Street Food and User Psychology

Brooke Jury
Feb 5 · 5 min read

I was having a cup of tea and watching Street Fighter 5 character intro videos when I had a revelation.

Street Food is a helluva lot like app development.

Granted, in one business you’re a lot less likely to end up smelling like onions, but your average UX researcher can’t analyse your potential market (or in this case, your Market) and pinpoint what that scowling Bavarian man wants (and fears) from your product as quickly as a Street Food vendor who’s been in the business for awhile. Nobody can Pivot as quickly as a stallholder who’s making half the sales they’re expecting to in proportion to the crowd. And if you want to see what a Sprint really looks like, watch someone who’s sold all their stock halfway into a two-day festival MacGuyver an entirely new product within a couple of hours, just a perfect few hundred more portions to tide them over until they sell out again with just enough time to grab a beer/cider/wine/vodka (my colleagues all had different tastes, and to be honest, our preferred tipples corresponded to cultural stereotypes) before clean up time.

Like a lot of my fellow Street Fooders, I used my own money to run my stand. No investors, no bailout if the event was rained on. If I want to do a festival, I need to pay everything in advance. Bookings are often paid up to half a year before an event. So I’ve got a weekend to make all that initial investment back, and make enough to cover the next event so I can keep my business running. I don’t sell, I can’t eat.

This is important. I want to eat. I went into the food industry, for f**k’s sake.

And when you’ve got two days in a plastic tent to convince the good citizens of Karlsruhe with your terrible German to try your niche Japanese food or else, you learn a lot about user psychology, very quickly.

Your user isn’t who they say they are.

Do you remember hearing about the Nestle coffee experiment? Where you ask a bunch of Americans what they want in a coffee, and they generally say “a dark, rich hearty roast”, but their buying habits actually indicate that they like milky, weaker coffees instead? This is true in any business. Ask about food events, and everyone will swear that they want to try something different, that they don’t join queues for food.

You know the one sure-fire way to make more sales? Have people waiting for their orders. The best way to build a queue is to have a queue, every time. It’s such a rule that vendors build it into our systems. And you know the most popular item at food festivals? I’m sure you can guess. It’s burgers. But not the fancy or “creative” ones. It’s the simple ones, the classics you can get at any decent burger joint in any town. But if we step away from burgers and move on to other foodstuffs, I know some great people who have huge, 30+ minute wait queues that eclipse other stands at almost every event they go to. Their sales are in the multitudes of others. It’s not a price thing; actually the prices are slightly higher than most other products. You guess what they sell? Classic sandwiches.

This doesn’t make your users liars. Nobody’s intending to deceive you. And certainly don’t throw out those carefully-filled out surveys that you’ve gathered; there’s probably some very useful advice in there. It’s just that one’s idea of oneself doesn’t match up to reality- you ask a person about themselves and they tend to answer to the aspirational. There’s opportunity in this; gyms have been making easy money of our tendency to exaggerate our willpower for decades now. But if you want a clear idea on what that person in the testing room thinks about your new design, don’t ask.

The best way to listen is to watch.

Look at their face as much as their screen movements. A narrowing of the eyes at one point may mean they need some reassurance, or you haven’t made the next step clear enough. A food vendor knows that if someone hovers around your stand and peers at your food for a few long seconds, they’re usually sold on a course of action, but trying to get over some particular roadblock before they commit. Deciding which button to tap is no different.

That’s when you take the general data you’ve been collecting (age, demographics, what stands are doing well, what comments people have been making), and make an educated guess at how to approach the user at that point. A concern about price? Make the value clear at that point by showing them why your offering is special. Ladle your food slowly so they can see all the chunks of meat you put in.

Guide, don’t push.

The most surefire way to scare people away who may want what you offer is to come in with the hard sell. There’s a technique we all learn at the markets- when somebody looks interested we start explaining the dish to whomever we’re serving, giving the crowd information they may need to make their mind up without forcing anybody into the spotlight. Nobody likes to be put on the spot, and barking your offer is crass. The only Call To Action an early Buy Now sign makes is an action to run away. But when your user is informed enough, they’ll have decided by the time you ask. Inform, don’t sell. Most of the time they’ll be back with money in their hand.

If you can leave people alone with your product, let them interpret what it is.

I always have one meat product for sale, and one vegan. I noticed a trend in one particular city where parents would come over to my stand and order the vegan dish for their children, and a meat version for themselves. This was pretty shocking to me; I was used to kids not wanting anything except chicken nuggets. But here, there were a lot of parents who, concerned about their kid’s health, preferred giving them vegan food. So anytime I noticed a family coming by my stand, I’d strike up a quick conversation about how my food isn’t spicy, I’d prepare the plate at a lower level, giving the child a look at the process, I’d make slight adjustments to the product to suit the way my audience wanted to have my product. Was it my original intention? No. Did it work out great for both parties? Yes.

One could argue that adjusting a product’s focus because of an unexpected audience is cavalier, especially when you’re talking teams full of employees as opposed to a quick sub-pivot at a food event. But there’s a lot of wisdom in paying attention to how people outside your office loop react; after all, Instagram happened because people liked using the photo sharing feature of Burbn.

There’s a lot that I could write here; if I covered everything I could probably make a book out of it. At the very least there’s a few more rambling essays in the topic still. But for now, I hope you can find some use in my experiences. And if not, that’s fine too. But be nice to your burger slingers.

Brooke Jury

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Does “The UX”. Also does ”The UI”. Sold Japanese curry around Europe, interviewed a Prime Minister, engages in general shenanigans.