Your Preferences Don’t Matter, Your Customers’ Do

If you’ve ever tried to go to a restaurant’s website, there’s a 98% chance your experience was horrifically unpleasant.  Usually, after the obligatory 10-30 second load time, there’s some weird music that starts playing, there’s obnoxious pictures or slideshows coming out of nowhere, and worst of all, whatever you’re actually looking for, usually a menu, a phone number, an address or a reservations form, is buried deeper than a Kardashian’s dignity.

Why?  Slate offers two plausible explanations:

“In restaurants, the expertise is in the kitchen and in hospitality in general,” says Eng San Kho, a partner at the New York design firm Love and War. “People in restaurants have a sense that they want to create an entertainment experience online—that’s why disco music starts, that’s why Flash slideshows open. They think they can still play the host even here online.”

This makes some sense.  At any restaurant that serves entrees costing more than $20, people expect service and atmosphere in addition to good food.  At higher end places, they call this “an experience”, so it makes sense that the owners of such establishments want that experience to extend online.  This is pretty silly though, since it’s just about impossible to replicate the experience of fine dining online.  There’s also another explanation:

“Say you’re a designer and you’ve got to demo a site you’ve spent two months creating,” Bohan explains. “Your client is someone in their 50s who runs a restaurant but is not very in tune with technology. What’s going to impress them more: Something with music and moving images, something that looks very fancy to someone who doesn’t know about optimizing the Web for consumer use, or if you show them a bare-bones site that just lists all the information? I bet it would be the former—they would think it’s great and money well spent.”

This is also plausible, since a lot of people are incompetent, uneducated/unfamiliar with the web, or both.

Both of these explanations offer an even bigger insight into business.  These lines of thinking absolutely ignore the point of having a website: to make you money.  The point of spending money on a website is to drive customers, who in turn spend money at your establishment. Does the shitty euro-jazz and Ken Burns style pan and zoom picture of the dining room really drive traffic to your restaurant?  Maybe, but knowing people who decide not to go to restaurants after getting pissed off by the website, I’m guessing no.  I’m guessing 99.9% of these owners have never tested the conversion rates on their own sites.

I’m also guessing that a similar percentage never ask themselves what their customers want from the site.  Sure, I want the site to be an extension of myself, Chef Amazing, and my amazing restaurant’s amazing experience.  Or, since all these other restaurants (50% of which fail within a three years) have shitty flash sites with terrible music, that must be the thing to do.  No!  It’s this same “what I like other people must like” mentality that likely leads to the whole restaurant going under.

This mentality is in no way unique to the restaurant business.  No matter what industry you’re in, figure out what your customers want, and what pisses them off.  This is actually harder than it sounds, since most people avoid confrontation (and giving advice or critiques is often thought of as confrontational), but it’s definitely doable, and pretty easy if you’re a public business like a restaurant: read reviews and keep up with the times (hey, if there’s an entire company dedicated to putting menus online, MAYBE MY CUSTOMERS WANT TO SEE MENUS ONLINE).  If you’re in a more private business, communicate with your customers: find out what they like, what they hate, why the left your competitor, why they left you for a competitor, etc.

This applies even if you never see a customer: Don’t just deliver what you think your bosses and co-workers want, figure out what they actually want (hint: rarely does anyone tell you everything they want, even when you ask).  This is work, but you will be rewarded.


Note: Since I spent so much time bashing the restaurant industry, some praise: Beast and the Hare.  Site loads instantly.  Name, Phone, Address (that directly links to googlemaps!), hours, and a menu clearly visible.  And to those who use the video and flash bullshit to replicate their dining experience online: I’ve never been here, and never heard of this restaurant before stumbling on its site, but I already know exactly what kind of place to expect, and I have a pretty good idea of what the place will look like, all done without a single picture or note of new-age muzak.

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