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#IdeaNotebook: The best thing before sliced bread

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Bread slicing machine, c. 1930

St. Louis electrical bread slicer, 1930

Sliced bread is the innovation by which all innovations are measured:  “the best thing since sliced bread.” That phrase spawns the question: “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” Attempts to answer that question range from humorous to contemplative. I recently discovered another possible answer: User research! “Slice of Life” in the April 2011 edition of Savuer, reported that Otto Frederick Rohwedder, the inventor of the first commercially viable bread slicing machine, “talked to housewives throughout America to determine the desired slice thickness”. The 1928 article “SLICED BREAD IS MADE HERE” in the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune stated: “Considerable research was made in order to arrive at a thickness of slice which would enjoy the widest possible public acceptance and it was decided that a slice, slightly less than one half of an inch would be most suitable.” (Quoted in “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SLICED BREAD!” by Catherine Stortz Ripley Constitution-Tribune, 08 July, 2009)
While I could not find specifics about the scope and nature of Rohwedder’s user research, I found one insight about the user experience that made sliced bread, taken for granted today, such an important innovation. When the US briefly banned sliced bread in 1943 as a wartime conservation measure, a housewife expressed her distress in a letter to the New York Times. She explained how sliced bread contributed to the “morale and saneness of a household” by eliminating the need to hand slice over 20 slices of bread for her family’s breakfast and lunches. Just guesstimating from how long it takes me to had slice bread neatly, this user’s story indicates a huge reduction in time-on-task as well as highest marks for user satisfaction.
So while Rohwedder’s invention sets the standard for great innovations, I am pleased to see that one of the greatest things before slice bread – and, like sliced bread, great even today – is user research.

About the #IdeaNotebook: I, like many UX professionals I know, keep a notebook around for keeping track of my day including jotting down random ideas and design inspirations. Idea Notebook posts offer a regular peek into those inspirations. Posts may range from a compelling image, a method or approach from other fields that can be applied to design, an fun insight into the history of an innovation like this first post, and other tidbits that inspire. I hope that these provide some fun additions to your idea notebook and invite you to share what inspires, amuses, or amazes you.

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Karen Bachmann

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