Ethnographic Report on Potential Users’ Restaurant Behavior
Michigan State University
Fall Semester, 2016
Observational research was conducted to inform the design of, and determine the best target audience for, an app designed to streamline the ordering and payment processes of eating establishments. The goal of this app is to meet the challenges of customers who want a sit-down meal with high quality food, but want it to be a faster and more efficient experience.
Direct observations were made of customers’ restaurant behaviors over a 95 minute period. Special attention was paid to the amount of time it took them to order their food, and their activities prior to making menu decisions.
I observed customers enter, order, and eat/drink over a 95 minute period in a small cafe near my home. I completed my observations during the lunch period from 11:00am to 12:35pm. I recorded a total of 8 parties totaling 18 people in that time. The cafe is an upscale suburban restaurant, and the food is high quality. The menu is standard cafe fare - eggs, hashbrowns, etc for breakfasts, burgers, salads, etc for lunch and dinner. I moved to this town about a month ago, and I have already eaten there a few times, so I am familiar with it. It can get fairly busy, and demand for tables is moderate to high on weekdays. The dining room is L-shaped, and I was fortunate enough to be seated in a corner where I could easily observe half of it. I recorded the following information about every party that entered my half of the restaurant:
Age and Gender
Distraction level before ordering 1-10
Time to order
Activity while waiting
0: Looked at menu
3: Looked at menu, talked a little
1: Looked at menu, did not talk
we just retired
2: Looked at menu, then talked
Lots of conversation, but the guy keeps looking around the room
5: Alternately discussed menu and current politics
constant political conversation.
6: Deliberated, conversed, asked for other menu, rambled
quiet, polite conversation over coffee
8: Forgot to look at menu, looked, forgot, etc. Distracting Toddler
Adults tried to converse while toddler periodically interrupts for attention.
6: Looked at menus and conversed - kids played with some toys but interrupted occasionally
Kids grew restless - bouncing, standing, etc. Adults worked hard to occupy them
This summary table shows some of the salient data from the parties I observed. I gave pseudonyms to each party, and documented their activities before and after ordering food. I’ve shown the parties with kids in red, and the parties without in blue. Bold type font indicates that party members arrive separately, and normal indicates that they arrived together. The table goes from a group size of one, with “Grumpy Gus” at the top, to a group size of four, with “3 generations” at the bottom. There is a direct correlation between the size of the party, and the time that party takes to decide their order. I will discuss the “distraction level” later.
Time to prepare the food
Even with a small sample size of just 8, there were a number of clear trends that I discovered. First, I will start with the results of how long it took the cafe to bring food to the participants’ tables once the order was placed.
The cafe got food to the tables in a mean time of about 14 minutes and 34 seconds. If I remove the outlier time of almost 29 minutes, (I’ll attempt to explain that one shortly) the mean time for food delivery is just over 12 minutes. Consistency is quite good - with the exception of the one clear outlier, deviations from this time were all less than 3:30. While I could not see the menu items that most people ordered, “Political Brunch” happened to be right next to me, and I saw that they ordered a standard breakfast of eggs and hashbrowns. I know from my experience as a server that these items can be prepared in under 8 minutes. I also know from my experience, however, that it is common to forget to put an order through to the cooks immediately after taking it. I have no proof, but I strongly suspect the server saw that this particular table didn’t have their food after about 15 or 20 minutes, knew that something was wrong, investigated, became aware that the cooks never got the order, and then immediately alerted the kitchen, resulting in food delivery of almost 30 minutes. I saw this kind of thing happen quite frequently during the brunch/breakfast rush during my shifts as a server.
Note: I omitted “We Just Retired” from this list, because I did not notice when they got their food.
Group size and ordering speed.
While food preparation time on the part of the restaurant was consistent, the amount of time it took customers to decide on what to eat was not. The single largest factor for determining how long it took to peruse the menu was the size of the group.
Here, the table is arranged with the y axis showing the amount of time a table took to order, and the x axis showing the size of the group, increasing from left to right. The larger the group, the longer that group took to order.
I also took my original notes on the activities and demeanors of the participants, and created a “distraction rating” for each table. This is a completely subjective rating of 0-10, with 0 being not distracted at all, and 10 being very distracted. I define distraction simply as any activity other than reading the menu. I attempted to assign this rating to each table for the time from entry to ordering. Each table’s distraction level can be found in the summary table, but I’ve graphed the relationship between distraction level and the time it takes a table to order their food.
Participants are again arranged from left to right in increasing order of group size. A “T” indicates that the adult participants arrived together, and an “S” indicates that they arrived separately. (“Grumpy Gus” was by himself.)
While there is variation between groups of the same size, it is clear that larger groups are more prone to distraction than smaller groups. Arriving together or separately also tends to increase distraction. Also, the presence of children, not surprisingly, can increase distraction level as well. “Girls Interrupted” and “3 Generations” were the two most distracted parties, and were also the only parties with children. This distraction also affected how long it took them to order their food, as shown below.
Presence of Children
Here, parties with children are again shown in red, and those without are in blue. The presence of children clearly increases the amount of time it takes for that table to place an order.
Restaurants are relatively consistent with how long it takes to get food out to the tables. Cooks and servers generally want to be as efficient as possible in their jobs. There is a great deal of variation in customer behavior, however - particularly in how long it takes them to decide what they want to order. The key determining factor in how long it takes a table to order is how distracted they are. This distraction is increased by group size, the presence of children, and arriving separately. These are the areas any tool that seeks to streamline the ordering process should focus on.
This app must be able to do the following:
My raw observational data sheet can be found here: