What UX Designers Can Learn from People Working in the Restaurant Industry

Food is a big deal in my family. In 2012, I helped my husband as he launched a food business, which has grown into a commercial kitchen for food startups. I used to work for Dinner Lab, a pop-up dinner club, and my sister is a certified sommelier. I think about, dream about, and plot out my meals to such an extent that it is now a running joke with my friends and family.

Eating out is about so much more than the food you are tasting. From the initial greeting, to the lighting in the bathroom and the weight of a spoon – every tactile and visual element contributes to the overall experience.

Whether a counter-top eatery or white tablecloth dining, I’ve noticed that the people responsible for crafting exceptional experiences adhere to a common set of principles that remain consistent no matter the type of restaurant.

Great design, like a great restaurant, has intention behind every single detail, and UX Designers would be well-served to follow the lead from our friends who excel at making memorable experiences in the hospitality industry.

Here are the tricks I’ve picked up along the way and how they fit into our own process at nclud:

Pride & Integrity

Let’s be honest – you know the restaurants that care about their work and the ones that don’t. There’s a difference between those that put all their thoughts, effort and passion behind the experience and ones that mail it in. In all exceptional dining experiences, there is obvious pride that shines through every detail and integrity behind every decision.

At a restaurant, the dining experience is the business, and there might be nothing more important than maintaining integrity. As one of Zagat Chicago’s 30 under 30 Food Industry Talents (and my big sister) Leslie Lamont says, “It’s not about selling the $1,200 bottle that we have on the list to every table,[…] it’s finding the right bottle for each person.”

At nclud, I am lucky to be surrounded by people who share this dedication to pride and integrity in their work. We don’t simply check-off boxes, that’s not good enough. We collaborate, critique, and push each other to make ourselves and our work better. Because there is a natural passion for what we do, we hold ourselves to high standards and strive to achieve elegant solutions that truly serve our user’s needs.

Our ability to firmly stand behind what we do is the cornerstone of who we are as an inclusive and collaborative creative agency. From project kickoffs to the final development stages; cross-discipline collaboration is a standard for every project. We review each other’s work to gain insights that encompass multiple perspectives and make sure our designs align with the user’s needs. This approach helps to ensure a comprehensive solution for our clients and keeps the user at the heart of the design process.

As designers, pride and integrity ensure we are keeping the needs of our users at the forefront of every decision in order to provide the very best solutions. Just like in dining, it’s about finding the best solution for our users and partners (customers), not the solution that may serve our own interests as a designer (chef).

Knowing Your Audience and Anticipating Their Needs

When you have an amazing dining experience, it’s almost as if the entire staff is reading your mind. They tow the line of being attentive without being overbearing.

The Washingtonian put it best when reviewing Komi: “The seeming effortlessness of the pacing is a credit to one of the region’s best staffs, a group of earnest folks expert in reading tables and moods, who don’t merely keep the water glasses filled but—corny as it sounds—endeavor to make memories.” The people at Komi are working to create an experience that is tailored to the customer.

When needs are anticipated in this manner, the customer can focus on the experience itself, without being distracted or exerting effort to have basic needs met.

Knowing our audience as designers is imperative to executing a successful design that anticipates user’s needs in this same way. Because we can’t always be in the room with our users once the design is released into the wild, it is even more important to fully understand the needs and potential problems our users may encounter. For designers, this goes back to solid research and committing to human-centered design.

The target audience will always and ultimately be the experts, so it only makes sense to leverage their knowledge when making design decisions that impact their experience. Through research and human-centered design we are able to empathize with our users to reveal the obstacles that stand in the way of their goals. Identifying these problems before jumping towards solutions is key.

Recently we worked on a project where medical professionals were our key users, but it wasn’t until conducting a focus group did we realize our initial assumptions did not align with their actual perspectives. This new insight, along with survey data we collected, helped shed light on the actual priorities of our intended audience and directly impacted future iterations of the design.

The same way that the staff at great restaurants anticipate needs, human-centered design allows designers to make informed decisions, not just simply work off of assumptions.

Create a Welcoming & Inclusive Experience

The people responsible for great restaurants are experts in creating a welcoming and inclusive environment that guides diners through the entire experience and results in a final goal. When Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit dined at Bad Saint “[he] was flying solo, but everything about [the] 24-seat, no-reservation spot made [him] feel like family… [They’ve] made this place their passion project. Their food is personal, but it’s so much more than just dishes they ate as kids.”

You never want a user to feel lost or overlooked in an experience you’ve designed, as this creates barriers between your user and intended goals. Creating constraints and rules within a website help to achieve an online experience that is intuitive to navigate. This can take form in explicit calls to action that prompt a desired interaction, strategic page layouts that surface important information and make consumption easy for users, or filters that make it simple to find specific content.

Whether it’s a path from stepping in the door to paying the bill at a restaurant or landing on a page to completing a checkout online, successful experiences ensure a welcoming environment, accessible design, and a set of constraints and rules to guide the user through the entire journey.

The “Wow” Factor

In restaurants, giving customers something they didn’t know they wanted is called the “wow” factor. Whether it’s a complimentary bite from the kitchen, an incredible combination of new flavors, or a server explaining the inspiration behind a dish, the people crafting the meal go above and beyond to create ‘wow’ moments for their customers.

In UX, this happens when a special consideration has been made for the users that makes the intended goal not only easy to accomplish, but surprisingly delightful. These moments can exist in many forms, from the dimming light of your smartphone at night that makes the screen easier on your eyes, an online form that gathers your information in an interactive ad-lib, or an immersive website that push the boundaries of the online experience. These moments may seem small, but they can be the difference between a user staying on a page or moving on to the next website. Or in restaurants, the difference between a loyal or one-time customer.

One of the ways we work to achieve the “wow” moment at nclud is by researching and mapping the user’s journey through a website. By deconstructing the path, we are able to identify opportunities to eliminate barriers and maximize points of satisfaction to create “wow” moments.

While great examples of experience design are all around us, restaurants and their creators provide a delicious place to understand what makes an experience great and how that can relate to our UX Design approach.


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