Usability in Every Day Life — Ordering with menu in Taiwan

Taiwan, a place I grew up, is well-known for it’s delicacy. It’s a mash-up of cuisines, food from all around the world roam the restaurants and night markets. Whether you’re searching for a high-class dish or just a casual snack, there are always some unique flavors that makes your tongue dance just around the block.

A view of some typical places to fill your stomach in Taiwan

On the other hand, eating in Taiwan is more freestyle. Speaking of places to eat, you might picture a restaurant with some decent tables and a waiter to take your orders, we have those too, but most of the times it’s more like an indoor food stand.

Population is quite crowed here, speed is the key. Instead of having a waiter taking orders by the table, many substitutes waiters with a printed menu form that customers have to fill out themselves.

Customers in Taiwan are spoiled when it comes to food. We ask for a lot of customization: Spicy/not spicy/a little spicy? Thin noodles/thick noodles/flat noodles? Tomato sauce/cream sauce/basil sauce? Do you also want to add an egg?

With all these options one can choose, ordering food is rather complicated, also making the menu much harder to design.

Designing menu is not an easy task

Ordering menu form

To reduce cost and make ordering more efficient, most menus are designed to fit all orders in one page with a size about 8 inches. The design principle is to be as compact as possible.

This is how a typical menu looks like, the left picture is a menu I stumble upon recently.

And here is the English translation for the highlighted area:

As you can see, when ordering “noodles in pork thick soup” there are three types of noodles you can choose: rice noodles, a thin kind of noodle that is inelastic and will break when chewing it; green bean noodles, a transparent noodle that is very chewy; flat noodles, a wide noodle that is made of rice, and also my favorite.

So my friend and I started ordering, we both wanted “noodles in pork thick soup”. I was not very hungry and just wanted a small bowl with flat noodles, while my friend wanted a large bowl with rice noodles. This is what the menu looked like after we ordered(English translated).

Now we see the problem, how can we tell if the small bowl is with rice noodle or flat noodles? Well, we can’t. So the chef have to double confirm each order with customers every time this happens, slowing down the rotation speed and making the customers slightly bothered.

There are many more menu like this, here is another example.

This one shares a similar problem, we can’t tell if the noodle type A is a large bowl or small bowl.

Some clear examples

Given the same circumstance to choose from three noodle types, there are still some clear designs out there, such as cross-referencing the noodle type with the bowl size.

Clear menu designs

Why are buggy menus still out there?

As an designer, I began thinking of how to avoid designing buggy interface such as this. There are tons of UX topics about user testing, forms design and design principles, practicing any of those methods will have a high chance from preventing this kind of buggy design. But the most puzzling thing to me is that most of the food vendor with bad menu design have been using those menu for a long time, why don’t they change the design?

It’s not about the cost, they all have a lot of customers coming to their store every day to earn profits. It’s not about the inventory, customers use those menu fast, new patches will have to be re-ordered often. And it’s not about customers habits, customers in Taiwan are already used to fill out all sorts of menu forms.

Designing issue is people issue

I think it’s a topic about organization adaption. Those food vendor may experience some inconvenience when double-checking each customers orders every time, but they can live with that, changing to a better designed menu will cause them more inconvenience. Waiters and chefs are used to the position each items are in the menu, they can realize the order with just a glance, using a new form will be painful. Also, the fear of changing accounts, people are used to traditions in Taiwan, even though the tradition have some downfalls, as long as it’s not devastating, people are prone to tolerant it.

Companies in Taiwan are very alike. Most of the time designing issue is people issue. Making a change is hard effort. Here are some things I’ve learned to make a change happen working in this kind of culture.

One thing at a time

Gradually making a change is usually easier, changing one thing at a time will reduce panic.

Trail Period

Giving the option to return to the old way would make more people more willing to try the new way.

Build a reputation

Start with a simple topic, a topic more easy to tackle. Once succeeded, words spread, reputation will be gained. Making a change with bigger scale would be easier afterwards.

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