Bad Design Creates Terrible Experience At Great Restaurant

Oct 27, 2016


Multiple paths to the same destination can seem user-friendly but, more often that not, it complicates decision making and necessitates more questions.


This is a wonderful and very popular casual restaurant in Maine. Customers walk into the covered area shown and place their orders at the window. Food items are listed in three separate places, on three separate menu boards.

There is little organization to each of the individual boards, making choosing from even one of them a challenge. It would be better, much better, if the items were grouped in some kind of intuitive fashion – something like this.




Fried Fish





That would allow the diner to quickly navigate to the category that interested them, and then compare the options within it.

It would be even better if some items were flagged with an attribute flags that indicated something more about it – that it was a “most popular” or “for big appetites”. This is a common practice with large or complex menus. For examples menus for Chinese takeout typically feature many, many items but rely on flags like “signature” and “hot and spicy” to make decision making easier.

So navigating each of the three menu boards is hard enough, but it’s made more complicated that there is a lot of overlap between them. The same items frequently appear on two or even three of the menus.

This makes things much more confusing. If each of three menus was identical that would be better. If each one of them contained only unique items and represented a broad category (maybe Lobster for one, Fried Seafood for another) that would be better still.

But having the same item on more than one menu actually makes things more difficult for a couple of reasons. The first is that it makes the decision to appear to be much more complicated than it is. For example, the customer might actually only need to decide between 20 different items. But by presenting items on more than one menu it appears that here are as many as sixty different choices. Suddenly the decision is three times as hard to make.

The other problem with placing the same item on multiple menus is that there is a lingering uncertainty about whether they are in fact the same. The customer looks back and forth between the same item on different menus, wondering “is that the same thing? It seems like it, but why would it be listed twice?”. This leads to the customer having to ask questions as they order.

The confusion is evident as you watch people decide and order. They mill around, brows furrowed, trying to make sense of things. First they have to scan each menu looking for items that interest them. Without categorization it’s a little like having a phone book that is not sorted alphabetically.

But that’s just the beginning. Because the three separate menus don’t cover broad categories, the customer has to scan all of nit just one but all three of them before deciding.
Then they are puzzled by why the same items appear in different places… “is this fried shrimp platter the same as the fried shrimp platter on that menu?”. After repeated glancing back and forth they have to ask an employee before they order.




It’s a great place with fantastic food and even better atmosphere, but it’s a horrendous ordering experience, one that makes life more difficult for both the business and the customer.

Sadly the business owner probably doesn’t see that. It’s likely they believe the duplicate listings make for a better experience, based on the assumption that multiple listings make products easier to find.


More (Especially More Of The Same) Is Not Better

This is a common misconception based on the idea that more choice, more options are good. The truth is that giving people more choices to do (or order) the same thing is actually a bad idea.

Another post looked at this in the context of signs at in the Denver Airport. As you get off the train there are staircases to the left and two the right. One arrow points left, and says “To Terminal”. Another arrow points right and says “To Terminal”.

You can tell the people that aren’t familiar with the airport because, as they leave the train and look up at the sign they all stop, their eyes darting back and forth, trying to make sense of things. Why are there two sets of identical yet contradictory directions? Are they talking about different terminals? Are they talking about the arrivals level vs the departure level?

It’s like a stranger that comes up and says “Hi, my name is Bob. Or you can call me Bob.” It might seem helpful, in some weird way, but in reality all it does is demand a follow-up question. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understood… did you say Bob or Bob?”.

It simply does not help. And the airline terminal would have been much better for the terminal to just say “Escalators to Terminal” once, with arrows pointing in both directions. Remember, they all end up in the same place!

So how could the restaurant make the process easier? It really depends on what, if anything, they are trying to accomplish with the multiple listings.

No matter what the menu needs to be more organized, to make navigating to your desired dish easier, through a clearly defined hierarchy.


Category > Sub-Category > Dish

Fried Seafood > Shrimp > Freshwater Maine Shrimp


If it is “most popular” items that are duplicated they should instead be listed only once, but with an asterisk or other flag that indicates that they are most popular.

But maybe the goal is to have a menu available for the customer to view wherever they are standing. Is another group standing in front of one menu, blocking your view? No problem! Just look instead at another similar menu that contains a lot of the same items but organized differently.

That would make some degree of sense, but it only works if the menus are not just identical, but very clearly identical. The hierarchy and organization needs to be the same so that the customer looks at the second and third menu and instantly realizes that they have already seen it all.

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