Tap into the behavioral insights that will nudge customers to explore more dishes without having to offer discounts or reduce margins. It’s all about optimising choice architecture.
In this article, you’ll discover:
- How to nudge people to choose faster and easier;
- What hidden concerns men have when ordering cocktails;
- Why putting desserts on a separate menu is a bad idea; and
- When visual enhancement of the menu can do more harm than good.
How do you redesign a menu that unintentionally makes customers pay more attention to the main courses than the appetizers and desserts, makes men worry about their fragile masculinity, and features images that redirect customers’ attention away from the menu rather than enhancing the experience?
Jez Groom, CEO of Cowry Consulting, and, Cowry’s Chief Design Officer, will walk you through some clever behavioral and design changes that ended up tripling the targets originally set by their client – Mitchells & Butlers – a network of UK restaurants and pubs.
With 19 restaurant chains under their belt, Mitchells & Butlers wanted to increase the average spend per head by 4 pence.
Cowry’s team designed simple but well-thought-out changes in the menu which boosted the average customer spend by 13 pence.
Cowry’s team designed simple but well-thought-out changes in the menu which, on the revenue level, boosted the average customer spend (ACS) not by 4, 8, or even 10, but by 13 pence!
The changes ranged from more straightforward ones (cutting down the number of options & giving more space to desserts and starters) to more intricate ones (displaying the type of glassware the cocktails come in and changing the direction that the floral patterns on the menu pointed to).
Get inspired to think differently about what role defaults, size congruence, and our preference for images rather than words play in what we choose (and not just off the menu).
Before taking on the job, Cowry contemplated ethical issues; nudging people around the food menu could have an impact on people's financial wellbeing and health.
By following Cowry’s ethical framework, the team felt comfortable before taking on the project that nudging people to spend just an extra 4 pence would enhance a relatively infrequent experience without hurting anyone’s long term finances or health.
They proposed a 3-stage process:
- Research on academic literature & an audit of the existing menu;
- Designing a new menu based on industry best practices;
- A pre-test eye-tracking experiment & live controlled experiments in restaurants.
Research & Audit
The behavioral design team led by March began with an extensive literature review to identify the best practices in the industry (anything from pricing to visual design, how a menu should look and feel, what type of font should be used in relation to the proximity people were seated).
Everything along the customer’s journey, which is objectively a little harder than it should be. it needs to be removed to elicit a desired behavior or response.
The goal was to translate academic literature into a usable, accessible literature guide about different techniques that can be used to nudge people in restaurant settings.
Then they conducted a “friction” audit of Brown’s existing menu, looking at things that were wrong with it. They identified 3 major problems.
Problem #1: The number of items & size incongruence
Cowry’s experts found significant differences in the size of the menu sections; mains occupied two thirds, while only a sixth was reserved for starters and desserts.
At first glance this makes sense; it taps into what the consumers are already doing. Since most people buy mains and only some choose starters and desserts, it’s only logical to dedicate the majority of the menu to main courses.
But March points out an unintended (and overlooked) consequence of this. She says, the size incongruence of menu sections sets hierarchy defaults which lead people to pay even more attention to mains!
You can think of it as a coach who gives his top sprinter Nike’s Vaporfly (shoes that some say give runners an unfair advantage) while the rest of the team is asked to compete in flip-flops. Restaurants that dedicate more menu space to mains are doing the same: they’re only widening the gap which is already present!
Restaurants that dedicate more menu space to mains are leading people to pay even more attention to mains.
Another issue, says March, was that there were too many dishes on the Brown’s menu. That didn't allow for thin slicing – a process in which the brain makes a decision (in microseconds) about whether it finds something appealing or not based on just thin slices of information.
So the menu with fewer items creates less procrastination (because there’s less to choose from), but it also looks more inviting to engage with.
In this case, the team proposed removing competing categories such as breakfast from the dinnertime menu because they were less relevant.
Problem #2: Concerns about glassware
Since the majority of the menu focused on mains, it didn’t provide any visual cue on what kind of glassware the cocktails came in.
This can be detrimental, especially for men who find it less motivating to choose a cocktail if they can’t see what kind of glass it will be served in. Groom explains that previous insight works from global drinks manufacturers had identified that men don't want to be embarrassed by a glass that could make them look less masculine. So they may decide to play it safe and order something else with a standard glass (wine, beer, whiskey).
Missing pictures of glassware might even raise concerns about size vs. value for money; some cocktails come in smaller glasses but are served with less ice, others come in huge glasses packed with ice. A picture gives a hint about that too. This information, which eliminates uncertainty, may be golden for those on the stingy side who want to gauge the proportion of liquor vs. ice or anyone with a proclivity for sore throats.
Problem #3: Tricky floral prints
While analysing the results of pre-menu eye-tracking tests, the team spotted an interesting paradox: the imagery that was meant to enhance the experience actually distracted customers and directed their attention off the page!
This was because the floral prints situated around the edge of the page were directing people’s attention off the page as well.
Our brains process images a lot faster than words. Because of this we really like visual iconography and are more drawn to it.
Imagery plays a key role, as March goes on to explain: “Our brains process images a lot faster (13ms) than words. (which takes 300ms to read, and 400ms to comprehend). Because of this we really like visual iconography and are more drawn to it.”
So using these kinds of prints isn’t bad, but placement plays a key role. It can, in fact, draw customers' attention to where they need to look and that’s what Cowry’s proposed solution focused on.
Designing a new menu
Researchers combined results of an academic review with their on-the-ground work and came up with a portfolio of different creative conceptual designs.
Cuts & chunking
The first change was to reduce the number of competing options (to avoid choice overload and allow for thin slicing). The team worked closely with Mitchells & Butlers on determining what items to cut from the menu. In total, they ended up removing the afternoon tea and breakfast and sandwich options, which allowed customers to focus on the dishes that matched their expectations for dinner.
This allowed the Cowry team to design a new menu that gave equal prominence (a third of space for each) to the mains, starters, and desserts.
But they didn’t just adjust how much space was given to mains. They also transformed what the whole section looked like and placed main courses into straightforward categories (chunking): Meat, Steaks, Vegetarian & Vegan, Fish.
If you were vegan, instead of having to skim through the majority of irrelevant options on the pre-menu, it would now take you almost no time to locate a single, relevant section.
As it turns out, the more time we spend, the less satisfied we are with the choice we’ve made. And not only that, the longer we spend, the more important the decision begins to feel. So if your customers lose time trying to locate relevant options (before even zooming in on a few), the clock is already running against you. Rearranging the options to cut down the time we spend locating and deciding is crucial.
Another advantage of chunking is that each subsection on the new menu now includes fewer dishes to choose from, and so customers are less likely to get overwhelmed. Research shows we are able to choose easily from up to 9 options, but cross that threshold and it gets tricky.
This might seem like common sense, yet many restaurants still don’t appreciate the power of categorising, which makes it easier to choose and also increases satisfaction. We’ve previously written about how Netflix uses psychology to help us choose.
Some might argue that to deal with choice overload, a restaurant could keep all of the starter and main options, but simply separate the dessert menu and give it later (as in fact, many restaurants do).
Raphy March explains why they didn’t take this route: “Research suggests that customers typically decide whether they want a dessert or not when they first sit down. Exposing them to dessert options on the main menu primes them to think ahead, whereas keeping them on a separate menu leaves dessert as an afterthought.”
She says that to achieve the increase in spend per head, they made a strategic decision to encourage customers to select from each course (using the size congruency of the menu sections) as opposed to guiding them towards a larger main and no dessert.
To achieve the increase in spend per head, Cowry made a strategic decision to encourage customers to select from each course as opposed to guiding them towards a larger main and no dessert.
Drawings of glassware & inward direction of prints
To clear away men’s concerns about appearance, visual iconography that highlighted glass shapes was added and cocktails were given a more prominent space. The position and direction of the floral prints were changed to strategically direct eye gaze toward the start of each menu section, not away from them.
Language & vivid descriptions
Apart from changes in visual design, the team also enhanced the way certain items were described.
For example, the original description of Steaks: “Our award-winning, 28-day matured British steaks come from cattle reared on Browns’ own farms” was replaced with a slight change in wording to appeal to eco-conscious customers and help justify the price tag: “Our award-winning, 28-day matured British steaks come from high welfare, sustainably-reared cattle raised on our own farms.”
People’s tendency to use time and effort as a way of determining the value of a product or service and the fairness of its price. People can’t evaluate the intrinsic quality of what they’re getting, that’s why they use time and effort as a reliable proxy.
Profesional menu designers know that the more descriptions you add, the higher the value of the item and the lower the price seems to the customer. The vivid description works because we use time and effort as a proxy for value. If something is perceived as higher value (more time and effort was put into it), then the easier it is to justify that it costs an arm and a leg.
In fact, a field experiment conducted at Cornell University found that if menu labels were written in descriptive language such as “succulent Italian seafood filet” vs. “seafood filet”, customers were more satisfied with their meal and sales of certain dishes (where the description attached some provenance to the ingredients) jumped by 27%.
Cowry behavioral practitioners are also well-versed in graphic and UX design, and so created a portfolio of creative conceptual designs. The client then created a final proof and print, which they tested live with customers using eye tracking.
When looking at the new menu, people’s gaze followed a spiral pattern; first sizing up the cocktails and starters, then the mains, then the desserts, and then the process began again.
As a result, they discarded some ideas prior to the live tests in restaurants, such as deciding not to remove additional zeros on the end of prices. The team also chose a less salient light grey instead of a light pink for boxes that highlighted dishes which were used as price or quality anchors (Burrata, Browns Fish Pie, Dark Chocolate Bomb, etc.). Just a little enhancement can create a sense of default without hijacking the rest of the options.
The intention wasn't to direct attention to these dishes but to the surrounding dishes. For example, attention was directed to the Burrata to make the surrounding dishes seem more exciting by comparison.
They found that in the old menu, people’s eyes darted all over the place with no apparent pattern of fixation. But when looking at the new menu, people’s gaze followed a spiral pattern; first sizing up the cocktails and starters, then the mains, then the desserts, and then the process began again.
Both menus (pre and post) were tested for 5 weeks in live trials across multiple test sites across England, which were controlled for size and location against control restaurants.
Three restaurants (Harvester, Browns, and Sizzling), in which the live experiment ran, saw an uplift of average spend per head by 13 pence (increasing the average margin by 8 pence), and the data showed that more people selected from different courses such as starters and desserts.
This was not achieved by promotion or price reduction, but by making choosing easier through understanding the psychology of what drives people’s decisions.
- Don’t put too much into a menu. Less is more. You can do this by removing irrelevant sections and introducing more white space to make it easier to process the remaining dishes. If you can’t reduce the number of options/sections, categorize them in a more meaningful way.
- Ask yourself why someone might not buy your product. It can help you discover concerns that are unrelated to your main product features (which your customers may very well love). But if they still aren’t engaging, the blockers might be elsewhere. At Brown, the problem wasn’t the cocktails recipes, but the concerns about glassware.
- Use descriptive language to communicate value. Vivid and engaging wording that tells the story behind the product or implies a lot of time and effort was put into it makes it easier to justify its price. Since people can’t evaluate the intrinsic quality of what they’re getting, they use time and effort as a reliable proxy. Use this for your product description as well.
2 Bonus tips from Jez Groom:
- Start each section with higher-priced items. No matter whether it’s the menu or a landing page, the order in which you list the items can change the perception of price. If people are anchored on higher sums, then mid-priced items feel more appealing in comparison. The reverse is true if you start with the cheapest items.
- Round up your prices if you’re a high-end restaurant. It shows confidence in your price and that it represents good value. Plus you get a reduced number of syllables (try saying 40 vs. 39.99) so it’s less likely to increase the pain of paying.