Disruptive Tech is not always good – A retrospective.


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The other day, I had a simple dinner date with my six year old.  After a whirlwind trip through the mall, we were ravenous, and we stopped at the local Chili’s.  I was looking forward to a little bonding with this marvelous little person… who seems to be growing before my eyes.  Unfortunately, everything changed the minute we sat down and noticed the ZIOSK on the table.

Ziosk builds itself as “the industry leader for tabletop menu, ordering, entertainment and payment with the largest deployed network in the U.S.”  Ziosk boasts service to 1 Million customers.  While I’d seen it before and had recently used it at a burger joint in Carmel, I can’t say I ever gave it a proper test-drive. You can find Ziosk at places like Applebees  – they’re all over.  Of course, as always, I’m curious to know how effective the kiosk was and how it disrupted and enabled next-generation commerce.

So, normally the presence of this device would have the UX professional in me salivating.  This time, however, I wasn’t happy to find this digital intruder.  Perhaps my exposure to all things digital seems to be turning me into a bit of luddite in my private life – but really do try to tune out all screens when I’m at dinner or having drinks with friends and family… Instead, I prefer to just tune in to PEOPLE.

But there it was, front and center on our table. As I glanced at this interface, it brought me back to my pioneering days in eCommerce.

(Main Screen)

My first job just prior to graduating college in 1993 was working as a UX Specialist for a “virtual concierge” startup that developed localized, Mac-based kiosks that supported guests and visitors in local hotels. This was before the widespread use of IPTV/Interactive systems like Lodgenet (for whom I would later develop interfaces).  As a precursor to those services, our virtual concierge allowed users to check out of their rooms, find maps and directions to local addresses and attractions, print coupons, order food for delivery from local restaurants and even order flowers.

We had a quality idea and a quality product that was frankly, doomed from the start.  We were way ahead of our time.  It was an age before the world wide web went mainstream, an era where a 14.4 modem was considered fast, and a decade before Google Maps changed life as we know it.   In short, the company went bankrupt and never paid me. I managed to survive on Ramen noodles in a dark, basement apartment. I was hired post-graduation by 1-800-FLOWERS, a company I’d recruited to participate in our beta test, and for who I would later developed 16 interactive stores in two years.

I must say, building the interactive services division of 1-800-FLOWERS, was a terrific first job out of college — and as a bonus, they actually paid me!  Our team of three built interactive shopping applications on every major proprietary online service, the first PDA platforms, an array of interactive television pilots, kiosk startup, CDi/CDRom shopping hybrids and we were the first transactional florist on the Internet.  The rest is history. Here’s a screen shot of one of the proprietary apps we worked on “back in the day”

(800 Flowers on (???) LodgeNet – circa 1996)

My, how much — and how little things have changed!

So while it’s not by any means an exhaustive review, here’s what I learned looking at the Ziosk.  First, the interface was really simple.  I was a little surprised that, despite the mass adoption of small screen,  the designs were remarkably similar to interface design I was doing in the late 1990’s.  In short, the system offered the ability for users to:

  • Review promotional menu items – not the whole menu
  • Read USA Today and other updates
  • Pay .99 cents for unlimited access proprietary or licensed apps and games (added to the bill)
  • Review your bill
  • Swipe your card and pay
  • Take a customer satisfaction survey at the end of bill payment

I took the time to drill through the menu. I also grilled our servers about the use of ZIOSK and found the feedback we received insightful.  Interestingly, I learned they don’t fully deploy ZIOSK at Chili’s because it has proven to be too disruptive.

  • While you can look at featured menu items and even some nutritional information for some items on the menu, the full menu is not available on ZIOSK.  
  • You cannot order meals using ZIOSK – not at Chili’s, at least. This functionality (according to my server) left both customers and servers confused and resulted in total disruption at the restaurant.  (If I remember correctly, the server actually used the word “disaster”). According to the servers I spoke with, the Chili’s menu and its modifiers is too complex for the ZIOSK platform, making ordering using the system unusable. 
  • You can order drink refills and featured deserts at Chili’s using ZIOSK.  However, this seems to merely cue the waiter to the table, by turning on a light on the top of the screen.  
  • You cannot use the ZIOSK to page your waiter if you need, say, some barbecue sauce.  You must do the traditional stalk from your seat, and wave madly.  
  • The system offers limited news and doesn’t allow web browsing or email checking. 
  • The games I reviewed were not social or multiplayer… so while one person plays, the other stares blankly – typically at a more full-featured cell phone.  
  • The unlimited games and entertainment are rather limited… There was a clear rip-off of Angry Birds — without the birds.  Regardless, they kept my son engaged enough to ignore me and his food.

When I asked why it wasn’t fully enabled our server(s) offered some really good feedback. 

  • Before they disabled ordering capabilities, the system made it highly confusing and frustrating (disasterous) to order food — and that the resulting frustration relayed to wait staff and management resulting in rotten relationships, poor service and bad tips. 
  • The tool didn’t map orders to place seating — making the server figure it out on delivery, further creating ill-will with the table.  

Here are a few system screen shots: 

Main screen for games and entertainment

Checkout (kid signed it!)

Exit Survey 

The most important feedback I received from three different servers is that, while at times the system could be helpful, in general,  ZIOSK disrupted and frustrated service and the relationship between the server and the table, turning diners into anti-social zombies.  Without question, I can attest to this, as the presence of the ZIOSK not only frustrated me, but effectively zombified my son the entire time we were there.  That dynamic would have been better if I could have played games *with* him, instead of being relegated to the position of observer.  😛

So many years ahead from my kiosk building years, it’s interesting to see how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go.  Today, we talk a lot about “disruptive” technology — but we don’t always talk about bad disruptive vs. good disruptive.  In many cases, there’s a little of both going on… and getting from bad to good can be the hairy, messy part.  We tend to layer new technology on top of existing paradigms.  Sometimes that’s probably necessary — culture can’t change nearly as quickly as technology can.  Indeed, while ZIOSK may be a blessing to many other businesses, it’s clear Chili’s is feeling the growing pains.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Leigh Durst
Leigh (Duncan) Durst is the principal of Live Path. She is a 19 year veteran in business, operations and customer strategy, ecommerce, digital and social media. As an active consultant, writer, speaker and teacher, she is an advocate for creating remarkable customer experiences that harness digital media and improving business outcomes.


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