The state of fast food self ordering

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When I moved to California in 2015, I was both excited and frustrated to see self order kiosks at Jack in the Box. Excited, because self-ordering as a non-interpersonal experience was something I’d been thinking about for a while, and frustrated because these kiosks were always off / out of service. Reduced operating costs and increased order accuracy seemed like some key selling points for such a setup, and the latter was very appealing to me, as someone who rarely orders food with out removing or substituting some topping. I was out there for a year and a half and never saw one of the kiosks turned on.

Fast forward to today, 2020, and we’ve had self ordering kiosks and apps for a while now. I have used Taco Bell’s kiosk a number of times, and generally liked the experience. It’s funny, the folks assembling orders still get my stuff wrong a lot, but I don’t stress about it as much as when I order with a human. I think the real value I’ve found in it is that I don’t feel pressured to decide my order quickly like I do when a cashier is staring at me as I scan the menu. A side product of that along with a more compartmentalized Information Architecture is that it’s easier for me to discover new menu items.

I don’t go to McDonald’s often, but when I do, I’ve enjoyed using their Kiosk. I went last weekend and was reflecting on the UX of the thing and the bigger service design that that kiosk fits into. A couple of observations / thoughts:

  • It’s weird that as touch screen kiosks become more common, they are getting larger, but we’re still using UI paradigms from the small screen world. ie: the “next” and “back” navigation buttons are at the bottom of the screen which is out of my field of attention, especially when items and status messages still appear at the top. It took me a second to realize what I needed to do next.
  • Physical product human factors are now more into play than they have been in the past. The kiosk works ok for me as a 5’11” person (with the caveat of the point above) but how does it work for a 4′ person.. or a 6’7″ person? At Taco Bell, the kiosk screen seems low for me, and the card reader is positioned strangely for someone of my height.
  • Where does the kiosk interaction fit in the larger experience? McDonalds has tied the digital to the physical with “table tents”. The UI asks you to grab a numbered tent, and enter it’s number.  The server then uses that to find you to deliver your food. Taco Bell just calls out your number for you to retrieve the food yourself. I think it’s a nice touch on the part of McDonalds, but I wonder if the staff who deliver the food get any special training in hospitality. Should they?
  • There are a lot of opportunities to improve or change the larger experience. I think the biggest one is the handling of drinks. Both of these restaurants already do self-serve beverages, but under the kiosk ordering model, you don’t get your cup until your food is delivered. This is kind of a gap from the perspective of the traditional way of ordering where you get the cup as soon as you pay which gives you something to do / enjoy while you wait for the food.  In an even broader context, we can reconsider what the fast food experience is, which could lead to differentiation strategies. I was always fascinated by the strange niche carved out by Steak N Shake – it’s fast(ish) food, but you sit down and have table service. The floundering of that business may be a sign that their model isn’t all that desirable, but maybe there are still desirable elements to it. McDonald’s kiosk + table delivery model gets into that. I appreciate not having to get up to go get my order. Do I need an actual waiter to visit me more than once? probably not. ..or maybe? It would be cool if someone came around offering napkins, condiments, or drink refills occasionally. Similarly, the breadstick person at Fazoli’s was always a motivator for my visits there.

It’ll be interesting to see where fast food goes from here. We’re seeing more trends towards carry out only restaurants (or are those now “food preparers”?) which I suspect will generate a lot of convergence with alternative ordering methods. This will also likely come into play with food delivery, an industry vertical that is showing a lot of demand, but no one has yet managed to do in a scalable, satisfying way.

 

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