all the ill-conceived, hacked together solutions I’ve seen in my time, AMC‘s “Butter Flavor” dispenser at their Yonge & Dundas theater here in Toronto has got to be the most infuriating and, at the same time, hilarious example of bad design I’ve ever come across.

To some, this machine looks relatively innocent, maybe even novel or clever. “Great! I can pour my own butter flavor, letting me douse my stale theater corn product with all the buttery goodness I desire,” could be the first thing that comes to mind.

Upon further inspection, prior to usage, it becomes clear that there’s not one, not two, but three buttons to dispense butter flavor from the same nozzle.

When I see creations like this, I can’t help but think of how it came to be. What went through the heads of the people that created it? What was the original goal of the object, and how did it evolve over time?

Most importantly, which button came first? I imagine the machine had fairly humble roots, offering a single button to start the buttery flow. Just press the button under the nozzle, right? That is, until the nozzle unleashed scalding, buttery horror on the very arm you used to turn it on in the first place.

AMC must have realized the engineering snafu after several complaints, and re-engineered the machine, placing the button well to the right of nozzle, well out of range of the simulated butter. Of course, a fundamental principle of usability is proximity – objects that are close together are perceived to be more related than elements that are farther apart. This button likely confused more people than it did alleviate butter burns.

The final button, placed on the front of the machine, served to alleviate the burn issues of the first button, and the usability issues of the second. Finally, a perfect solution, right? Except for one problem – the other two buttons remain, offering users a confusing array of possible options. Beyond the obvious hygenic issues at play, the fact that this machine exists at all in this current state and some of the decisions that went into its creation lead me to believe there’s some trouble at the helm of AMC’s design team (if one exists at all).

But all the buttons dispense butter, so what’s the harm, right? To me, this is a perfect metaphor to what we commonly encounter in many poorly conceived Web experiences. Creators of websites without clear design principles or (worse yet), any expertise at all, design without clear affordances or paths to completion and then implement bandaid solutions when users complain or sales are less than expected.

Eventually, the site is a cobbled together mess of overlapping functions and navigation elements that were designed with the best of intentions, but just result in a lousy experience for their customers. It reflects poorly on the brand, and is an embarassing indication of the state of the affairs inside the company.

When we design experiences on the Web, we carefully consider the goals of the business and the users, and design the best experience at where those needs intersect. A usable website is the table stakes of a great Web experience. If you can’t get your users to use something as desired, then how in the world will you ever surprise and delight them?

Adam Schwabe More posts by Adam Schwabe