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New Philz App Takes The Preciousness Out Of Third-Wave Coffee

Third wave, simplified.

At the cult coffee chain Philz, you don’t feel like you’re getting your daily cup from a corporate behemoth (ahem, Starbucks). Instead, a smiling barista helps you chose from one of the shop’s dozens of coffee types and then makes your pour over, just the way you like it, right in front of you.

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But that process is slow and painstaking–which means the line for Philz coffee is often out the door. So the coffee brand is launching its very first custom-designed app that tries to preserve the in-person experience that’s central to the Philz brand while still allowing you to get your Tesora on the go. It’s a signal of where third-wave coffee is headed. From the movement’s beginnings, where experience and quality were paramount, coffee companies like Philz and Blue Bottle are now figuring out how to maintain their uniqueness while scaling.

[Image: courtesy Work & Co]
The app, designed and developed by the New York-based firm Work & Co., is infused with the company’s cheerful, conversational tone. Open it up, and it presents you with the question, “Is it Mint Mojito time?” with a money shot of the company’s most famous sweet drink. You can edit how you like the drink in terms of sweetness, creaminess, and heat–just like you would in person, with a barista. At the top of your screen, you see a Philz location and a pick-up time (both of which you can edit). Below the Mint Mojito, there’s a big button that says, “I’ll take it!” From there, you go to a confirmation page to double-check your order and pay via credit card or Apple Pay, and you’re done.

“The idea is for it to be frightfully simple. You’re tired. You haven’t had coffee yet,” says Joe Stewart, a partner at Work & Co who led the app design. “Big picture of coffee. Big button to buy coffee. That’s it.”

But once you buy your coffee, the app also tells you exactly who will be making it, and shows you a picture of that person. That extra touch of the barista’s face on your screen turns a simple transaction into something more intimate. “We have so many customers who really love our baristas and have such a personal connection with our baristas,” says Francisca Hawkins, the vice president of digital at Philz. “That’s the essence of Philz.”

This solution wasn’t immediately apparent. During the design process, Stewart and the Work & Co. team began with a user experience contained entirely with a conversation to preserve what it would feel like to chat with a barista at a Philz store. They even added in copy that reflected the personalities of the barista who would be making your cup–for instance, Stewart often would go to a barista who always said, “Hey cowboy!” before asking what he wanted to drink.

But the entire flow was about two to three times slower than the final product–and user testing showed that people were using the app because it was an efficient way to get their Philz coffee. So the team ditched the conversational interface, and built something much simpler that would help people get coffee as fast as possible. But the only way that works is because the app remembers who you are, and what you’ve ordered before. When you open it up, it’ll show the drink you usually order; to see other favorites or recommended beverages, you simply swipe. The recommendations are presented as questions like “Excited for an Ecstatic?” or “In search of a Silken Splendor?”, to try and preserve some of the conversational quality as the first iteration of the app. There’s a fuller menu down at the bottom if you want to really peruse. But Stewart found that the app’s biggest users were regulars, people who tended to order the same things over and over, so a recommendation-based, swiping layout made more sense.

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“The app treating you like a barista that really knows you is really what the goal is,” Stewart says. “Sometimes that barista will say, I know you always get this, but maybe try this other one.”

[Image: courtesy Work & Co]

To go along with the consumer-facing app, Work & Co also designed a dashboard for the baristas to manage incoming app orders. That behind-the-scenes app was no less important than the one customers use. “The loudest voice was the barista,” Hawkins says, with regards to user testing. “If it doesn’t work for them, the experience is going to fail.”

The company has its coffee-making process down to a science, where baristas can make four cups every five minutes. The app respects this, and ensures that it’s never asking baristas to make more than that. Otherwise, you’d get something like that scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy begins eating chocolate off a conveyor belt instead of doing her job–and it starts piling up.

For Hawkins, the app is an essential part of Philz growth. The company, which raised $45 million at the end of 2016 to expand to the East Coast, will have to deal with big cities’ impatient denizens who–unlike their California brethren–perhaps aren’t as likely to wait 15 minutes for the perfect cup of coffee. But the app was also designed to ensure that Philz feels the same wherever it expands–and that its digital app is as personable as its coffee shops.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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