Fast Food Lines, Mazes, and User Expectations

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Last week I drove out and picked up a friend of mine in New Jersey. From here (Indiana) to there (NJ state park) was about 12 hours. On the way back we stopped at a fast food joint or two, and it was in one of them that something strange hit me.

The little maze that places like McDonalds or Burger King or Wendys ask you to walk through to get to the counter are not there for the convenience of the user. Think about it. It isn’t to anyone’s convenience to triple the amount of time it takes to get to the counter from the door. That just doesn’t make sense.

In reality, the maze is there for the convenience of the store. In the event of a large mass of people wanting service at once, the maze adds order to the chaos (even more than an otherwise organized line would do). But the fact of the maze doesn’t interest me in the case of large crowds as much as it does when there is only one or two people approaching the counter. If you pay attention, most people will still walk through the maze to get to the counter.

While I was standing there watching, I saw a couple and a family, at separate times, walk through the maze without any hesitation. It didn’t even seem to them to be a decision they were making; it was automatic.

Find where these expectations are for your users. What do they expect in, say, the shopping cart on your site? Or, what do they expect when it comes to the way your navigation or search displays work? It may be tedious to drop a few more links in here or there or follow tradition when setting up your pages, but in the end who will benefit? While it may seem frustrating to build the maze for the user to walk through, sometimes it’s exactly what they want to experience.