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What Restaurants Can Teach You About Onboarding

Adam Fairhead
By Adam Fairhead on 17th May, 2017 Updated on 18th May, 2017

What does Gordon Ramsey screaming at people about overcooked food have to do with good user onboarding? As entertaining as it would be to answer that question, there’s something far more exquisite about a fine-dining experience than the food: the onboarding experience.

In this article, we’re going to unpack what’s so special about restaurant onboarding, and how you can apply it to your next UX design.

1. What’s behind your door?

The last time my wife and I were in Paris, we dined out frequently, as tourists do when in places like Paris. The theatrical preparation and delicious dishes are hard to forgo.

What I enjoyed most about our dining experiences, though, was watching how each restaurant tried to get people through their doors. After all, they all knew the chances of visitors sitting and staying is significantly higher, if only they would step through those doors.

The best restaurants seemed to use the same model. And it’s this: as we wandered along the sidewalk, soaking up the Parisian architecture, we had to deliberately avoid the menus that had been put in the middle of the sidewalk.

In effect, they were saying, “This is what we have to offer you. You don’t have to walk in to know what’s available, now you know. Now you can wander in with confidence if there’s something that tickles your fancy.”

That’s something many product designers would love to get across, although not many do. A common UX design mistake is assuming people know what you know, or that they’ll take a leap of faith to find out. Most won’t.

The menus made it much easier to decide where to eat, even if we weren’t in the mood for that type of cuisine. Because we’d seen what they had available, because we knew what it was going to look like, the decision became easy: “Yeah, alright, let’s have some of that, that’d be lovely.” Decision made.

It overcame inertia, concerns about whether the restaurant would be nice inside, and whether it would be a total rip-off. It gave us the confidence to go inside knowing we’d enjoy the place.

The same principles apply to UX design as well. A great example is TeuxDeux’s homepage.

TeuxDeux home page

As soon as I load their homepage, I can start using the product. I don’t have to rely on a combination of screenshots and imagination. If I want to continue, I can sign up later.

Lesson: The clearer visitors are on what’s behind your door, the more likely they are to open it.

2. Pay attention to the seams

So, what happened when we ate at two different restaurants? Two different things.

The first response was wonderful. We were greeted, and guided to our preferred seating. They knew the common questions, “The bathrooms are over there. This is our special. This is for gluten-free, this is for vegans. Our steaks tend to be a little rarer than average, so order them a little over.” We could relax into complete confidence about our surroundings and our experience. We felt looked after.

The second restaurant experience was less enjoyable, but equally memorable. We were called over to a table, rather than being led. Their English was worse than our French, making it impossible to communicate “lactose intolerant” without considering illustrative hand-gestures entirely unfit for the table.

Which of the two types of restaurant do you think we stayed at?

In UX design, there are a few commonly underserved areas of digital products, which need as much attention as the latter restaurant did.

What happens as soon as you walk “through the door” of a digital product? It’s probably a thank-you page, or a web app dashboard, or a verification page. Something like that.

These are pages that designers frequently forget. They’re not something you can critique while idly clicking through a site or UI you’ve worked on. Instead, they’re often tucked away in application logic, making them trickier to experience without signing in and trying to access deep pages as need requires.

But any bridge between two states, front and back, marketing and app, are almost always weak-spots in a UX. That’s where you need to be strongest.

A great example of this is, which I tried last week when one of our designers linked me to it (thanks Alex!).

RedPen signup form

Upon loading the page, I got to upload an image and make my notes right away. No “create an account” page.

It was only after I’d posted a few notes onto the image that a modal appeared saying, “Well said! I’m sure you’ll want to know when anyone replies, so tell us your email and we’ll keep you in the loop.”

It complimented my note, and offered email capture as a benefit to me, rather than as a barrier of entry.

Lesson: Pay attention to the seams. So few people do, yet they’re some of the most important steps in the whole UX.

3. Make them an instant success

This is an area where the US beats Paris, in terms of restaurant experience.

Everyone likes the feeling they get when they get something right the first time, especially if it’s something they’ve not tried many times (“He’s a natural”).

The best Parisian restaurants we visited had, at best, water at the table when we arrived. The fancier ones may have brought out several bread selections and entrées (it means “starters”, I wish American restaurants would figure that out). But only in America have I yet to experience water and bread hitting the table almost as quickly as I did.

Restaurants should make a priority of helping a visitor to eat something as quickly as possible while they peruse the menu for their dish.

I came to the restaurant to eat, and enjoy an hour of entertainment. The sooner I’m eating, the sooner I’m doing what I set out to do.

It’s a common mistake among UX designs for digital products is to delay “feeling the benefit”. Bread and water may now what I set out to eat that evening, but it’s giving me the sensation of their product: food.

Like restaurants that offer bread from the start, HelloFax does a great job of getting people committed to their service. They offer five additional fax credits for each task their users complete after signup. Since signing up only requires an email address, even choosing a password for your account is a task worthy of credit. By building up credits, you like you and the tool have history.

Hello Fax form

Lesson: Make users feel the benefit as soon as possible. That’ll make them feel like a success (“good restaurant choice, darling”), and want to stick around.

4. Hide the edges

“Hiding the edges” reminds me of my road trip of the East Coast shortly after moving to the US six years ago.

We made a chickenhearted stop for chicken-nuggets at a McDonald’s somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They blew my mind when I attempted to purchase a refill of my drink.

“They’re free? All over this country?” You can imagine the look on the server’s face.

After pondering briefly why anyone would ever subsequently buy a “large” drink when all drinks are “bottomless”, it stood out to me as a fantastic way of hiding the edges.

Worldwide, restaurants endeavor to fill your glass before you finish your drink. In America, the goal is to avoid the slurping sound of grown men using sippy-straws. Taking initiative makes sure people never feel the boundaries of their experience, or your hospitality.

Common mistakes here in UX Design are all tied to usage barriers. You try to upload one too many files, create one too many projects, or listen to one too many songs. Up pops up a message: “You can’t do that… unless you give us some more money.”

That digital bouncer, gently asserting that you can’t enter their establishment because of the way you’re dressed, is a major turn-off for users.

What if we said this instead: “That’s actually a premium feature we launched for our most dedicated users, like you! Here, try it out a little bit, see what you think. If you like it, we can upgrade you to a Premium account and give you unreserved access.”

Both messages say the same thing. Only one of them makes users feel like crap.

Basecamp has a great example of hiding the edges. There are no “Oops, you can’t do that” moments in Basecamp. Unlike many SaaS products, upgrading doesn’t mean permission to continue using the product because you used it too much. Instead, upgrading unlocks new features you didn’t previously have access to.

Basecamp purchase options

Lesson: Stop telling your users “no” all the time. Don’t let them anticipate the next ceiling of hospitality to bump their heads into, because it’ll make them crouch in their usage. Instead, reward usage and celebrate their tier changes so that upgrading feels great.

Despite talking about great restaurants throughout this post, we’ve managed to avoid an integral part of the dining experience. The food. This was intentional.

The quality of the food is not what left the best taste in our mouths. Instead, it was the onboarding experience.

Designers: What kind of restaurant are you building?

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