Fast Food, Slow Interaction

I went into a coffee place on the weekend and ordered my usual drink. The server asked me whether I wanted to drink it on the premises or take it away. Fair enough. The server needs to know the answer to select the appropriate packaging. But it’s not the first question the server needs to ask. The server seemed unable to enter the order until she had received the answer to the in-or-out question. I then had to repeat my order because the till was driving the interaction. The server needed to press the in-or-out button on the cash register before entering my order. This produced an awkward, unnatural and insulting interaction.

It’s not just coffee places where cash registers drive the ordering interaction. The cash registers in fast-food places are also taking over. And, as usual when technology takes the lead, it’s customers that suffer. My goal as a hungry and thirsty customer is to order food and drink. If servers need to know more information about my order, such as whether I want eat in or take out, they can ask me. After servers ask “How may I help you?” customers should drive the interaction, not the servers at the behest of the cash register.

It makes little difference to the process of providing food and drink whether servers find out whether customers want take out before or after receiving the order. As long as the answer is known before the food preparation begins, customers should be able to provide the answer whenever they like.

The clumsy, cash-register-driven interaction:

specify eat in or take out→order food→pay→collect food

deviates from the traditional fast-food interaction:

order food→specify eat in or take out→pay→collect food.

The traditional fast-food interaction of

order food→pay →collect food

is itself a reversal of the traditional shopping interaction:

collect goods→pay.

Paying before receiving goods is now the standard for buying food and drink in coffee and fast-food places. The pay→collect food interaction resembles the vending machine model where one pays before collecting the goods:

insert coins→select goods→receive goods.

This interaction makes sense because dispensing goods before collecting payment requires a level of trust no longer warranted in many societies. However, the goal of the vending-machine interaction applied in coffee and fast-food places is to drive customers along the production line from cash register to food and drink collection area faster, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your point of view.

Sometimes, breaking a natural interaction does improve usability. For example, to prevent ATM customers forgetting their card after collecting their cash, ATMs now return the card before dispensing the cash. However, natural interactions should be broken only when there is a clear reason for doing so that will benefit the customer. Sating the curiosity of a cash register is not one of them.