The crumpled restaurant menu

Last year I was standing in line at a lunch restaurant. To speed things along one of the employees started handing out menus to everyone in the queue, allowing us to more easily decide on our food choice before reaching the cash register. The menus were on A4 paper and when I was handed mine it was creased and wrinkled. I instantly felt a pang of unpleasantness with this. And then chose to not listen to that feeling.

My designer brain is constantly analysing logistics, touch points and user journeys. I’m looking for ways in which organisations can improve complete experiences by enriching the smaller experiences along the way.

Being handed a crumpled piece of paper, alongside my colleagues who all got their menus on smooth paper, triggered a negative emotion — and I began to think of how this could negatively impact my complete experience.

As I was fretting about the state of my menu I would risk making a less considered food choice, thus more likely walk away unsatisfied with the restaurant. Also, the negative emotion would perhaps in my mind stay associated with the restaurant, pushing it lower down my internalized list of restaurant preferences, and hence my group of colleagues and I would visit less often in the future.

I was thinking that the restaurant needed to take more care of how they present themselves, and thought of it as an example of how a tiny detail can impact the business on a larger scale.

And then my coaching brain kicked in.

I thought: why am I allowing the state of this menu bother me so much? How can I become better at not letting myself be this emotionally controlled by truly minor details? I started looking at the bigger picture of the situation. In all honesty I realized it was better for the menu to serve its purpose — there really was nothing essentially wrong with it. Better it live out its life as a menu than to be tossed away and replaced simply because it did not match an unconsidered expectation of appearance. And to be fair, handing out the menus was a kind gesture.

I took a deep breath and let the unpleasant emotion drizzle off. Gone.

Now instead this experience pulled me into another line of reasoning: instead of placing my energy on making sure that experiences are frictionless, devoid of faults and polished to a tee; how might I instead help people respond in a more healthy way to their emotions?

With the insight that experiences rarely live up to a condition of externally defined perfection, I would argue that we would do better as humans to handle our expectations more mindfully when facing adversity and disappointment.

If we are less easily influenced by appearance we can more easily choose paths that align primarily with our own goals and not the goals of corporations.

In a world where companies, organizations and politicians are in constant battle over the control of our emotions to steer our actions one way or the other — even charmingly calling it nudging — I want to help people be more resilient, be able to stand their ground and be more in control over their choices.

I know this resilience can be taught, it can be learned, and it can be practiced. One of the biggest challenges is that this resilience requires that we more often stop, pause and reflect in a structured manner. In a fast-paced world where external rewards are based on someone else’s definition of success this can prove difficult. And efficiency, a marker of modern success, often translates to doing as much as possible in a the shortest possible time frame — rarely stopping to evaluate the direction or aftermath.

As external nudges are becoming more and more the likeness of pushing and shoving I increasingly wish to fight the bullying taking place by encouraging people to listen more to themselves than to others.

The next time the weathered appearance of an artefact bothers me I hope I will again have the conscious presence to be able to toss away the negative emotion and not build on the biases that hold me back. I know that the willingness and readiness to focus on the outcome and not the distractions along the way will help me close in on my real goals and resist many of the illusions that fight for my attention.

I am not saying that you should not listen to your emotions. In fact: you should always listen to your emotions. But the emotions are there to give you clues, not to control you. So by all means take the clues and lay them out on the table, but realize that not all clues will tell you where to go from here and some will need further backstory to make sense.

Some of them will simply need to be filed away.

Per Axbom is a designer and coach working out of Stockholm, Sweden. His passion for interviews, sketches and prototypes allow him to understand vividly and explain comprehensibly. His passion for listening helps people get unstuck and move forward in work and life.

Regularly contributing to the UX community through blog posts and podcasts, Per is very keen on promoting the concept of design ethics and is working on a book to help designers embrace ethics thinking.

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