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from 30th May 2022

Sipple Hydration - what were they thinking?

It sounds something straight out of capitalistic dystopian fiction. Simple taps become "hydration stations" and contain fully-fledged computers trying to upsell you at every opportunity. Unfortunately this is very much not fictional.

Shopping centres have one aim, and one aim only - to persuade every visitor to part with as much money as possible. Everything else in the design is auxilliary to that central purpose. That holds true for most successful shopping centres, and Quayside MediaCityUK in Manchester (or the Lowry Outlet Mall, as it’s still known to pretty much everyone, as far as I can tell) - is no exception.

It’s no surprise, then, that Quayside has advertising all over the place. As well as physical ads, they also play advertising messages over their PA system, and I found one of the things they were advertising a little strange: the water bottle refill point. Why on earth would they be advertising that? Well, when I actually saw it, all became clear.

Typically, refilling a water bottle in a public place is a pretty simple affair. You push a button or turn on a tap, and water is dispensed into your bottle. In some cases you might be able to choose whether you want chilled water or not, but that’s about it. I am not aware that anyone had a problem with this concept.

What I was presented with at Quayside was so far removed from the humble water fountain or chilled water dispenser that we might as well have been living on some a futuristic planet from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a 6-foot-high, bright blue machine, dominated at the front by a glowing touchscreen, a raindrop-shaped void (which houses a spout from which water is dispensed), and an invitation to “upgrade your water refills” with water that is “2X filtered, UV sterilised and super chilled”. There is also a gap at the bottom which says “collect your Chilly’s bottle here” - as if “Chilly’s” is supposed to be a household name that everyone has heard of. The machine boasts in various places about its antimicrobial coating, but if that isn’t enough hygiene for you, you can place your bottle in the aforementioned raindrop-shaped void and then trigger the machine to dispense water by scanning a QR code on a mobile phone. And there’s a tactically-placed call to follow the machine operator on Instagram, because… of course there is.

You might be wondering what the point of all this extravagance is, and the answer to that question can be seen on the right-hand side of the machine, in the form of a contactless card reader. Yes, this is more than just a water fountain, this is a water fountain that takes payments.

Now just to be clear, this machine - which is the flagship product of a startup called “Sipple” - will dispense free drinking water, just the same as any other water fountain. But it will do everything it can to upsell you along the way, coaxing you into spending just a little of your hard-earned cash on water.

To use this machine, you first touch the gargantuan touchscreen to get rid of the obnoxious QR code and estimates of how much single-use plastic Sipple machines have saved since the company’s inception. You then get to select what liquid exactly you would like in your bottle - Sipple’s supposedly upgraded water (which you pay between 45p and 75p for depending on amount), or as they put it, “unfiltered tap water” (which is free). “Unfiltered tap water” is an accurate description, but it does leave out the important fact that tap water in Manchester - as in most if not all of the UK - is perfectly drinkable, and there’s no need to filter it (unless you find the taste especially unpleasant). As for the other thing the upgraded water offers - UV sterlisation - that’s also not really needed, as again, water straight from the tap is perfectly safe to drink. It already contains chlorine to kill off any bacteria that might be lurking.

You also get the option of buying a new Sipple-branded bottle from the machine, as part of a collaboration with another startup that I’ve never heard of, called Chilly’s. This bottle costs £20 which, in fairness, is cheaper that a corresponding bottle bought direct from Chilly’s (but possibly makes you look like an idiot on account of the Sipple logo, so buy at your own peril - I chose not to). Also, if you choose the paid-for water (which, again, I did not) you can choose from room temperature and “superchilled”. For us unfiltered plebs it’s room temperature only.

Once you make these choices, you select the amount. The options are 0.5 litres, 0.75 litres and 1 litre, and there doesn’t appear to be a “stop” button while it’s dispensing, so if your bottle isn’t one of those sizes, you’ll be wasting some water - and money, if you chose the paid-for option - or not filling it all the way. In fairness, those sizes are about right for most bottles, but good luck if you want to top up a bottle which is already full part-way. Forcing you to pick from specific sizes like this is a retrograde step.

You then have to pay, if applicable. I still find the idea of paying for amounts of just a few pence on a card quite strange, and it’s even stranger when it’s for something pointless such as this.

Next, you’re instructed to place your bottle in the dispenser, let it dispense a little bit of water, swirl it around a bit to rinse the bottle out and pour it away. I have no idea if it still asks you do this if you just bought a brand new bottle. Thankfully, you can skip this step, as for most people it’s a bit pointless.

At this point you finally get to put the bottle in again and click “refill”. It dispenses the amount of water you chose earlier, then stops. An utter anticlimax. Not sure what else I expected though.

Sipple is a textbook example of how turning a basic everyday device into a computerised, internet-connected experience makes it unequivocally worse. It almost feels like a satire project - as if someone has gone out of their way to design something as overcomplicated and overengineered as possible for a trivial function, as a parody of the much wider trends towards widespread “connectedness” of everyday objects. Refilling a water bottle using ordinary devices is far easier (and also cheaper!) than with Sipple, where you spend more time clicking things on a touchscreen than actually recieving water.

It’s quite clear that Sipple’s aim here is to attract people who typically drink bottled mineral water and persuade them that their product is a worthy competitor. And if they do manage to substantially reduce quantities of single-use plastic water bottles used, I commend them. But can we please keep the old-school taps or coolers around, for people who want water rather than snake oil, and don’t have all day?

The excellent Lowry theatre and art gallery next door had an ordinary water cooler. Press a button, it dispenses water. Let go, it stops dispensing water. A much better experience in my book. And you can even have chilled water without paying for it.