Have it Your Way! Can Design Thinking Help Improve the Restaurant Customer Experience?

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I haven’t been courageous enough yet to go to a restaurant and enjoy a sit-down dinner. Rather, I’m patronizing my favorite restaurants through ordering and taking out dinners from their establishments. It’s a difficult time for restaurants. Some may not survive or ever return to the robust businesses they were before the pandemic. Trying to ensure the safety and health of their employees and customers is taking a toll on the already thin margins in the restaurant business. Despite the daily demise of many establishments, some are finding creative ways to ensure their long-term viability once the pandemic has passed. While not wanting to pile onto an already stressed industry, I do wonder if there isn’t a way to apply design thinking to the idea of creating a better experience for those of us wishing to enjoy dining out, mindfully, while better supporting our favorite restaurants in need.
Most of my take-out experiences have been good but not great. The experience typically consists of selecting an entree from the same menu I used pre-pandemic, paying for it online, picking it up or having it placed in my car and carting it home to consume. The meals are typically packaged as if they were being presented on a plate but instead are housed in a Styrofoam or eco-friendly container to keep the food as warm as possible. Often, meals need to be re-heated in the microwave and essentially lose some of their appeal as most don’t travel and re-heat well. Many restaurants are accommodating their customers in a COVID-19 environment by simply converting their dine-in experience to take-out. They aren’t adapting to a shift in customer expectations. It’s reminiscent of organizations mirroring existing website formats for a smart-phone application. Indeed, a disastrous result for newfound consumers expecting a dramatically different interaction. Even today, surprisingly so, these scenarios still exist across many industries.
There are many definitions of design thinking. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO said it best in my opinion:
“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.
Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach, which is known as design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.”
So how might restaurants apply human-centered design thinking to create a better experience for customers now taking out their meals rather than eating them at the establishment? Is it time to turn the experience upside down to create a completely new way of doing business with great chefs?
Since I’m not a restaurateur, mine is a consumer’s view of how restaurants might improve the experience.
• First, throw out the existing menu. Create a new one that recognizes the experience has shifted from in-house to take-out. What food items travel well? Can I add with minimal effort a side or enhanced preparation with ingredients I have in my home kitchen? Models like Hello Fresh and Purple Carrot already exist for home meal preparation. What can restaurants learn from those companies?
• Create the take-out experience. In a pre-pandemic environment, we used apps like Open Table to easily make reservations at our favorite restaurants. Today, companies like DoorDash and GrubHub are booming as consumers order online and delivering the same meals in a more convenient manner. In the absence of these services, can we create a better way to interact with restaurants that recognizes the challenges we face given the current crisis.
• Redesign the packaging. Putting a 3-course meal into a Styrofoam container often results in it being a one-course meal upon arrival at its destination. How can a great meal be transported while l retaining the taste and appeal created by the chef?
• Change the processes. What worked before may no longer work for your business. Analyze what’s changed and align your processes accordingly. Processes like order taking, payments, tipping, etc. may not be the same and need to be revised or completely revamped.
• Think end-to-end. When using design thinking, it’s important to think about the entire experience that your guests are having with your restaurant, your employees, your menu, your food, and your presentation. They are thinking about the entire experience when rating you, so should you!
Keeping in mind Tim Brown’s definition, all this needs to be technologically feasible and economically viable. To my earlier point, restaurants on the brink of bankruptcy may only be focused on their own survival. In my opinion, despite the financial difficulties restaurants face, the decision to invest in their long-term future will result in sustainable income and increased customer loyalty – both of which should appeal to every business owner whether they are in the restaurant business or not.
You may question why I’m writing about the restaurant business when many of us work in a variety of industries? Quite simply, it’s one example of an industry impacted by an unexpected pandemic and scrambling to re-invent itself to survive the crisis.
The question we should all be asking is, “How can we apply design thinking to changing the way we do business today versus how we did it at the beginning of 2020? Have customer expectations changed for your business? Are you trying to apply the same approaches to delivering your products and services to customers? How are you aligning to meet the new demands of your customer base?
I don’t think we will ever return to a pre-pandemic normalcy. Those that see the vision of what design thinking can do to transform their organizations in response to a new set of customer expectations will be the ones that will be here long after this crisis has passed!
Design thinking can make for a better customer (and employee) experience, today.

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