Time to Set the Table for Better User Experiences

One of the best restaurants in the world, elBulli, recently closed its doors as a restaurant in order to become an interdisciplinary creativity center. The chef and mastermind of elBulli is Ferran Adrià. He is considered one of the best chefs in the world and is known for having a unique view about food which extends beyond the kitchen and into the dining room, where his goal isn’t to provide nourishment but rather to “provoke surprise and delight the diner.” In fact, he describes the ideal customer as someone who comes to his restaurant not to eat but to have an experience.

This idea is not exclusive to Adrià and elBulli. All restaurants seek to provide some kind of experience to their diners and, in turn, the diners chose where they eat based on the experience they desire. Everyone wants to have an exceptional experience when they eat, but “exceptional” can mean something different to everyone, not just “an elaborate display of culinary creativity.” In fact, if all meals were as elaborate as those in elBulli, they would lose their ability to delight and surprise. There is a time and place for all types of dining from thirty course meals to quick lunches to family dinners.

There are many variables that factor into the overall experience a diner has in a restaurant, but none are as basic as the place setting. The dishes and flatware can easily be taken for granted but they go a long way to set the expectations for the experience of the meal. An elaborate table setting with several forks of different sizes and multiple spoons with different shapes certainly suggests that the meal is going to be drawn out. On the other end of the spectrum, walking into a restaurant with no tables and no utensils in sight suggests that the meal will be quick. For diners to have an exceptional dining experience, the utensils presented to the diner need to align with the restaurant’s intention.

The same is true of the user experience for any type of digital application. The food is the content the application serves up and the place setting is the framework and tools that support that content. A restaurant is more successful in the execution of its intent when it can clearly define the type of experience it wants to offer. Likewise, an application is more successful when the desired experience is clear and well defined. If the goal is to provide an on-the-go solution for users, then the framework and tools provided to the user should be simple and minimal, much like the place setting of an on-the-go meal.

Digital Place Setting Typology

Here are a few different place setting types that can help us understand the different type of experiences they create and how they can be applied to a digital environment.

On The Go

This is a hamburger, sandwich, burrito, or something from the state fair served on a stick. There is generally no utensil needed, and it’s a quick and easy meal. Translated to a digital place setting, there are few, if any, tools and the interface is very minimal. This type of place setting works well for mobile applications that serve up simple content for consumption like a news reader or a video player.

Family Dinner

The family dinner place setting is one that covers a wide range of users from children to adolescents to adults. This is very much like creating an application intended for use by those of different skill levels. The flatware consists of a knife, fork and spoon and the meal generally doesn’t last very long. This type of place setting works well for a social networking site, an internet browser or a simple game.

Nice Dinner

The nice dinner place setting is a little more complex than the family dinner place setting. There might be more than one fork or more than one knife, and the meal usually consists of an appetizer, main course, and dessert. This type of place setting works well for an email client, photo editing applications, and presentation tools.

Seven-Course Dinner

The seven-course dinner place setting is very complex. There is generally a complete set of utensils for each course as well as specific utensils like oyster forks. Though the place setting appears complex and intimidating, there is an underlying order to the layout. This place setting works well for accounting software, graphic design software, and role playing games.

Determining the most appropriate place setting

One of the easiest ways to determine what kind of digital place setting is appropriate is to look at how the application will be used. If those using it will be working at desks for the majority of the day, it is appropriate to use a digital place setting similar to that of a seven course meal or a nice dinner. It is much easier to work with a large set of tools when there is ample time and space to work with that tool set. If users are using an application on the go, or in small increments of time throughout the day, then a simple and minimal interface is best. With both a large and minimal tool sets, there are very specific tools that can improve the overall experience, but a table full of flatware and dishes leaves little room for much else. Likewise, a screen full of tools and framework elements leads to a busy and crowded screen. While there is no single user experience solution that is ideal for all situations, an appropriate solution can be found for each individual use case.

In the end, a great meal is about the food but everything else, including the place setting, is critical in creating the best dining experience. A great application is great because of the content it serves up, but without the right type of place setting, the experience can be ruined. A proper table setting is just as important for a meal as it is for a digital application.