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Yvonne Shek

Yvonne Shek

Akendi Alumnus

Lamenting Over Fermenting: How Brewing Kombucha Relates to UX

I’ve recently acquired a starter kit to brew my own kombucha, given to me by my colleague Amanda Billark. During lunch one day, Amanda gave me and other Akendians a taste of the fermented effervescent tea that is supposedly super good for you. It was delicious! And it tasted better than the store-bought variety. The store-bought kombucha had no bite to it, unlike the sample Amanda gave us. Amanda’s kombucha was superior in quality, non-diluted, and had a great fruity flavour to it.

When I got home, I unpacked the kit. An essential component of the starter kit included a “mother” or the SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). There was a recipe included. I also bought two large mason jars and an even larger brewing jar. They all had to be made of glass, so that there is no chemical reaction between the tea and the container during the fermentation process.

The “mother” felt like a slimy sponge and it was to be dumped into the tea while it sits on my kitchen counter for about a week and a half.

But you might say, wait a minute, what does brewing kombucha have to do with UX consulting? Well, during the process of making my kombucha, it dawned on me that there are some interesting parallels between the two.

It starts from something

The kombucha starts with the ‘mother’, some cooled down brewed tea, sugar – and that’s about it. It doesn’t involve a lot of ingredients, but it does have some crucial ingredients. In UX consulting, we always start with research, before we get into design. The research is somewhat like the ‘mother’ – which acts as the catalyst to the product or solution. The design has to come from something rather than be made up from thin air. Without the mother, the tea can sit on the kitchen counter for days and nothing would happen. Absolutely nothing. It might even go bad. What makes or breaks a product is the insight and understanding that go into it. Anyone can dream up something from nothing. But that’s all it is – one designer’s guess at what the product should be.

It takes time

To start, like brewing kombucha, good UX design takes time. There is simply no rushing the kombucha. As UX designers, it takes time for us to come up with great solutions because we need time to “sit” with all the requirements, research findings, and constraints. All these factors need to swim in our heads for a bit before an optimal solution can come of it.

The environment matters

During the process, I learned that the room temperature or environment affects how quickly the tea is ready. The warmer the environment, the quicker the kombucha is ready for consumption. However, if the room is too warm, it can ruin the batch. Likewise, great products or solutions often come from environments that are warm but not too hot. That could include the idea of having like-minded colleagues around, to having a supportive team, to having experienced practitioners to mentor and guide newer practitioners.

Knowing when to stop.

Like all good things, leaving the mother in for too long can ruin the whole batch. After about 7 days or so (depending on the environment), the kombucha is ready to have the mother taken out, filtered, bottled, and refrigerated. How do I know when it is the right time to stop the process? I should taste the tea to see if it has the right acidity and effervescence (bubbliness). In UX consulting, we also need to know or learn when to stop. Many of us are perfectionists. That could pose a problem when we are running a business or working in a consulting firm. If given infinite time, I am sure many of us can keep going and tweaking to make sure our designs are the best. If we did that all the time, our practice would have a cost overrun issue and we’d be giving away work for free. Knowing when to stop is crucial in our practice. Besides, if we tweak something too much, we can often ruin it by overthinking.

It replicates!

This is the most freaky and interesting part of all. At the end of each batch of kombucha, the ‘mother’ spawns another sponge: the ‘daughter’. You can make more batches with the daughter, or you can give it to a friend to brew their own kombucha. Like the kombucha process, the UX practitioner can spawn professional offspring. Whenever we work through projects, either with colleagues or clients, we have an opportunity to mentor and coach someone. Personally speaking, this is one of the most fulfilling experiences for a UX practitioner. At CanUX 2016, Alan Cooper’s talk included an old photo of his past employees. Alan pointed out where they all are today – as leaders and thinkers in the industry. That slide had a lasting impact on me. How inspiring!

Lastly, I think we often forget one thing. With kombucha, the product is an enjoyable drink. Perhaps whenever we complete a project, we should celebrate our work a bit more. Savour it, share it, and sip it slowly.

Yvonne Shek

Yvonne Shek

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.