illuminating usability issues

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What have Heston Blumenthal, Little Chef and Usability Engineering got in common?

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I was watching the TV series following Heston (the fancy chef) and his team and their mission to revamp Little Chef…it was an interesting show, but I want to talk about how it reminded me of key usability principles.

One thing that came up a few times which reminded me of usability and my world was Heston’s comments that he considered himself a “normal bloke” (and therefore what he would like to see on the menu is what other customers would also want to buy and eat).

Surprisingly, this is one of the most common flaws in design. We all like to think that we are fairly normal people, but years specialising in a particular area means a lot of distance between you and an average customer. It takes time and effort to ensure that you remain in touch with the real “normal people” who are your target market.

For the restaurant biz I would have liked to have seen much more research into the tastes and preferences of the Little Chef customers, particularly in terms of how much and what they want to eat, and what they want to pay for it too.

A first principle of usability is to know your user – and that the user IS NOT YOU! If you know how to design or build something, then it unlikely that you will also represent the typical user of that thing. Making and using are two very different activities.

At the end of the first show, Heston delivered a menu which some customers even called “poncy”. Suffering from a lack of real knowledge about the customers, the result was that it failed to win over the standard menu choices. “Why wasn’t he out there talking to customers before starting his menu plans?” I kept grumbling! Well, finally, he was listening to some feedback – but from a usability professionals viewpoint, this was too late in the day – such a lot of effort had already been made in the recipe selections – much of which needed to be chucked away.

Recommendation: Get listening to real customers first – before you put pen to paper!

Of course, it’s also a great example of how you can learn from failure – but that is another story…

Another amusing part of the program were the scenes involving the big boss of Little Chef, with his continual calls for “blue sky thinking” and whose vision appeared to be of the radical dishes that Heston’s restaurant is famous for. This guy did not seem to be in touch with his customers, or able to describe or explain what he expected.

Well, this is a bit tricky, I bet many people work for someone a bit like this and lets face it they are paying the bills…but part of the job they are paying for has to be for the “designer” or whatever you want to call it to refocus the whole team – get them to focus on the needs of the intended customers.

In usability this is a main part of the job. If you can get everyone in the team focused on the consumer, understanding them and their requirements from you, you may have a chance of coming up with a successful idea.

Eventually, the “blue sky” thinking went onto the ceiling of the redesigned restaurant interior – the best part of the show for me – that is precisely where it belonged, not in the dishes chosen for the menu – a job well done?!

As the series progressed, it was interesting to see Heston follow some more intelligent lines of inquiry, taking a lot of time to understand the capabilities of the staff (Little Chef cooks) and the equipment they had to work with. Following this line of enquiry, and having listened to feedback from his failed menu, finally things started moving in a positive direction, but still it seemed he was reluctant to throw off all of his personal views…

In something of a cook-off against a rival fry-up van at a rugby match, Heston’s new breakfast went down reasonably well with customers, but not as well as the one which included baked beans.  The staff had mentioned this a few times…but with the scores counted up, and the feedback collected, the importance of beans was obvious.

This is another valuable usability lesson…listen to the staff – that is real frontline staff. The staff from Little Chef, and from the rival fry-up van,  insist that customers will want beans with their breakfast.  The cook-off indicates that customers also agree – a famous name may get you somewhere, some interest, but what customers want gets you real business. And this seems to be how baked beans made it back onto his menu.

I was also pleased to notice another usability lesson – that of staff buy in. As Heston started making changes which reflected the staff comments, capabilities and opinions, they became invested in the whole process. It was clear that over time he beginning to win them round. In doing so, they became spokespersons for (some of) the changes he was proposing…making it more likely that his ideas will spread throughout the chain.

When staff feel valued – that their ideas and needs are being listened to and met, they will be motivated to help sell the ideas to others. When they are ignored (for example, the case of the baked beans!)  they will undermine the changes (the staff suggested they would offer people beans instead of tomatoes, even if not on the official breakfast menu.)

The main idea throughout the show – to improve the quality of ingredients which go into the dishes in the Little Chef chain and therefore improve the food and get more customers back in – it is a commendable idea. I believe in this principle myself, but am I typical of the general public? As a usability expert, I know to assume that I am not.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to pay more for better quality food. This position was clearly portrayed in the show – customers and staff alike commented frequently that it was quantity that was key – filling the plate, providing value for money. One of the final comments from the third show, with the Little Chef cook, Ann, commenting on the quality of the food (fish and chips) being good, but portions – well…

What happens next – remains to be seen.

As I said, and interesting show – and I’m sure there was much that went on that we didn’t see…However, the lesson for me was that simple usability principles have their application everywhere. I believe that in spending more effort at the outset working out customer requirements, staff views and getting them on-board, the whole experience might have been a more pleasant one for Heston and his team. If they could make life a bit easier – surely these principles are worth a try?

Try out some usability principles in your work – whatever it is, the idea of customer-centered design is always a good starting point.

Written by cath

January 23, 2009 at 12:40 pm