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Small lot coffee with a dash of technology

A case study on the digital agency AKQA and their collaboration with the Starbucks Reserve Roastery

Starbucks Roastery

1 Weeks

Grant Zou, Gabriel Yeung, Sarah Tong, Joshua Fan

Presentation slides

time-frame                                                Team   



" Immerse visitors in the theatre and artistry behind Starbucks Reserve® with a guided mobile tour triggered in key areas by iBeacon notifications. Visitors can follow the coffee bean’s journey from harvesting to roasting and tasting, giving them a great cup of coffee and the compelling story behind it all at once."


This digitally enhanced retail presence provides an engaging experience with a clearly defined product, successfully communicating brand intent and all within a carefully considered scope of time. For this project, we speculated where AKQA saw an opportunity.

“Coffee enthusiasts are naturally inquisitive, so how can Starbucks reward that curiosity and heighten their senses?”


By studying how AKQA capitalized on this opportunity for Starbucks Roastery, we’ve conducted a brand study and extracted  three UX insights from AKQA's solution to build into our framework for future weeks. 

Brand study


By applying our learning from Newbery & Farnham’s Brand Value Pillars Framework and The Brand Gap, we were able to identify the main value pillars and break down the 'Quality' pillar to tangible, intangible and inspirational values of the Starbucks Roastery's product/service. For instance, AKQA's mobile intervention allows users to obtain insider information provided exclusivity in the roastery, then expand their curiosity by  guiding them through each stations step by step. After gaining all the knowledge from each stations, users are able to pick their right beans and become the coffee experts.  To further understand the brand, we used the Brand Attribute Matrix to determine AKQA's intend to express with their digital tool by leveraging Starbucks's brand pillar. This allows us to understand that besides brand elements, the product/service itself can also reflect on the brand. 

UX insights

01 User experience is holistic

“Beyond rethinking product offerings, companies can apply design to the ways they serve customers long after the sale, as well as the overall manner in which they conduct business... The whole experience can and should be designed, holistically.”

Glimmer, Pg. p.16

From the design perspective, we need to design considering both the customer and the organization. AKQA came in and designed for a part of the whole experience but they had to consider the physical aspect along with their digital solution. AKQA designed an experience that goes in conjunction with each other, we looked into not only the digital web mobile app but also what the in-store experience offers to the customer.

02 User experience is focused

"One of the interesting things we’ve seen with our clients is a shift in thinking that begins to provide tactical projects with long-term goals by providing a context that helps teams see how a small effort is part of something bigger. "

Newberry & Farnham, 2013, p. 133


AKQA project’s, deployed at a single stage in the journey framework, the learning stage, fulfills the customer’s inquisitive need to know about the coffee bean’s journey. With the learning experience that comes web mobile app, the remainder of the journey becomes more informative and enriching. For example, when you purchase coffee at the roastery, it’s not just a cup of coffee, there’s now a story behind it. By increasing engagement and exposure to the Brand, there is the potential to shift customer’s expected value from tangible to aspirational; less about just buying a cup of coffee, and more about the user aligning and expressing themselves through the Brand.

03 User experience MUSt provide value

"...there are two ways to approach the problem. One is to reduce the cognitive overhead through design; the other is to make sure the value is very high by making sure you solved a customer’s real need (again, through design)."

Newberry & Farnham, 2013, p. 45

This brings us to the next insight; holistic design, focused design, and brand engagement is all about providing value. There are two ways help customers realize perceived value. First, it does not require a great amount of customer effort to fulfill a particular need. And two, the value must be meaningful enough to meet a customer need, where AKQA does both.

The designer’s intention for a user experience must always be to meet and exceed the cognitive overhead. AKQA’s web app attempts to both reduce cognitive overhead by providing an accessible, relatively easy mobile tour while providing rich (valuable) details about the coffee process. The web app coincides with the store experience of tangibly providing coffee all the way to aspirationally allowing the customer to become an expert.

VAN UX Awards Guidelines analysis


Element of surprise

Complementary visual language

Exploratory nature



Seamless transition between steps

Consistent information


Simple instructions and fairly basic technological (mobile) literacy


Based on the VAN UX awards guidelines, we found that AKQA’s web app generally achieves the first 3 criteria, joy, elegance and clarity. With innovation and impact however, we as a group begin to see an opportunity to be critical and constructive. We’ll be applying the innovation gap model to analyze the web app.

As we began evaluating the final two criteria, we discovered that VAN UX and Glimmer have differing definitions of innovation. In Glimmer, Innovation “should produce a significant change in the marketplace and/or in people’s lives. New technology isn’t innovation unless it is utilized in a way that brings about meaningful change. On the other hand, in VAN UX, Innovation is “...what’s new, different, or exciting about this work? How does it stack up to current conventions and patterns we use today?” The weight of “meaningful change” is shifted into the second VANUX criterion: Impact, or “what measurable ways has it impacted business and people”


The AKQA Starbucks Roastery project incorporated the use of iBeacons, a new technology that provided a higher level of precision location tracking previously not possible. But as a team, we questioned: 


What is its impact? If a user was to enter the Roastery without a phone, would they be missing out on anything significant? Would Starbucks be losing a sale?


The end result then, is that this project does meet Van UX’s criterion of innovation through its use of new technology in different and exciting ways, but it does not make an impact.


If we were to reconcile the VanUX’s definition of innovation and impact with Glimmer’s, we’d see that innovation is the organization’s knowledge of tech and business; and impact is the understanding about how people live their lives. Either way, we as a team acknowledge that this project does not close the Innovation Gap.


This case study helped us get a better grasp on how to design for UX through learning design approach and methods. The insights we extracted from our case began to form our designer’s framework so that we could apply our learning to future projects. And while we believe AKQA didn’t close the innovation gap with this otherwise successful project, by understanding where they might’ve fallen short we allowed us to understand how to be able to close the innovation gap ourselves for our future projects.