Case Study: Making Restaurant Decisions Easier

Binary Decisions Restaurant Menu, by Sarah Peck

I was sitting at a restaurant not too long ago, reading through another incredibly long list of options, both overwhelmed and exasperated by the choices in front of me. I just want something good to eat! I thought. I don’t want to read everything and choose. My analytically-focused brain, however, often prompts me to read every single option before making a decision, because I want to be sure that I’ve made the best decision.

This got me thinking, however, about how we make decisions, decision paradoxes, and how to design menus that are easy for the user, not the sender. It’s not enough to put all the information onto a page. What if we designed a menu that took into account the psychology of how we make decisions?

A quick sketch later, and my sister and I brainstormed a menu that presented only binary options. You decide between a series of two choices, until you arrive at three or fewer options for what you might select to eat. For example, look at “start here.” You have two options — deciding between the “vegetarian/fish” side and the “meat” side. Once you pick a side, go up if you want fish, down if you want veggie. Then continue to select until you pick what you want to eat. Check it out, above.

Restaurant menus, like many, many other consumer interfaces, are typically designed with the first intent of giving the user all of the necessary information. Secondarily, a higher-end restaurant might layer in sophisticated-looking fonts, higher-quality papers and other polishes that make the menu look and feel in accordance with the brand. But what about a menu that understands the way that human brains work? That understands–and incorporates–human psychology and decision-making into the design itself?

This probably goes for other menus, too. (Such as the menu on your website, or the number of options you give people in company packages). Apple is well-known for making decisions simpler (at least they were).This menu was also inspired by a brilliant waitress that was able to nail what I wanted by closing the menu in front of me and asking me three questions (Meat or Veggie? Sweet or Salty? Carb side or veggie side?) and proceeded to give me two options for things I thought were delicious. Yes, please!

I’d love for someone to riff off of this, too. Take it–and make a better one. Make it more clear. What would you change? Would this make your decision-making easier?


11 Responses to Case Study: Making Restaurant Decisions Easier

  1. Rebecca says:

    I always ask the waiter what to get. They are my decision-maker, and it’s also immediately apparent to me, based on how they interact with me, if it’s going to be average, good or excellent service. So many times we try to take the human out of the equation – almost every time it’s easier to put the human back in.

    • Sarah says:

      Agree! My favorite restaurants also have wonderful servers who can give me opinions, help frame decisions, and know how to interface with customers. I’m curious if a menu can hedge it’s way towards a more human approach, but also I agree–I don’t think you can replace the human.

    • Sam Davidson says:

      I agree with Rebecca – if it’s the right kind of restaurant. Which makes the case for going to the right kind of restaurant. A great wait staff knows what’s best. Trust them. (Unless you go to Chili’s.)

  2. Jennifer says:

    I like how you’re always exploring everyday psychology, and seeing common things with fresh eyes! For me personally, I would start this new “menu matrix” with taste options – savoury or sweet, warm or cold dishes, crunchy or soft texture – because I usually have an idea of which flavours I’m in the mood for. Following that would be more traditional options, such as meat/sea food/vegetarian.

    However, when I’m scanning a menu for meals, I’m usually making multiple assessments simultaneously – what dish appeals to me, what is healthy, what’s worth eating in a restaurant compared to home-cooked, what haven’t I already eaten yesterday and what is affordable. Wouldn’t know how to translate this decision-making process into a different kind of menu…

  3. Erin says:

    Menus in restaurants are often written so that they provoke diners to ask for waiters input or suggestions. I like that the decision is hard. Food is delightfully simple or ridiculously complex as the menu makers and chefs want it to be. Remember basic programming where we had to make psuedo-code and we used the sandwich making decision tree? What kind of bread, what kind of cheese, condiments, etc. so that the decision of how to make the sandwich could be patterned? It could be as complex or as simple as we wanted it. My point is, sometimes the decision has to be hard. It is okay, it just takes longer.

  4. Pete Worrell says:

    Hey Sister, you have to read my friend Barry Schwartz’s book THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. Schwartz integrates various psychological models for subjective well being, showing how the problem of choice can be addressed by different strategies. He also has a great TED talk here:

    You may be (in his lexicon) a maximizer, not a satisficer!


  5. HT Lee says:

    Very interesting mindmap, Sarah. For me, I live in a multiracial and multicultural country (Malaysia) and the choices of food here is just too much. My first question (major branches) is do I want chinese, indian, malay, western or others? Next would be wet or dry? Spicy or non-spicy? And so on and so forth. And of course budget is also a factor somewhere. Or sometimes, if the restaurant is well-known, I’d ask the waiter for their signature dishes. :)

  6. Andi says:

    Being a veggie, I usually only have 1 option, so making a decision, at least when it comes to eating, is super easy for me! :)

  7. Sarah says:

    I only eat animals that have been raised in a humane manner and I can’t digest soy, so my first question is always related to the provenance of a restaurant’s meats and seafood. I’m not so picky about anything else. Unfortunately consumers demand for low cost and large portions means there often few protein options for me; thankfully I like cooking. If you too are concerned about animal welfare and the impact of the factory farming of animals on the environment and our health, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask your waiter where they source their meats and seafood, and let restaurant management know you would eat there more often, and be willing to pay more, if they served meat you could feel good about.

  8. Sam Davidson says:

    I agree with Pete’s comment above about “The Paradox of Choice.” That’s what you’re really making the case for. If a restaurant has a giant menu, I question their ability to cook any of it well. Rather, I like local, non-chain restaurants with fewer choices. Usually, they’ll be great at everything listed. Too much is at stake for them to cook a crappy dish. Then, you can’t go wrong and you may not need a flow chart!

    Rather, I wonder if your approach here would apply in other complex decision making processes that don’t necessarily have a good/bad appeal. Like who to hire, where to vacation, or what to wear.

    As always, great “food” for thought!

  9. Rebecca P says:

    Simply delicious plan for a menu, easy to decide what you are in the mood for.