Everything around us has been designed. This thing could be a candle holder, an e-book reader, or a service at a restaurant. Recently, some changes happened at my company cafeteria. It is quite interesting if we look into the changes through designer’s lens. Now let me tell you the story.
The cafeteria is on the 1st floor in my building. It serves lunch from 11:30 am to 2 pm on every Monday through Friday. The menu changes on a daily basis with eight food choices offered regularly: Grills, Pizza, Korean, Pacific, Deli, Indian, Special and Salad. So how would employees know the menu for the day? Well, we can go to cafeteria website to check out food schedule for the following seven days. Also, if you subscribed email, you will receive daily menu around 11 am every day.
The layout of the cafeteria is simple (image 1). People walk into the cafeteria, turn right, grab a tray and then enter food area. Guess what would people do next? Go straight to the food they like? No. They have to look around and check the food at each station before making decision (image 2). Though they could have checked online, they don’t have this habit. Besides, the sign-up rate of menu email is as low as many other online services, let alone the menu email could be buried under tons of business emails. Therefore, for most of people, they don’t have an idea of what to eat when they walk into the cafeteria. Usually, after 12 pm, the cafeteria starts to get busy and be full of hungry food hunters. When space gets crowded, people walk around is very likely to cause traffic jam.
Apart from this, a few food choices are popular. Korean is on the top for its beautiful looking and special ingredients on some days. As a result, it is common to see people lining up for Korean after 12 pm. However, what arises inconvenience is the line blocks the way to grab trays (image 3).
One day in November (this article wrote in year-end but didn’t post until now), I walked into the cafeteria and then noticed some differences immediately. Right after entering the cafeteria, a table was added to the right with piles of trays on it (image 4). Then, a new section was set up as food exhibition to showcase all food choices available. When I noticed these changes, I was literally saying to myself: this is brilliant! Now, people could easily reach for the trays without cutting through a line. Also, much fewer people would look around for gathering food information which makes the whole service system more efficient. I don’t know if the idea was generated from an observation of the inconvenience that people experienced in the past, but if this was the case, this person must be a great design thinker. This design thinker observed people’s life, learned people’s behavior, understood people’s needs and wants, came up with the solution and finally made it real.
Once George Nelson, an American industrial designer and one of the founders of American Modernism, was asked: “How to study design?” George said: “Don’t study design. Study life.” It can’t be emphasized enough that designers need to participate in people’ life, observe it, experience it, and more important is, find the problem and solve it. Most of the time, when a problem comes, people don’t realize it is a problem. Instead, they live with it. Take myself as an example, I had the troublesome experience at the cafeteria but I didn’t think of improvement (shame!). Now as I am seeing the cafeteria service as a design challenge, I believe we can move one step further.
Nowadays, nutrition is a personal issue for many people. I have heard my colleagues talking about food ingredients and nutrition when we were standing in line for food coming. Currently, at food exhibition area, there is a printout with station name, food name, ingredients and price next to each dish. Beyond that, each food station is equipped with a tablet showing exactly the same information. However, as you may have guessed the problem with food exhibition, because of the line for Korean food, just like the trays’ issue previously, at peak hour food exhibition could be blocked by the line again (image 5). Either we move the line or move food exhibition to another place. Relocate the line means relocating Korean food station, but based on my study, it is not feasible because the station is equipped with cookware around it. The more possible solution is moving food exhibition to the other side of the aisle (image 6).
What about the missing nutrition info? It is not in the printout today. We could add them to the printout but I believe this is not the best solution. People come to cafeteria in hungry and maybe hurry for the meeting right after lunch. They are not expected to stop, close up to the printout and read all the information on the paper. In fact, we have been neglected some devices which could be the key to solve this problem.
Nearby the entrance of the cafeteria, there are two 55” LED displays hanging on the wall (image 7). These two LEDs are used to show greetings and detail information of selected dishes (I have no idea how the selection was made) and as you can imagine no one would pay attention to them.
Why don’t we make a good use of the LEDs to display food nutrition? My proposal is moving the two LEDs to the wall beside food exhibition (image 8), presenting station name, food name, price, ingredients and brief nutrition fact of each dish (image 9). This design can be beneficial in three ways: food exhibition will not be blocked by line anymore; people can look at information on big displays instead of small-sized printout; reduce paper consumption.
Is this the end of design? No. As next step, designer should meet stakeholders (e.g., cafeteria General Manager, staffs and customers), present the design and collect feedback. It should be expected that more design iterations would happen because, after all, like Tim Brown stated in his Change by Design (2009): “The reason for the iterative, nonlinear nature of the journey is not that design thinkers are disorganized or undisciplined but that design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process.”