What Waiting Tables Taught Me About UX Design

Okay, maybe not everything … but I learned some important stuff about UX Design …

Waiting tables. It’s one of those jobs that a lot of people get in college, either to supplement income or when they’re in a place of transition. For some, it’s a short stint before moving on to other things, but others choose to stay in the service industry for a variety of reasons.

Serving has a lot of perks: The money is decent, the hours can be flexible, and depending on the restaurant, you get to eat some pretty amazing food for free. No one begins waiting tables with the goal to build life-skills, but the skills acquired while waiting tables can be tremendously valuable. In fact, I think everyone should try it for some period of time (which brings me to my point).

While my job as a user experience designer requires a lot of specialized knowledge, many of the core facets of my work are things I picked up in my younger days as a waiter. Here are a few:

Different Users Want Different Things

This is the basis of the restaurant businessand also interaction design. The essence of both experiences is navigating a menu, selecting what you want and consuming your chosen fare.

No two users are exactly the same. We do our best to provide an experience that offers exactly what they’re looking for. And, if we’re doing our jobs well, going above and beyond their expectations to ensure they’ll come back, they’ll return and ideally bring their friends with them.

In the restaurant business, the payoff for providing a delightful experience is pretty direct: better service equals a better tip–and more money in your pocket. In web design, there are a few more layers, but the payoff is still obvious: key performance indicators are achieved, conversion rates go up and clients are pleased. They’ll come back to you for more work and refer you to others, bringing a steady stream of work and money your way.

Know What You’re Serving

UX Design

How do you cater to a diverse group of people and provide a tailored experience under the same roof, with the same ingredients? Well first of all, you need to understand what you’re serving.

If folks have dietary concerns, or are looking for guidance on a good beer or wine to pair with their food, you’re going to have a hard time providing a recommendation if you aren’t intimately familiar with the menu.

Similarly, in order to steward a brand’s digital experience, you need to understand exactly what they’re offering and what their business needs are. Just like a thoughtful server should try everything on the menu at least once, it’s important for agencies to immerse themselves in a brand for a period of time. Chefs may be too proud (or too critical) of their own food to have an objective take on the quality, but your status as an intermediary between the kitchen and the table allows for a more balanced point-of-view. An educated server knows the menu’s strengths and challenges, which informs how to sell it.

Identifying Personas and Use Cases

We know that different patrons have different needs, and we know the selection of dishes that we can offer them. Next, it’s important to understand more about what their specific needs are and why they’re your captive audience.

A baseline need has been established: they’re hungry. But are they looking for a four-course meal, a light appetizer or, perhaps, drinks and desert? And, what kind of timeframe are you working with?

Quickly identifying your types of clientele and steering them in the right direction is essential. If you’re catering to a family of five with small children, you’ll likely want to fast-track their order as and provide crayons to keep hungry kids happy while they’re waiting. Meanwhile, a couple celebrating their anniversary over dinner will likely want a very different dining experience.

Web design is much of the same: identifying users’ behavior and motivations, which allow you to design to their needs. If the majority of users are interested in a single piece of content, then it might make sense to have that content on the homepage. User research, analytics, and all-important common sense enable us to build a better product. By knowing the audience personas with can provide that extra layer of surprise and delight.

The Importance of Internal + External Communication

If there’s any skill required to wait tables effectively, it’s communication. Your primary tasks include speaking clearly to your tables, making folks feel comfortable and helping them know what to expect. If there are are any special menu items or items out of stock, better to let your guests know early (before they have their hearts set on something they can’t have).

Just as important a priority, you need to have clear communication with the kitchen. Unless you like dodging knives, check with the chef before offering a customized dish that the kitchen doesn’t have the ingredients to create.

The same is true of web design–communication is essential. Make sure expectations are clearly defined between you, the client and your team. Ask developers to vet features and tech-dependent ideas before you sell them to the client. And, provide a realistic timetable for delivery.

In the front of the house, so to speak, be sure that your design clearly communicates its purpose to the user. UI and architecture needs to be intuitiveespecially since site visitors don’t have the benefit of a waiter on hand to guide them.

The Details Matter in Food Service + UX Design

When you’re dining out, the details can make or break the experience. Often it’s the little details you don’t notice that can make the biggest impact. Was there a convenient place to put your coat? Is the silverware polished, or are there water spots from the dishwasher?

When pouring wine, did the server twist the bottle, so no drops were spilled? You don’t really pay attention to your server’s pouring technique, but you certainly notice when they dribble red wine on your shirt.

Little things also make the all difference in web design. Is the text easy to read? Does the color palette and imagery set the right tone? Are buttons and links consistent? Do the animations distract or improve usability? As Charles Eames famously said, “The details are not the details, they make the design.”

The individual choices may not be noticed by the average user. But all of these details and choices in combination make the difference between an average or sub-par experienceand an outstanding one.

Success Is a Team Effort

While a server is the one who gets the most face-time with dinner guest and is responsible for orchestrating the meal, they’re absolutely useless without the rest of the staff. Every team member, from the dishwasher to the bartender to the host plays their part, and when one member is disgruntled or slacking off, the whole machine starts breaking down. It’s not easy to serve dinner without clean plates.

This is true in web design as well –especially at the agency level. Designers, developers, producers, new business folks–everyone contributes a critical piece to the project. Beautiful UI doesn’t make up for poor copywriting.

Making sure you’re on the same page as the rest of your team and fighting for the same cause will ensure that you’re serving up the best product.

What We Can Learn

There’s a clear parallel between the food service industry and design agencies. As designers, we’re liaisons between a brand and its users, just as a server is the facilitator between the kitchen and patron. The real takeaway? Even though design is a specialized fieldand it’s easy to get caught up in our own industryour seemingly unrelated life-experiences can inform our work and offer fresh perspective. Considering how humans engage in the physical world can provide insight into how we can craft better digital experiences.

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Ethan Martin is a UX director and designer of uncommon skill and wide-ranging expertise, having set his eye to work on everything from multi-layered interactive web development to sports apparel. Martin joined BKWLD as a designer in the summer of 2010, quickly rising to the rank of UX director, thanks to his deft interactive work for a series of top-tier clients, including Toyota, Sony, Hurley, Spyder and Coal Headwear. He strives to create experiences that are both beautiful and useful, finding the sweet spot where the needs of the user align with the business objectives of the client. The guy loves problem-solving and storytellingespecially when the two go hand-in-hand. Prior to joining BKWLD, Martin brought his clean, expressive style to numerous design projects as a Sacramento-area freelancer, following his time spent as the lead graphic designer for a local sportswear brand. He currently lives in Sacramento, CA with his wife and two cats. 

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