Improving plant usability

Ivo Domburg
Apr 1, 2015 · 5 min read

Tamapotchi note #3

This is a blog about 3 designers taking matters into their own hands. We are leaving the comfort and safety of our designers desks to learn what it takes to actually develop a product, full circle. This means we will be writing business cases and elevator pitches, doing market research, testing hardware and manufacturing options, designing and engineering prototypes, setting up marketing… the works. We don’t intend to be a startup, we are merely playing startup to learn more about aspects of product development other than design.

This is the story of how it all started.

Free vegetable gardens

A while ago I was at a supermarket with my son. He is five years old. Children that age generally are no big fans of grocery shopping, or any shopping in my son’s case. He takes that after me. So in the occasion that we find ourselves inside a store, we have a refined efficiency in finding just what we need and leave to get on with our lives. Not that day.

All went well, we swiftly got our fruits and veggies, bread and milk, and got into the line at the checkout . The cashier asked an elderly lady that had just paid, “Do you like free vegetable gardens with that, madam?” I almost literally heard something snap in my sons head, his bored expression instantly swapped to one reflecting a near-primal state of heightened alert. “What did she just say?” he whispered, while keeping his eyes fixed on the elderly lady. Before I could reply, the lady answered the cashier: “Yes, please. My granddaughter collects these.” My son handles disappointment poorly. His face showed he could simply not come to terms with the fact that this lady had just deprived him of the one thing that he so obviously was entitled to: a free vegetable garden. I was still mentally materialising the concept of a ‘free vegetable garden’ when I noticed my sons saturising complexion. I promptly offered him the prospect of the cashier asking us the same question when it would be our turn, and his mood swung back to one of subhysteric anticipation. If only I had known the offer only applied after spending 15 Euros and our cart’s contents only got us up to 14.45…

Anyway, we ended up buying more than we intended, which is not like us at all, but now my son did own a vegetable garden. Which apparently fitted into a tiny square cardboard package, about the size of a seed pot. It turned out that it contained just that: a seed pot with some tomato seeds and a tablet of compressed, dehydrated soil. I expected my son to be disappointed, but he had exactly known what was in the package. He also knew that we needed to put the tablet in half a cup of water to hydrate the soil and put that, with the seeds, in the pot. He and his friends at school had already identified the supermarket’s campaign as The Next Big Thing before I had even heard of it.

Plant care is no human instinct

After my initial frustration about the supermarket’s despicable brute-force “if we can’t convince you, your child will” marketing methods had somewhat faded, I began to realise these little vegetable garden pots were actually quite fun. As I have said before, I’m no champion when it comes to gardening, or keeping potted plants healthy. Or alive. I know the basic theory: soil, water, light, termperature, but I never seem to find that magic balance. The fact that I occasionally forget to look after my plants for weeks might also add to their misery. I just never learned how to care for plants and I regret that my parents apparently assumed that their knowledge and skill regarding plant care (I don’t remember ever to have seen one suffering plant in the house when I was a kid) would somehow be inherited by their offspring. Plant care is no human instinct though.

I decided to teach my son and myself some basic gardening and plant care skills. We would learn by doing it. It couldn’t be that hard and might even be fun. It is quite rewarding when, after days of patiently watering and waiting, the first green sprouts appear. My son’s enthusiasm made it even more rewarding and boosted my own motivation to really go for it. Initially.

After my son had collected all types of vegetable garden pots and had tended them for about two weeks, the supermarket campaign ended and the hype started to fade. The Next Big Thing became yesterdays news and my son lost interest. Great. Now I was stuck with 20+ infant vegetables, all silently screaming for me to keep them alive. This seemed a good opportunity for me to teach my son some sense of responsibility. But I didn’t.

It occurred to me that although keeping a plant in a good condition could give some sense of reward, our green friends would never be able to compete with legos, playing football or games on the iPad. Plant care lacks instant satisfaction. Sure, patience is something children need to acquire, but there’s a limit to what you can expect from a 5 year old. Then my designer brain kicked in.

Plants lack the very basics of usability

I am old enough to remember the Tamagotchi hype of the nineties; key hanger-sized, egg-shaped gadgets with a tiny lcd screen displaying a pixelated, animated animal friend. They were immensely popular among children as well as adults. I believe the most important reason for Tamagotchi’s popularity, besides it’s gadget-factor, was it’s ability to actually die. I don’t mean running out of batteries or being short-circuited in the washing machine, I mean die from lack of love and attention. I have observed a very similar quality in plants.

I’d be the first to admit plants are a brilliant piece of nature engineering, a divine masterpiece, but they lack the very basics of usability: feedforward and feedback. I imagined a plant that would, just like the Tamagotchi back in the nineties, nag me when it is thirsty, cold or in need of more sunlight. With Tamapotchi, we’d like to give plants a voice to call for my attention when they need me. We’d like them to express their gratetude when I’ve treated them nice, just like their pixelated counterparts from the nineties. And as a nice bonus they would not die.

Tamapotchi will make you care

So, that is basicly what we are building. Tamapotchi in some ways is a plant sensor like all other plant sensors out there. But ours will let its owner engage with his plant at a much more emotional level. The plant will let you feel bad about yourself when you are neglecting it, honour and praise you when you’ve been a good caregiver, and in the process make sure it stays in a good condition. Tamapotchi will make you care!

If you like to learn more about our project, check out and follow me here on Medium. I will write notes to keep you updated on how Tamapotchi progresses and what we learn while developing it. It will be fun.

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