Websites Are Like Restaurants

Before I did all this web stuff, I used to be a restaurant manager. Then September 11, 2001, happened, the hospitality industry in DC tanked, and then I didn’t really have a career anymore.

Nearly a year of not working was filled with various endeavors of varied importance, and at one point, in an unfamiliar university computer lab in Ottawa, wearing all black with the smell of tear gas in my hair, I learned a little bit of HTML because I thought it could help me save the world.

But back to the main story: I used to be a restaurant manager. Everybody thinks it was a radical career change from restaurants to user experience design, but in reality, they’re almost the exact same job.

Because think about it: going to a restaurant is an experience. Someone designs that experience. And that someone is the restaurant manager.

(Or it should be. Keep in mind I’m talking about nicer restaurants here.)

I had never heard the term “user experience design” back in my restaurant days, but I knew exactly what it was. We had guests, not users, but we designed their experience from even before the moment they walked in the door.

I worked for the same company for several years, starting out as a waiter in college, then bartending, then office management and banquets. The company was owned by Greek immigrant brothers who were pretty much perfectionists. From the first day I started out as a waiter, I learned an attention to detail that is now one of my most useful skills as a user experience designer.

It’s the things people don’t consciously notice that can make a big impression. Look up. Is the light fixture dusty? That’s not the kind of restaurant we are. Did your waiter know exactly who ordered which entree at a table of 20, without having to auction them off? Of course he did. Am I not going to let a plate leave the kitchen if the garnish is wilted? You bet your life.

Websites need to pay the same attention to detail, to make sure they come off as professional and trustworthy. Is your home page cluttered with, ah, junk? Not much different than walking into a restaurant and finding unused furniture piled along one wall.

On a website, one of the key principles of the user experience is making sure the user can find the information she needs, or do what she needs to do, with the least amount of unnecessary effort. Get rid of the extra clicks, the extra steps, the wasted time, the frustration.

In a restaurant, the same thing. Give your guests what they want without making them work. Refill their water glasses while they’re still half full, so they don’t have to ask. Hand them a menu that is thorough and well-organized, so they aren’t wondering if a side comes with the petit filet or whether you serve dessert. Coordinate the timing of the kitchen so that the entree comes out just at the right moment after your guests have finished their appetizer. Don’t make them ask, and don’t make them wonder what’s going on.

We used personas in restaurants too, although we didn’t call it that. It was just knowing that you had different types of guests. A group of friends coming in for a leisurely meal is different than a couple who are in a hurry because they have theater tickets. Office workers on lunch break are different than business travelers who are killing a few hours before their flight. I could easily have recalled by name regular customers who fit into any one of those categories, and I knew them well.

In a restaurant, you have to create an experience that will be satisfying to all of your different types of guests. Unlike websites, your users are right there, so you can do all the user research you want. You talk with your guests and listen carefully when they talk to you, and eventually you figure it out.

Maybe someone casually mentions that they waited on hold too long last time they called for reservations. We need to fix that. Do we need to assign more staff to answer phones, or do we just need to change the hold music so that the wait doesn’t feel as long? Making a good user experience in a restaurant means thinking creatively. There’s much more to it than cooking food and putting plates on a table.

But those little things don’t matter if you don’t get the big picture right, and I learned that too. If your food sucks, nobody is going to come back. On a website, if the main functionality of your website isn’t solid, then all the bells and whistles aren’t going to matter.

On e-commerce websites, one of the key places you can lose users is checkout. Maybe you require users to create a login when they don’t want to. Maybe the checkout form is too complicated and the user can’t figure out what the shipping and taxes are going to be. You’ve already convinced them to make a purchase, so why do something right at the end that’s going to screw it up?

In restaurants, your guests have already eaten their purchase by the time they get to the “checkout” process, so they hopefully aren’t going to leave without paying. But what happens in the last few minutes of their visit can very well determine whether they ever come back.

How many times have you had a great meal at a great restaurant, only to not be able to find your waiter when it’s time to pay? That just happened to me a couple days ago, actually. Annoying! I probably won’t be going back there. As a restaurant manager, I made sure my servers knew that ending on a high note was one of the most important things they needed to do right.

So it’s really not that different, being a user experience designer instead of a restaurant manager. Except, I do miss all the free food.

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