The psychology of menus (and maybe menu boards?)

December 24, 2009 by Dave Haynes

(Photo from Wand Corporation) 

There is pretty broad agreement out there that QSR, fast casual, fast food or whatever you want to call it will be a big growth sector for digital signage over the next year. Lots of companies, I am reliably told, are taking a hard look at making their menu boards digital because there’s now a viable ROI model and enough experience in the field to know what to do and not to do.

Technically and financially, we’re there. But what about content?

The conventional wisdom is that digital menu boards don’t need to have any particular whiz-bang about the creative. They can be jpegs or motion vector graphics (like Flash or Silverlight), and maybe there’s embedded video. The few digital menu boards I have seen look like regular menu boards.

Is that the optimal way to do it? I haven’t a clue, as my fast food patronage doesn’t extend much beyond buying coffee at Tim Horton’s now and then. But there’s an interesting piece in Wednesday’s New York Times (you may need to register to read it, but that’s free) about the psychology of menus that is worth a read if planning or peddling menu boards is in the cards for 2010.

Restaurant operators are fiddling, the story says, with combinations of prices, adjectives, fonts, type sizes, ink colors and placement on the page to try to coax diners into spending a little more money.

The use of menu engineers and consultants is exploding in the casual dining arena and among national chains, a sector of the business that has been especially pinched by the economy. In response, they are tapping into a growing body of research into the science of menu pricing and writing, hoping the way to a diner’s heart is not only through the stomach, but through the unconscious.  

This piece, I should stress, is all about the menus a waiter or waitress hands to you, not menus up on boards. But there is good stuff in here that is broadly applicable to anyone trying to get people ordering more.

In the “Ten Commandments for Menu Success,” an article published in Restaurant Hospitality magazine in 1994, Allen H. Kelson, a restaurant consultant, wrote, “If admen had souls, many would probably trade them for an opportunity every restaurateur already has: the ability to place an advertisement in every customer’s hand before they part with their money.”

And like advertisements, menus contain plenty of subliminal messages.

Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys. For example, they may place a really expensive item at the top of the menu, so that other dishes look more reasonably priced; research shows that diners tend to order neither the most nor least expensive items, drifting toward the middle. Or restaurants might play up a profitable dish by using more appetizing adjectives and placing it next to a less profitable dish with less description so the contrast entices the diner to order the profitable dish.

Research by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and the author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,” suggests that the average person makes more than 200 decisions about food every day, many of them unconsciously, including the choices made from reading menus.

Menu design draws some of its inspiration from newspaper layout, which puts the most important articles at the top right of the front page, where the eyes tend to be drawn. Some restaurants will place their most profitable items, or their specials, in that spot. Or they place a dotted outline or a box around the item, put more white space around it to make the dish stand out or, in what menu researchers say is one of the most effective tools, add a photograph of the item or an icon like a chili pepper. 

Interesting reading, and a good reminder that our emerging industry can learn a lot from the efforts made on the more traditional sides of businesses.  

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