The state of fast food self ordering

IMG_9540

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.

 

big data needs big tools to sort it

The idea of “big data” is very popular in big business, but it’s trickling down into a lot of other things we use. This should be good; more is better, of course. Well, it is when it doesn’t add to complexity of use. I wanted to share an example of a less than great implementation of big data in a consumer use case…

strava heatmaps

This is the route builder in popular bicycle ride tracking app, Strava. It has a “heat maps” feature that is the big data implementation. It does some mathematical aggregation of all ride traffic to give an idea of how often individual roads are used. The idea, at least I think, is to help you choose “better” bike routes based on the logic that the most people would use the best route. (whatever “best” is a measure of) This is kind of handy in some areas.. Rural places. Small Towns, like Lafayette, where I moved from. But in highly populated areas, like San Diego, where I am now, it’s not as useful. There is a lot of tourist traffic, making some paths, like beachside walkways with high foot traffic, appear to be the right place to ride. My choice of “best” comes from wanting to get to work fast or wanting a hard training ride, so dealing with foot traffic is far from ideal.. but there’s no way to separate it out.

Strava has already started to divide groups by population in other features. “Segments” of routes show a listing by time duration of every user that’s ridden them. This feature has long had a gender segregation, but more recently for paid members offers filtering by age and by weight. Why is this useful? Well, it helps competitive cyclists know how they are doing against other people they might be racing.

I’d really like to see them add to this – it would be great if there was a way to break down the heat map by some categorization. Maybe it’s just max speed on that particular ride. This could weed out the beach cruiser people, or, depending on what you were trying to get out of it, could weed out the folks who are competitive/training.

Regardless, I think this is a decent illustration of lots of data needing more advanced tools to be useful. I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of this as time goes on. It’s a rife place for Interaction Designers to develop new standards.

Skills to help you land a UX job.

This past weekend I had the chance to attend the IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) Western district conference.  I’ve been to several IDSA events in the past, but skipped last years. It was good to get back and hang out with the Industrial Design “tribe”. (The idea of tribes were one of the themes of this years event) I met a lot of nice people, learned a lot of new things, and had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative “design swarm”.

On the flip side, as a UX designer, I was one of a minority. It’s not a huge difference – much of the methodology of the two disciplines is the same, and many Industrial Designers are taking work in UX as of late. Still, I felt like a bit of a representative of the UX side of things, and people were asking me questions.

Two of the most common questions I heard were: “How do I get a job in UX?” and “What goes in a UX portfolio?” These are both particularly salient areas of thought since UX as a field is still relatively new. Trying to come up with answers on the spot got my mind working, and I put together a short list of things that I think should go into a UX portfolio. I think these things are really representative of the work that happens in industry (at least as far as I’ve seen) and also the stuff that really provides value – whether that’s to clients, or development teams or project managers.

Situational Awareness / Presentation skills

This is not as much a portfolio piece as it is a factor in how the portfolio is presented. And this is a tough one to demonstrate. There are two main factors here:

  1. UX folks should be dealing with people who use, or will use whatever it is that’s being designed. We could pawn that off onto a researcher, but throwing this kind of stuff over the wall is a waste of opportunity. That said, a designer has to be sensitive to those being interviewed/observed and understand their needs; even if it’s just in the context of the interview.
  2. You have to present your work to someone at the end of the project. If you’re just presenting it to your design director, maybe it doesn’t matter as much how you approach the presentation, but there is real value in being able to talk to a dev team, a PM or even the C suite. You have to know what drives them, and address it as you talk about your work.

Structured Research

I’ve seen a lot of really nice student projects with absolutely no basis in research. (or reality) Make sure you’re showing that you can do the science to prove to your audience that you made the right design decisions.

Sometimes just having research isn’t enough. It has to be structured. What was your plan going into the research? Did you have key questions that you asked all respondents? How did you choose them? What did the results statistically tell you?

Insights

Insights are kind of easy. Most designers have these throughout. But as in the above, can you tie the insights to real data and real users?

Process

Industrial design has really provided us a lot of structure in terms of documentation. Any ID process book is a good starting point. It’s important to talk about all of the design activities you did, but maybe more importantly, you should tell why you did them.

Wireframes / Prototyping

This is a gimmie. Everyone should know how to do basic wireframes. But go further – make sure they’re annotated and explain the functionality and the reasons that design decisions were made.

Detailed Design

It’s the next step after wireframes. Know how to specify visual style in a “pixel perfect” way, and be able to show and explain design patterns.

Information Visualization

As we move further into a “big data” world, it’s important to be able to use visuals to help users make sense of statistical data. It’s one thing to come up with a flashy, novel idea, but another to make something that is easy for a user to get use out of.

Strategy

Strategy is emerging as an important part of the UX package as more businesses are using UX to drive sales. The idea is to understand the business goals, design for them, and explain why your design helps the company achieve them. You could say that this is designing with an eye to the business, but it should be more holistic – How does this impact the dev team? How can the marketing team make use of your work?

 

 

 

There are surely many other things I could put in here, but these are the things that guide my work. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in flashy presentation, which is great in it’s own right, but the real value is giving your clients a good return on their investment, and I think the above list does that.