UX Lessons From The Buffet Line

How UX (User Experience) Can Inform Everyday Life

Back in 2013 while leading digital strategy at Ingersoll Rand, my team embarked on a major project to overhaul our websites and content management platform.  The project represented an exciting step forward for the team, but it was met with apprehension by business leaders who saw seven figure costs and were not clear on the value add.  We knew that a digital future was key to long term success and pushed forward with our vendor selection and design process.

The project taught me a very important lesson about usability and the goal most businesses pursue of “being easy to do business with”.  In other words, design an online experience that makes it intuitive and easy for customers to get the information they need in the fewest possible (clicks) steps.  The world of user experience and user interface (UX/UI) is a rapidly involving trade that is fascinating to study.  The field borrows principles from sociology, psychology, computer science, math, humanities and even history.  Understanding human behavior and then tailoring an experience that is predictable is a tenant to good UX design.

A real world lesson in UX

Our team met with several vendors and spent numerous session familiarizing ourselves with the various content management platforms as well as the vendors capabilities and design philosophies.  One vendor and event in particular stood out.  We had a team in from Siteworx, a DC area based design firm.  They spent the morning walking us through their capabilities and how they would address our specific needs.  At lunch time our group had a catered buffet lunch.  As I got in line for lunch with Bennett Lauber the UX expert from Siteworx, he said something to me that has had a profound impact on how I view the UX world.  Bennet told me that he is always frustrated when a buffet is set up with the plastic utensils at the beginning of the line.  As I grabbed a plate, napkin, fork, knife and spoon he went on to explain that until I fill my plate with food, I will not know if I actually need all three of those utensils.  Good design would put the utensils at the end of the line rather than the beginning.  He asked me to think about just how many plastic spoons are wasted each day because of poor buffet line design? 

A poorly designed buffet line creates waste.

A poorly designed buffet line creates waste.

Bennett is a true UX guy.  He views the world through a UX lens.  His one comment over lunch sold me on his work and his firm.  It wasn’t what he showed me on a computer that impressed me with his UX knowledge it was what he identified as a real world problem that few would ever notice.  Since that day, I have never viewed a buffet through the same lens.  I retell this story often because it made such an impression on me and the way we structure things in our lives.

Whether you are designing a new website, laying out a buffet line, designing a car or architecting a house involving a UX expert on your team can be a real value add.  Begin with the design principles in mind and then seek the most efficient way to get to the desired outcome.  Studying human behavior is an important step in this process.  Products are often used in ways that they were never intended to be used.  A perfect example of a product that is misused and misunderstood is the Q-tip.  The Washington Post featured a good article:  The strange life of Q-tips, the most bizarre thing people buy 

"Good design caters to the way people want to interact, great design changes user behavior."

We can alter the paths people take and help inform their decision making through great design.  There is a cost to poor design.  In the online world it leads to shopping cart abandonment or people choosing other sites to visit.  In the real world the cost of bad design can lead to traffic accidents, wasted time, wasted money and millions of unused spoons ending up in the trash because of a poorly designed buffet line.