In the last couple of days I was having a side-conversation discussing technologies that were once great but died out for any number of reasons. One that I’ve mentally kept mentally circling back to are the Automats of the northeast, with perhaps the most famous being Horn and Hardart’s Automat.
The concept was simple — a kitchen in the back with people cooking the vittles, enthusiastic and hungry customers from all walks of life in the front, and between the two a curtain of small little enclosures connecting the two worlds. It was a glorious vending machine where you looked for something appealing, dropped the nickels in the slot, and opened up the little glass door to fetch your food. Part of the appeal in the mid-century is that it harkened to a utopian future with chrome everywhere, food that would miraculously appear, and ease of use. I don’t ever recall anyone looking back with anything but fondness for the experience.
Sadly, the last automat disappeared in 1991, a victim of economies and the fast food industry.
The idea’s come back to life in the last few years, though, in the East Village in NYC as the Bamn! Automat. Oddly, there are no pics of the experience on the website, although plenty abound on Google.
The experience again speaks to the future with a darkened environment, funky colored lights, and food peeking out like jewelry on display.
So, that’s a lot of setup to get to the part that I found pretty interesting. In both instances, there was a need to explain to customers how the experience was going to work. What I was struck by was how Horn and Hardart, 50 years ago, were offering an experience and how Bamn! seems to be offering just an interaction. Compare the images below:
Horn and Hardart show the whole experience — little glass doors, polished chrome surfaces, the promise of food — as part of the instructions. Alongside that, they show an overall view of the whole space. As a postcard, I can imagine getting this and wanting to head there for lunch the next time I was in the big city.
In contrast, on Bamn!’s website (where does the apostrophe go when there’s an exclamation mark in the name?) there’s the following graphic:
It focuses entirely on the interaction of what to do. In the pink and white world of an iPod commercial, use a vending machine and stand there and stuff your face. There’s no charm. There’s no excitement. It looks no different than anything I’ve done before. There’s no promise of a better future. I don’t know, in the last frame, with the instruction “enjoy” he might just be sniffing his finger for all I can tell.
It’s disappointing. Believe me, I’m one for simplifying instructions as much as possible and making a message clear and concise, but it becomes critically important to remember that sometimes the experience itself is just as important as the activity. Any instruction — any kind of description — should be taking a whole picture view and convey as much as possible. In this instance, the experience is an incredibly important part of the message, not just the activity itself.