User Experience on the web, fast food style


In this year’s Future of Web Design conference, Andy Budd gave a fantastic talk comparing User Experience on websites with the hotel industry. He described the need for a good first impression, and the importance of going the extra mile to make the customer feel comfortable and ultimately leave with a good impression.

I worked for almost 2 years in the fast food industry, albeit making and serving fruit smoothies. Although this could be described as a huge contrast to the hotel industry, I think there are still a lot of similarities because they both rely on good User Experience. The main difference between the User Experience in a hotel and in a fast food restaurant is customer expectations. In a fast food place, customers don’t expect to be served a gourmet meal in less than 5 minutes. They understand that they may have to queue for a short while, that the tables won’t have tablecloths, will probably be a bit sticky and the cutlery will be made of plastic because they don’t have to pay as much. But customers are usually willing to pay more for exactly the same thing, but where they’ll get better customer service.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my experience of the fast food industry that can be applied to the web.

1. Greet the customer in a friendly manner, because first impressions count

One of the problems with fast food restaurants is their poor reputation. I can think of many occasions when I’ve been served by someone who clearly hates their job, and this has given me a negative representation of the company. Then the food takes a long time to make, and you’re left assuming they’re slow because they’re being lazy (or are busy spitting in your food).

But imagine being served by someone who pleasantly greets you with a smile, is helpful in taking your order, and clearly loves their job. You’d feel a little more understanding if it took a little longer to make. You may even think it’s because they’re putting extra effort into making your food better.

It’s the little things that help improve the overall experience. The environment is pleasant and clean, the atmosphere is friendly, the food has been prepared nicely. All these things are easy to implement, and work together to enhance the customer experience, but they’re not enough on their own.

Going somewhere new can feel a bit scary, so reassuring the customer that they are in a safe place as soon as they walk through the door is the first step. You might feel this reassurance on sites where the language used is friendly and appropriate. Or on a site where there are lots of places to look for help if you get stuck, such as video tutorials, troubleshooting and frequently asked questions.

Food is a personal thing, and customers generally like being able to see it being made. It’s unlikely they’d want to see the back-end of your website, but again, reassuring them that something is happening while they’re waiting is a good idea. Perhaps when submitting an order, there’s a little loading bar explaining that the order is being processed (rather than a blank page where you’re left wondering what to do next).

2. Educate the customer, as it may be the first time they’ve been here

Most fast-food restaurants expect that the customer has been to the place before and knows the ordering process. You know to queue up at the counter, select a meal from the menu board, read it out to the person on till who will punch it into his screen. You then pay them, stand to one side and assume that your food is being cooked. Once the food is ready, the food order will be called out, and you step forward and collect it. On your way to your table, you might take some napkins, plastic forks, ketchup and straws. You then eat your meal, and when finished, you empty your rubbish into the bin, stack your tray and leave.

Every step in this process requires the customer’s previous knowledge of what to do. However, this process can vary depending on the company. Some expect you to clear your own table. Other will clear your table for you. Some will expect you to stand to one side while they get your food ready, others will give it to you while you’re still standing there. The customer knows that each chain is different, so the first time they go into a new fast-food restaurant, they need reassurance. If they have a bad experience the first time, they’ll probably assume it will be like that every time and will go elsewhere because there is plenty of choice. (Sound familiar?)

Giving the customer clear signals of what to do at each step is essential to reduce confusion. Never assume that they’ll know what to do. They may be scared to make a mistake, or if they do make a mistake (such as trying to order the breakfast menu in the evening), they’ll feel foolish. You don’t want customers to feel foolish, you want them to feel in control.

When designing a site, make it clear to the user what the process is. You might do this by listing the navigation in the order of the process. You want to make it clear what the purpose of the site is, what the page they are on will tell them (without them having to read all the way through it), and guide the user through the process along the way. If they make a mistake, don’t punish them or make them feel bad. Just tell them exactly what they should do in a friendly manner.

3. The customer is always right, even when they’re not

It is often the case in a fast food restaurant that you must say your order exactly as it says on the menu board. For example, you may order a cheeseburger, but instead call it “a meat patty with a slice of cheese and some gherkins between two pieces of bread”. This will undoubtedly baffle the person serving you, who is used to hearing the ridiculous company names given to each burger, even for just a moment.

If we were to compare the fast food order process to a web form, the same is true. When inputting a postcode, card number or telephone number into a form, some don’t accept the field if the customer puts a space between the characters. When searching for something on the site, the search term the visitor uses may be different to what you’d expect. In such a culturally diverse environment, it’s important to take into account that users don’t always ask for or do things in the way you’d expect.

4. Listen to the customer’s feedback, and be sympathetic

Even experienced fast food customers can get it wrong if the restaurant does things slightly differently to the way they’re used to. For example where I worked, sometimes customers would ask for ingredients not in the menu that they’d seen in other smoothie bars. They were sometimes upset that I couldn’t give them what they wanted.

In cases such as these, it is not always possible to satisfy the customer’s expectations every time. But by showing the customer that you understand their wishes, and making them understand that you value their feedback and will take it into account, they are often more appreciative of the situation. It may be the case that you’re missing out on a gap in the market that customers’ suggestions help you find.

A feedback form on a website is a good way to say to the customer that you care about what they think. However, make sure there is someone who can reply to this to let the visitor know that their comments have been acknowledged. Maybe a customer searches for something on your site but the results say nothing could be found. Make sure you have a message explaining that you’re sorry that the term could not be found on the site, and give them someone to contact who may be able to find the information they’re looking for.

5. Make the most of a bad situation, it’s an opportunity in disguise

One of the most surprising things I’ve learnt is that if you come across a situation that is out of your control, what you do to overcome the situation affects the customer’s perception of your brand more than the actual event.

One day at work, we had a powercut halfway through making a customer’s drink. We could not carry on making the drink because the machines wouldn’t work, and we couldn’t refund them because the till wouldn’t open. So we asked for where they’d be that morning (luckily they worked in an office nearby) and promised we’d bring them their drink as soon as the power came back on. When it did, we made their drink and I ran it to their office to give it to them personally. The customer was genuinely touched by our efforts, and his colleagues seemed impressed too.

A fast food restaurant may not be the most glamorous place to eat, but with with just a little effort, it is possible to get the customer to leave very happy and come back regularly. I wish I could make glamorous hotel style Andy Budd websites with clever code ticking away in the background, but I’m not at this level yet. I may only be able to make simple sites at the moment, but I can aim to create good User Experiences for the people that use them.