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How To Improve Your Customer Experience: Be More Opinionated, Make Things Simple

The other night we were wondering what to eat – neither me nor my wife felt like cooking, so it was down to takeaway options. We thought about the usual suspects but then twitter helped us out. A local eatery called Chatsworth Kitchen on Chatsworth Road, Hackney, tweets its menus, and this one appealed:

Spicy Moroccan meatballs with lemon couscous and yoghurt, roast Sicilian vegetable with dill pilaff, banana pudding, raspberry trifle

So here is the thing- the menu only lists two items for main courses. But they both sound completely delicious, don’t they? I am a vegetarian, but my wife is very much not. Two items- and they fit us like a pair of gloves. And the desserts? Oh my gosh – yum! So I ran up the road to Chats Kitchen. I jokingly tweeted at the time I was at my local opinionated eatery. Sarah, the proprietor, looked at me with a well cocked eyebrow:

“You’re calling me opinonated?”

Well yes Sarah I explained, opinionated is a good thing. It improves the customer experience- too much choice doesn’t make dining any easier or more appealing. How many times have you been to a restaurant with a five page menu and struggled to pick anything out. I said in application development, Opinionated Software is a good thing. Ruby On Rails is the canonical example. Of course David Heinemeier Hansson is rather opinonated himself, and he built this into a software architecture for building web applications. Developers loved the freedom of not screwing around with config files. Class naming conventions and so on are standardised.

The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it.

But being opinionated isn’t just about software development. Take Apple- which has to be the most opinionated company in the world, right now, when it comes to product design. Apple doesn’t do focus groups. Apple doesn’t options or too much customer choice. Very often fewer options improves the customer experience.

I was talking to Alistair Rennie, Lotus Software general manager last week, and I said Lotus success will be predicated on what you take out, not what you put in. Funnily enough he agreed with me – and confided that recently he had had to kill some work from an engineering team because the functionality was unnecessary. Lotus won’t break out by serving endless “customer requirements”, it will do so by focusing on user experience. Lotus needs to be more opinionated, like Chats Kitchen.

Now I know that Sarah is a marketing professional by trade, and this is her first food startup. She took the plunge. Arguably a complex menu would have been just too difficult. But here is the thing: Sarah made less choice a strategy. As I rambled on about application development, she just said:

“Oh I call that choice architecture”

Great phrase. I haven’t read Nudge yet, but I like the idea for sure. I was talking to another client Actuate yesterday, and they have been finding that newer customers have been using BIRT open source analysis tools to focus on user experience without recourse to focus groups, and long requirements cycles. Instead these firms are opionionated, and are choosing open source software to package up great user experiences.

Of course choice architectures can go too far- I find Apple’s Permission-based Web a little stale. Or take the look and feel of Facebook, another walled garden. Totally opionated. We can all learn from opionated business. These are the options, their aren’t too many of them- we’ll be more productive working together than spending time wondering what choices to make.

Whether you’re a product manager, a designer, developer or General Manager less is more. Freedom doesn’t mean more options, it means more flow.

RedMonk itself tries to keep things opinonated with our Simple Subscription Service for Startups. You see- little companies don’t have time to screw around negotiating with a A La Carte, or a buffet – they just want a good offering at a good price. Too much choice is so last century.

If you enjoyed this post I suspect you will also enjoy my last riff based on a small business chalkboard – On Soup, Microcopy and User Experience.

Categories: UX.

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18 Responses

  1. If you think about it, too much choice is a really bad thing for restaurants. It’s actually a good warning flag that the place sucks.

    1) As you said, big menus take too long to read through which means turnover of tables is slower. It takes forever to order as diners are paralyzed by excessive choice. At take-out places, this manifests itself in the line during rushes going slowly.

    2) Large menus require keeping too many different kinds of ingredients in stock. That means lower turnover on ingredients which means the ingredients aren’t going to be nearly as fresh as if the menu was more reasonably sized.

    3) I’ve never worked in a commercial kitchen but it seems logical that having the cooks do a smaller number of dishes is a good way to ensure higher consistency and uniform execution quality.

    Small menus are good for diners and good for restaurant owners. Excessive choice is bad in restaurants, in grocery stores, in software, and elsewhere.

  2. If you watch much cookery TV, you’ll notice whenever Gordon Ramsey goes into a failing restaurant for his “Kitchen Nightmares” program, his changes primary consist of:

    * Give the place a nicer feel
    * Remove everything from the menu except 3-4 options which are all simple to cook

    Self-imposed restriction is really just having self-discipline, and that’s rarely a bad thing is it?

  3. +1 to everything you’ve said here. Lovely reading. What follows is, of course, my own opinion on the issues raised…

    Of course, commercially there’s a push and a pull. How do you walk that line between being seen as smooth, clever, even genius in user experience but closed and opinionated (Cupertino) – which can lead to polarised opinions as to the good or evil of that way of doing things; or being so open, so keen to please, so keen to integrate, so willing to respond to feedback that you end up with a messier user experience but arguably something more “useful” (Linux, Google/Android, IBM, other examples).

    I think one thing we’ve learned and taken to heart as techies over the past decade is that less is more (and this ties in beautifully to the “lesscode” stuff you’ve written about in the past).

    It’s an interesting set of dichotomies, isn’t it – choice and inclusiveness, opinion and happiness.

    Thanks for writing this. Giving me food for thought, as usual.

  4. Nice post. As a UXer, it’s good to get this kind of moral support from outside the profession – I’m not just full of crazy ideas. ;-)

    In some ways, your article reminded me of the current fashion for having choice in what hospital you get treated in – I don’t really care – I just want to get treated by people who know what they’re doing. I don’t have the knowledge/skills/interest/time to make those decisions – that’s what medical professionals are for. Just tell me where to go – don’t give me loads of options to understand – that’s just pushing the responsibility away from the experts to the non-experts.

    I find software development like that. The software developers are the ones who have the expertise in the software and the users are the ones with the expertise in what they want to do with it. So developers (in the broadest sense; not just coders) need to talk to the users to find out what their requirements are and then make the right choices for the users. Like doctors etc should for their patients. Don’t just make the system so flexible that the end-user/patient is overwhelmed with options when all they want is to do their job/get better, then get on with their lives.

    Even if you don’t agree with the hospital analogy itself, you can probably relate to software that’s a pain in the arse to use because it doesn’t understand you and what you want, and therefore doesn’t make you feel better but just makes you feel stressed and dissatisfied.

    • the comments on this post are fantastic. really appreciate the IBM input. looking at you andy and laura. i have to say the NHS argument is rather brilliant, and perhaps worth a follow on post in its own right. ewan’s cooking analogy is also right on

      James GovernorFebruary 24, 2011 @ 12:30 pmReply
  5. I think this is a combination of the Pareto principle and a general design principle of making smart defaults.

    Most people (say 80%) tend to want much the same thing. (sounds crazily generic but almost always holds true).

    Let the people who know the subject area and it’s audience design the smart defaults and make them the easiest things to choose (preferably not even a choice). Let the few who know what they’re talking about and want something different work a little harder to get it (they’re our edge cases).

    This means that we experts and designers do the work rather than saying – we’ve made lots of stuff, it’s all here, go crazy. That’s making the customer take all the risk and do all the work. Why should we pay for that?

    Also, you know the jam story, right? (you sell more jam if you offer fewer flavours – read Paradox of Choice)

    My two most amazing restaurant experiences gave me zero choice of what to eat – there wasn’t even a menu.

  6. should Photoshop be more opinionated?

    no, photography professionals say no.

    hobbyists/n00bs say yes.

    so, it depends.

    Ben FletcherFebruary 24, 2011 @ 1:07 pmReply
  7. Taken to the extreme, gourmet restaurants have 2 fixed menus – you can’t even have entrée 1 with main course 2 – they tell a story with food, and you take it all, or nothing.

    The best restaurants even have a “house sommelier wine selection” choice so that you get wine by the glass with each course which goes perfectly with the meal – you only have two choices to make: Can I afford to eat here? Which menu would I like?

    Music concerts are another good example. The artist chooses the set to tell a story with music. I was at a concert once when (between songs) someone shouted up “Play (a recent single)!” The singer (can’t remember the band or the song) stopped whatever he was doing, looked at the crowd & said “Do I look like a fucking jukebox?”

    So as application developers, we’re telling a story with code, I suppose…

    Cheers,
    Dave.

    Dave NearyFebruary 24, 2011 @ 2:18 pmReply
  8. Two words to refute the “more choice is bad” theory.

    Cheesecake Factory :-)

    Huge # of choices, good quality food, very successful business.

    But, it can be done wrong as well. e.g. Apple under John Sculley with dozens upon dozens of Mac models to choose from. Who could figure that out? Someone wrote a small Mac app to help track all the different Mac models!

  9. To my mind this choice architecture debate probably comes down to the length of time you are going to have to live with your choice. For a meal – lets face it you can pretty much eat anything, as long as it doesn’t actually kill you. And yes – choice can be nice on a menu – but it is far easier to choose from 2 good choices than 12 mediocre, or even 12 good choices. But after 12 hours at best, that choice is forgotten. If you are choosing something long lasting – and you can name pretty much anything here – a house, a car, a middleware system, then choice, and a considered choice is likely to provide you with a better outcome.
    Now sure you can use some pretty good high level filters on making your choice to eliminate complete non-starters, but really you need to think about your longer term choices – and at best they should be configurable later on to allow you to do more as you understand more.
    If we go back to our original menu selection, quite often I would like to eat my starter and then choose my main course – but for all sorts of reasons we have to choose both together, whereas in fact introducing more choice later would be good. In software terms this would equate to providing a default configuration initially – but allowing customization later on. Something to be said for that – options are good – but only once you really understand what it is that you want

  10. 1 – Post is not about food, but now that you mention it at 22:42 local time, I am a bit peckish.

    2 – @Leisa: iPhoto gives n00bs just enough stuff, but not too much. Photoshop gives pro what they really need. iPhoto = Apple = ‘opinionated’.

    3 – In the 90s, I worked for a professional loudspeaker company with a gazillion speakers. Customers always called and said, “I’m putting a system in a [venue]. What speaker should I use?” So we (that is, I) made a whole set of application guides for all the different venues. In the approval process, the sales guys kept adding speakers to applications. “Don’t want to imply that this is the only speaker you can use.” After all the expense of putting the application guides together, we released them to great market approval. Customers would call and say, “Hey, I got your application guide. It’s really great. But I have one question: what speaker should I use?”

    4 – Monkchips nails it.

    FrymasterMarch 4, 2011 @ 3:50 amReply
  11. I love the post. When some says this is the BEST and here is why I listen. Putting your reputation, or business on the line takes guts and a great product. If you say here are 99 tools blah blah blah (Mashable?) I skip on.

  12. I totally agree with your arguments. Nevertheless, in some cases you can offer more options to increase customer experiences. You can think about hidden options to provide the service some customers need and want. (Provide an option to change ingredients for people who are alergic to some food)

    It’s a deeper layer of providing options. (you can also call it option providing flexibility.

    Marnix SchmidtMarch 9, 2011 @ 9:58 amReply



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