Don’t Just Stand There, Watch!
I was recently standing in line at a local fast food chain, one of those places designed for efficiency with the assumption that efficiency can produce an outstanding customer experience. This particular place has had more than 40 years to systematize their operations, resulting in billions having been cheerfully served. It’s a highly successful business model that demonstrates the power of statistical process control.
But what happens when that system fails? Standing forever in that line, I began to realize that this was a perfect opportunity to hone my ethnographic skills, turning my dreaded wait into a delightful field study. People around me must have thought I was out of my mind when I simply stepped out of line and moved to the rear with nothing more than a napkin and a smile.
Just to refresh your minds, ethnography is the study of human behavior within a culture and is composed of numerous tools that help define and record empirical data. The word ethnography is a conjunction of the Greek words for people (ethnos) and writing (graphio). I’d long ago learned the lesson from anthropologist Margaret Meade, that asking people what they want would only take you so far; “what they say, what they do, and what they say they do” are vastly different things. Watching them is the best way to blend all three “truths” into one meaningful insight.
To conduct this study on your own, I invite you to step out of line, grab a napkin, look at all four corners of it and imagine each corner is what your research protocol must touch on. Corner 1: What you SEE. Corner 2: What you HEAR. Corner 3: What you TOUCH. Corner 4: What you SMELL. This act of participant observation is the ethnographic tool that we’ll be honing today – since actually ordering anything seems unlikely.
As an ethnographer, you’re trained to be an environmental sponge; practice that for a moment. Calm your breathing, forget about ordering lunch and try to soak in everything that touches the four corners of your napkin; close your eyes for a moment to center your thoughts on “not thinking”, reminding yourself that as you watch, you’ll be making judgments about none of it. Your job isn’t to fix the problem, it’s not even to understand it; your job is to record what’s happening. Now open your eyes and watch for behaviors, watch for motivators, watch for the unseen and seldom seen forces in the room.
I did this from my new position at the back of the line, remaining mindful of my napkin’s “rule of thumb”. I saw people moving towards a broad counter; sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. I watched their heads and their eyes as they scan no less than 5 variables at once; occasionally using full body movement while (1) trying to determine where there was and wasn’t a line. (2) trying to determine if there was a cashier where there seemed to be a line, (3) trying to quickly assess a menu that occupies 12 linear feet of wall space just above a (4) highly active food prep and delivery stage. I watch their hands and faces as they (5) make sense of a mixture of pictures, numbers, names and highlights and how the items on that menu are all massed in a visually identical landscape. I listen as they start to say things, noticing that those who are unsure of what they want or what they are willing to pay for tend to drag single words into a looooonnnnggggg…aaahhhhh…sennnnnntacce. “I’ll have aaaaaaa….uuhhh..”, pause.
I feel the cold air that rushes in from the now open door and note how it changes the warm fried grease smell to a cold fried grease smell – I also notice it seemed to affect my mood, the warm grease smell reminded me faintly of my grandmother’s cooking; the cold grease smell reminded me of dumpsters. As more customers enter and join the line, I see it’s affecting them as well. The air wafts across the faces and necks; how many turned to look at the door and its new patrons? How many commented on their fortunate timing; “I’m glad we got here ahead of that crowd”! As the line grows, how do people begin to position themselves? Do they stake out territory in the line? Do they begin to eye the dining area for seating? Do they send people over to claim a seat? Do these actions increase or decrease visible stress?
I watched as my customer-subjects, one-by-one, ordered and paid for their meal. Once the transaction was complete; which direction did they move? Could they move? Did they stand in the same spot in front of the cash register? Did the order-taker simply look around them and ask the next patron in line “How may I help you”? How does the current customer react to the presence of a new one? Are there any cues that tell them where to go?
On this particular day, something had happened in the prep/order area that stopped the efficient delivery of food. I couldn’t see what it was, but food stopped being handed over the counter and patron “order-ready” numbers stopped being called. The cashier, however, continued to take orders, and the crowd began to swell in a space that wasn’t designed to hold crowds. With each new wave of customers entering the space, more orders were taken, and more people squeezed into a smaller space, all the while the frequency of patron talk increasing as the length of conversations shortened. The evidence of stress in a crowd is born. People begin to actively avoid eye contact and begin putting hands on hips in an effort to define for themselves, more room.
I listened to the sounds as the manager scurried behind the counter; sometimes taking orders, sometimes filling orders, sometimes encouraging or directing activity; never standing still.
Your closely-held napkin and its four corners of experience have now offered you a delightful overview of what could have been simply a frustrating lunch time screw-up. You may still not know what it all means; but here’s an interesting statistic that supports what you’ve observed. This same fast-food chain has moved over 70% of their $8.5 bn North American sales to the drive through window. The ACSI score (American Customer Satisfaction Score) for this chain has steadily declined since 2013.
With all the experience data that you now have (courtesy of your free napkin) you can begin to ask some pretty powerful questions about those behavior and business shifts: How do people cope with poor experiences? (The market shift towards drive-through utilization may be the defense mechanism people are using!) What variables go into a poor experience? What simple actions could help turn that poor experience into a good one? What simple UX skill could help an $8.5 bn company (one with immense research resources) reverse the slide of customer dissatisfaction?
Your simple lunch-line research experiment has now strengthened your value to your customer; you’ve begun to see the unseen! So continue doing this; every time you’re in a line, use that time to hone your ethnographic skills by remembering the four corners of the napkin. Simply show up, shut up, and watch!