Brand = User Experience: The Interface Of A Cheeseburger

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In the first part of a series on the UX = Brand, the adventure of a web designer starts in a McDonald’s, where he discovers that there is a worm hole between the world of Branding and User Experience Design. Years later he learns that it is the Interface that connects both worlds. This is the first part in a series.

There he goes, the web designer, stepping up to the counter of an empty McDonald’s at 3 o’clock in the morning. He is scanning the overhead menu, putting a cheeseburger in his mental shopping basket. “Cheezubahga, onegaishimasu,” we hear him say, “with an iced tea.”

Waiting for his order, he examines the wireframe of the display on the cash register, the mechanical logic of the deep fat fryers, the input/output logic of the ice cream dispenser. Coming late from work, with his mind still in design mode, he starts tracing the restaurant’s interaction model, drawing arrows from the entrance to the counter to the tables to the trash cans; seeing how the conveyor-belt kitchen, the trays with the paper liners, the bolted down seats and the meals comprise a single, complete customer interface. “They must have run usability tests,” he thinks, taking his tray to the table.

Hungry For Food = Hungry For Words

When we are hungry for food, we follow similar patterns as when we are hungry for information. Similar, infantile patterns. At both times, we fall into a mode of dull impatient demand. We want everything immediately with as little interaction as possible. We want exactly what we expect in the way we are used to get it. When hungry, the last thing we fancy is thinking or making difficult decisions. Because, well, that’s how our body works. And that’s why after a hard day of work we often sleepwalk to McDonald’s.

When we are hungry for knowledge, we inevitably become mentally passive and use all our energies to receive information. Because that’s how our brain works. And that’s why we blindly return to Google search when looking for data.

McDonald’s = Google

McDonald’s is designed for you to switch off your brain as soon as you enter the door. Buying and consuming a Cheeseburger is an automated routine — simple and mindless, like tying shoelaces or riding a bicycle. You don’t need to analyze, guess, evaluate or make difficult decisions because McDonald’s is built in a way that minimizes conscious action. Once learned, the transitions between each step of the ordering process are automatic and seamless. Moreover, in any of its franchises anywhere in the world, McDonald’s provides one consistent user experience. Once learned, ordering, buying and eating becomes an easy routine. It’s just like Google: blunt, focused and clear.


Both McDonalds and Google have a lot in common: both are designed for you to switch off your brain as soon as you enter the “door”.

McDonald’s was driving “user centred design” to the extreme before interaction designers even thought of the notion. From its logo to its tables, from its hamburgers to its trash cans, it’s all designed to be practical and useful rather than aesthetically pleasing.

This functional approach is applied all the way down to the cheeseburger. Standardized in shape, taste, and consistency, it has an identity that is clearly distinct from that of the sandwich. There’s no need for a knife, fork or spoon, plate or pair of chopsticks. In fact, it has a simple hand-to-mouth interaction model not unlike that of baby to breast.

Fast Food Epiphany

The look, feel and taste of McDonald’s food is as branded as its logo. The design of the cheeseburger is a core component of McDonald’s corporate design, just like Ronald McDonald’s and the ketchup and mustard colors of its packaging. Its interface is its brand; its brand is its interface. But so what? Of course, everything at McDonald’s is designed and standardized. Of course, everything is calculated and controlled in a huge global franchise.

My epiphany that night was not that McDonald’s success is based on cold calculation. It was the realization that McDonald’s apparent lack of culinary and aesthetic taste is the result of ‘cold’ user interaction design. McDonald’s design is as user-focused as a high-traffic website. It’s designed so well that it makes us blind like sucklings. Just like Google’s search interface, its beauty is in the interactive experience and not in the object.

A Worm Hole Between Branding And UX

In my experience old school branders and interaction designers fundamentally misunderstood and hated each other. They lived in parallel worlds. In one world the designer controlled everything, in the other the user was in charge. What confused me was that the longer I studied McDonald’s frameset, the less I was able to tell whether I was looking at a brand or at an interface. Is this branding or is it user experience design?

I had found what Astronomers call a ‘worm hole.’ A shortcut through space and time that acts like a magic elevator between different realities. McDonald’s seemed to lay at a critical point: the gravitational center of branding, where everything slants into a funnel that leads to a parallel world of user experience design. And back again. Ironically, worm holes have two so called mouths that are connected with a throat:

After discovering that this fascinating indeterminacy between brand and user experience applied to most of the recently successful brands — be it the iPhone, the Wii or Star Bucks — I decided to investigate it by thinking about it and writing about it.

Learning From Babies

Just by watching my baby grow and interact with its world, I learned more about interfaces than I could have possibly imagined. Most of what babies do is learning to interface with their surrounding. Observing the baby drinking its milk, I noticed that the interfacing does not happen on the nipple. It happens more generally between the mother and the child. In other words: The nipple is not an interface; it’s just one touch point. The interface is in the whole experience a child makes during breast feeding. The interface is the way they connect. And this experience defines the brand “Mama” in the beginning.

By studying breast feeding (the blueprint of user interaction) live, I was more and more certain that the correct equation was Brand = User Experience. Translated back into theory: The Interface was in the equals sign, not on the other side of the equation. The interface is what connects the worlds of Branding and User Experience Design. It’s the tunnel. The elevator. The wormhole. The throat.

Make sure you don’t miss the second part of the series on Brand = UX. In the next part we’ll look at the tricky question “What is an Interface? And can it be intuitive?”

Would you like to see the next parts of this series on SM?

Hopefully you’ll find this new format inspirational and interesting. What do you think? Please let us know and comment on this article! Your feedback is very valuable for us and it helps us to meet your expectations. Thank you.

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://answers.polldaddy.com/poll/2164413/
  2. 2 http://answers.polldaddy.com

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Oliver Reichenstein is the founder and CEO of iA, a user experience design agency with offices in Tokyo and Zurich.

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  1. 1

    great article… I would like to see an article about modern HCI techniques.

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  2. 52

    I found this article little bit important but most of the part was very confusing , if the article was written in straightforward manner then it would be more intereting to read the article,

    Regards,

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  3. 103

    i like how you guys seem to smoke a bunch of weed before you write your articles, it makes it interesting.

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  4. 154

    I loved the examples! Brilliant!

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  5. 205

    I cant understand anything. May be since I am new in this field.

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  6. 256

    Interesting!!

    A bit confusing, but interesting.

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  7. 307

    Thank you, Oliver! A lot of examples and “food” for the brains.

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  8. 358

    Love the McDonalds vs. Google metaphor.
    Wormhole? eh… no.
    Breastfeeding? What? Huh?
    “The Interface was in the equals sign, not on the other side of the equation”
    This makes no sense at all. If I need to be on acid to understand this article, that should probably be noted on top.

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  9. 460

    Quite agree with post 2…I have no idea what point this article is trying to make. I mean seriously, Google is the same as a McDonald’s Cheeseburger? That’s just management baloney taken too far.

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  10. 511

    “When we are hungry for knowledge, we inevitably become mentally passive and use all our energies to receive information. Because that’s how our brain works. And that’s why we blindly return to Google search when looking for data.”

    A lot of the time, I’ll pick up a book from the shelf rather than wade through pages of search engine spam at Google, or any other search engine. How does this relate to “UX” design exactly?

    The more I think about it, the more I think that this article is from the friggin’ MOON. Seriously. I might be being really stupid here, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re getting at.

    This is the sort of thing I’d have to sit through if one of my bosses was giving us an overview of the company. “Our company is like a Cheeseburger… …on the outside is the customer, which is the bun……on the inside is the burger, which is us…….and then the cheese is the money.”

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  11. 562

    Here’s what I think about McD being easy to use. I like burgers, but I hardly buy them. I’m so confused about what taste I can expect from which burger & all the different names at McD, and the many people in line and that super stressfull atmosphere…. I never had enought time to how do you say “learn the ordering process”. I usually just go there if I want a McFlurry ice-cream…..

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  12. 613

    My point being…. it’s way to hard to learn because it’s so without interaction that there seems to be no time even to explain me what’s in a burger. So if you learned the process you can get your food fast, but if you are new you can easily get lost because of the lack of it being friendly to first-time customers. I feel totally lost each time I have to order food at McD!! My brain has to triple its speed of working just to process the messy signs & wordings!! I just order a 1 Euro hamburger and a coke if hungry and leave. It’s horrible!!

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  13. 664

    Jurica and Allen did misunderstand this article in my opinion. The article is about how you use these.. lets call it services. Google and MC Donald’s are both simple to use. You don’t have to fight your way trough checkboxes, lists, text or so to ask google the question. And that is the same way with MC Donald’s. The interiors are all the same so you can always find your way. Choose, buy, eat. Thats all there is to it.

    I must admit i don’t like MC Donald’s because of there no-brainer style but once or twice a year they trap me in to buying a burger. It does work!

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  14. 715

    nice article.. thanks

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  15. 766

    The idea behind the article is great, still it needs some empirical research.
    But Yeah, i like a lot your examples about observing kids and how they interact with objects.

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  16. 817

    what the hell is this article about

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  17. 868

    Get yourself sorted, this article sucks.

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  18. 919

    Why so much words? You could make your article much more usable with summarizing it to one or two sentences.

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  19. 970

    Great article, straight to the important stuff and makes an excellent point. Top score!

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  20. 1021

    I really liked the article and I don’t mind going a little abstract sometimes, it reminds us that we’re all animals ; )
    Perfect introduction, looking forward to next episodes.

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  21. 1072

    weird T_T it makes me hungry

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  22. 1123

    If we look at the comparison of McDonalds to an expensive restaurant, there a several stages that impede ordering before you even get to look at the menu. There is no way you can argue that it is as simple as walking in the door, staring up at the wall, and moving in a slow progression towards the counter—drones. In the expensive restaurant, you must interact with a third party—the hostess—to get a table and a menu. Then you can talk to your waiter to order drinks, and decide whether you will be having appetizers, or going straight for the entrees. And after everything, another decision: will you be staying for dessert? All of that is glossing over the often-confusing wording of menus. What exactly is included with the fillet-mignon? How large is the pizza?

    Completely not true!
    The entire idea of McDonald’s is that you have EXPERIENCED it at least once in your live. From that point you can go over and over again without thinking. Now, if we extrapolating this into a decent restaurant that we visit over and over again we will see that it is ABSOLUTELY the same. Maybe the learning curve is a little bit more high comparing with McShit, but the important part is that once you have experienced something it’s easy to repeat it. It is as simple as that.

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  23. 1174

    Glad to see SM is staying green by recycling articles. :)
    http://informationarchitects.jp/the-interface-of-a-cheeseburger/

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  24. 1225

    Nice Article.

    Though it’s quite abstract… but i like it and get your point.

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  25. 1276

    Worst.Article.Ever.

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  26. 1327

    loads of metaphores and poetic images there…never thought i’d see these in MC’donalds & google:D….i agree with all of the above. Creative article, even though it can be translated in a much shorter way, but i guess what matters is that the reader doesn’t get bored, and that’s what didn’t happen at all ^_^, u kept us eager for more.

    keep those articles rollin!!

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  27. 1378

    I completely agree with Johny above. Even monkeys can learn complex processes. The important thing is to experience it first. The article is a total mess.

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  28. 1429

    Are you a social retard? “Table for X”

    Again… are you an interface “retard”? No matter how you want to argue it, that is one extra step.

    You order at mcd without third party interaction? Interesting concept.

    This one is my fault for not making it more obvious for you. At McDonalds, you talk to one person at the register. (Or in drive-thru its even more removed as you talk into a machine that someone is listening to on the other end). In an expensive restaurant, you talk to a hostess and a waiter (and possibly even a server). I don’t understand how you aren’t getting that there are many more steps in an expensive restaurant.

    How does this not also apply to mcd? Unless we are talking about ONLY ordering a cheeseburger meal it does not. And if it only applies to ordering a cheeseburger meal the same can be applied to any decent resturant. There will be something similar across the board you can order without though

    Are you seriously trying to argue that at an expensive restaurant they will often give you the choice of a pre-made meal denoted by number? McDonalds has dumbed it down so much you don’t even have to say the name of the any of the parts of the meal you are ordering… just a single number.

    I really don’t understand how you are trying to argue that an expensive restaurant offers the same experience as McDonalds does. The point the author is trying to impress upon people like you is that both McDonalds and Google have perfected the art of simplification to promote conversions.

    Completely not true!
    The entire idea of McDonald’s is that you have EXPERIENCED it at least once in your live. From that point you can go over and over again without thinking. Now, if we extrapolating this into a decent restaurant that we visit over and over again we will see that it is ABSOLUTELY the same. Maybe the learning curve is a little bit more high comparing with McShit, but the important part is that once you have experienced something it’s easy to repeat it. It is as simple as that.

    Being easy to do, and actually converting a customer into action are two very different things. Pretty much anyone is able to order a jacket online, but some stores make the process much more difficult, and in return they see fewer conversions.

    I’m not trying to argue that I simply cannot understand how the process of eating at an expensive restaurant works. I am arguing against the idea that the two experiences achieve the same level of simplicity.

    Even monkeys can learn complex processes. The important thing is to experience it first.

    Yes but the question is whether the monkey will bother to repeat the process or go somewhere else for food.

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  29. 1480

    Absolutely great article. Actually I was expecting something like this since the idea of creating a “global common experience” is a constant on the big American multinationals… (and not americans!)

    In any case, congrats for such a nice article.

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  30. 1531

    This is ridiculous and quite a stretch. I understand the parallels you are trying to draw, but really …. come on. Has Smashing Magazine jumped the shark?

    Also… seconded:
    http://informationarchitects.jp/the-interface-of-a-cheeseburger/

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  31. 1582

    Hey, great article, thanks, learned a lot about this!

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  32. 1633

    Love this article… when I read it 3 years ago. I still love it, but you might as well just have pointed us to: http://informationarchitects.jp/the-interface-of-a-cheeseburger/

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  33. 1684

    Should have been:

    In-N-Out Burger = Google

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  34. 1735

    Very nice to see Oliver’s articles on SM. The most intelligent, provocative and dandy web thinker.

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  35. 1786

    Fun read! I soaked up some useful information on how to see more parallels in the real world and apply to UI. Thanks!

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  36. 1837

    While I do think the definition of brand is shifting (based on UX AND behaviors) I am not sure I agree with the examples.

    Let me explain…

    Not all McDonald’s are created alike. Interiors and exterior designs, their materials and even signage (or what is pushed) shift/change per location. I have a sweet Micky D’s with granite, lower lighting and comfortable seating. Or how about the golden arches in Sedona? They are teal not golden at all.

    I would have agreed that years ago the UX may have defined the brand but unsure of that these days without mixing in behavior and community/social (not 3.0 social but reality) into that equation now. In the past the McDonalds experience was MUCH simpler (menu, interior/exterior design and signage)—but now the brand is shifting (menu, interior/exterior design, signage) based on the BEHAVIOR of the consumers in that location/community/reality. They are morphing (and almost personalizing it) to where they are located and who they are trying to attract/sell-to—as well as complicating the menu to try and appeal to wherever that community the brand lives in.

    And one thing I think that is happening is that large brands (like McDonalds) are trying to do too much. Too many options, too complex, too many choices in an effort to personalize where perhaps they don’t need to—and in the end they don’t keep it simple. I mean how many ways does one need to configure a cheeseburger besides perhaps small and large?

    Recently I was running errands way past my (and my toddler’) lunch time as time just got away from me and I realized this in the car when my toddler started to freak-out. So, I had 2 choices…(1) drive home, make a late lunch and then put him down to nap which would take about 45 minutes and my toddler would be cry/screaming the whole time or (2) make a right into the McDonalds I spotted up ahead. I chose #2.

    I grabbed my toddler and rushed in (no drive-thru as he is too young to sit in the back and eat on his own). Anyway I looked at this insane-huge menu of selections and choices. In my head I was like why is this so complicated? I did not want to read, learn or try—this is not a Michelin rated joint after all. And I went with what I know—a small cheeseburger, small fry, small nugget and a milk. Within 2 seconds I had my (fast) food and able to calm my screaming kid.

    So, if the golden arches just stuck with the brand experience (which was simpler in my opinion) of yesteryear they wouldn’t need to spend so much dough on trying to convince me that this is a destination I want to be. It is what it is—fast food at a reasonable price served quickly in a clean environment. Get in and out. I don’t need granite or crazy-ass salads (and believe me I love both)—nice, but I am never going to eat there everyday and when I need something on the road and fast I will be eating what they are good at. A small cheeseburger and fry.

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  37. 1888

    no “deep throat” jokes? what will the analogies be in part deux?

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  38. 1939

    Oliver,

    Thank you SO MUCH for this article. As a self titled “brand and experience design strategist”, your article could not have hit harder to the truth that I am still figuring out how to articulate in my space every day.

    I come from the side of branding, and I see the distinct parallels to UX design in every single touchpoint of a brand. In particular, one frustration I have is the world of new urbanism (proper urban dev), where the UX design of an urban dwelling is a brand, where every touchpoint must be managed to come to a desired result – but urban planners don’t understand this in terms of “branding” – just statistics and completely utilitarian measures. It drives me nuts and I see this all over product design, retail, and urbanism – just to name a few. It HURTS. The EXPERIENCE needs to be designed with EVERY touchpoint in consideration. Branding is the emotional side, UX design the functional. Both complimenting each other in harmony. Not one without the other. Otherwise you get a congruent pile of shit, or an unemotional, unmemorable, and undirected experience.

    It’s an incredibly simple concept that I find not many people understand. Even worse, I want to fix so many things but have no idea where to start! :)

    Thank you so much again, for your insight in this article. I am looking forward to reading the followups.

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  39. 1990

    @ Johny

    I think after reading through so many comments, this one makes the most sense.

    It’s how we act and respond to our environments.

    Everything new scares us at first, but as soon as we’ve experienced it we become more accustomed to it. Of course you can incorporate elements in your designs to make them more familiar for the user, but it doesn’t mean you have to check originality and inventiveness at the door.

    Just look at google labs to see it all first hand. YouTube, Google Wave, Blogger etc. Or non-google applications: FaceBook, Myspace etc. None of this would ever have been possible if we didn’t push people to learn how to interact with new online applications/inventions. Yes make it easy for people to jump in, but don’t assume the majority of people are half-wits and don’t want to enjoy and explore new experiences online.

    Also, Google itself is probably not the best comparison when talking about UI of websites, as Google is more of a stop-gap on the way to a website experience.
    Like the car ride before you get to your destination – of course you want it to be as quick and easy as possible, but it doesn’t mean you don’t want to enjoy yourself once you arrive.

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  40. 2041

    nice, articles…cheeseburger is a fastfood seems like a google is a faster in searching words or anything u want :D

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  41. 2092

    Where McDonalds and Google are similar is that their processes require cognitive load. This is because they offer few options. McDonalds only has a few items per category (http://danallen46.homeunix.org/BA1931.jpg ), unlike other fancier restaraunts which can have multiple pages of listings. Similarly, Google only has a few things that people can do at their website and these choices are very different to eachother so it is unlikely that a user will be confused as to which of google’s services is right for them. Having few choices means that the users arn’t overloaded by so many choices. The more choices we have the more of a hassle it becomes to actually make a decision.

    In his book The paradox of Choice (Ecco, 2004), Barry Schwartz writes about another “jam study in which a group of people was given the opportunity to sample a selection of high-quality jams. In one instance, there were six james available to sample; in another, there were 24.

    The smaller sample of jams attracted fewer people. However, 30% of those people went on to buy some jam. Of those who had the opportunity to sample 24 jams, 3% made a purchase.”

    Choice takes time and thinking and too much thinking can stress you and lead to indecision. The more options we are prsented the less attention we can give to one particular thing.

    So in terms of offering an intuitive and easy user experience I agree that McDonalds and Google are alike.

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  42. 2143

    I think someone got a crazy pickle in their burger!

    enjoyed the article:)

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  43. 2194

    Matthias Edler-Golla

    October 26, 2009 11:58 pm

    I really like this article and I am looking forward for the next part!

    Smashing Magazine should definitely release more of those theoretical articles and less of these link-soups

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  44. 2245

    I thought the connections made were very imaginative & the article allowed the reader to toy around with the ideas creatively. Well done.

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  45. 2296

    Ohhh this is way too close to this post http://informationarchitects.jp/the-interface-of-a-cheeseburger/

    Same author?

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  46. 2347

    Just met with a client this morning and we were thinking about how to package a new service. This article came at just the right time as we formulate how to effectively connect with new customers.

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  47. 2398

    Oliver Reichenstein

    October 27, 2009 7:33 pm

    I really enjoyed reading through the comments. I understand the frustrations of those who reject the thought that to a degree every (usable) artifact has an interface. I understand the suspiciousness of those who think that it’s bullshit to claim that everything that is designed to be used has an interface (haven’t seen and can’t think of any good arguments against that).

    I also fully understand that for most people even understanding what an interface actually is–is a struggle. And even after writing tons and tons of (mostly trashed) text on the matter, I still need to concentrate when I explain what exactly meant with this labyrinth of a sentence:

    “The way you accomplish tasks with a product, what you do and how it responds – that’s the interface.” (Jeff Raskin)

    More on that next week.

    As for those who complain that SmashingMag is just recycling an old article: Relax. This text has been worked over again and again and it comes to a different conclusion than its predecessor. I purposely use it as an introduction as it has proven itself again and again to bring across the main point. I agree though that it should have been pointed out more clearly that there is a predecessor. This is not sort of a trick, but an unfortunate side effect of editing: As matter of fact, in the director’s cut of the current article I make that very clear. Smashing Mag has edited it out because it seemed too personal and to advertisy (which I understand as well):

    After discovering that this fascinating indeterminacy between brand and user experience applied to most of the recently successful brands–be it the iPhone, the wii or Star Bucks, I decided to investigate it by writing a blog post. I was curious to see what the few dozen or so readers of my website had to say. Entitled “The Interface of a Cheeseburger,” it was quickly picked-up by Internet hubs.

    Learning from Babies

    That was in the autumn of 2006. I began elaborating on the “Brand=Interface” theory (hence the original title) by posting blog entries and discussing it with the iA community. As the blog posts grew in number, the idea of compiling all those texts into one cohesive body became more and more concrete.

    In 2008, my wife got pregnant which influenced my writing: In chapter one of the original draft I examined the most popular quote on interfaces–that “the only intuitive interface is the nipple.” After the baby was born, I naturally had no time for the book anymore. I let the manuscript rest in the drawer for a couple of months.

    Watching the baby grow and interact with its world I learned more about interfaces than I could have possibly imagined. Most of what babies do is learning to interface with their surrounding.

    Observing the baby drinking its milk, I noticed that the interfacing does not happen on the nipple. It happens more generally between the mother and the child. In other words: The nipple is not an interface; it’s just one touch point. The interface is in the whole experience a child makes during breast feeding. The interface is the way they connect. And this experience defines the brand “Mama” in the beginning.

    By studying breast feeding (the blueprint of user interaction) live, I understood that the correct equation was Brand=UX. Translated back into theory: The Interface was in the equals sign, not on the other side of the equation.

    The interface is what connects the worlds of Branding and User Experience Design. It’s the tunnel. The elevator. The wormhole. The throat.

    Interface design is an extremely complicated matter and rest assured that every sentence I wrote here was thought through back and forth. Smashing Mag and me have agreed that before the next article is released they will double check with me if their final editing is OK to avoid the misunderstandings that arose here.

    I am currently finishing the next article for release. Looking forward to your reactions on that.

    Best

    Oliver

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  48. 2449

    long time reader – first time commenting – dumbist article I’ve ever read – my experience coming here has dropped considerably.

    How old are you?

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  49. 2500

    Floris Fiedeldij Dop

    October 27, 2009 10:39 pm

    As fun as this is, I rather stick to the usual content. Sorry. I skimmed over it. This is a nice April fools article, and should just occur once a year. *shrug*

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  50. 2551

    not much impressive…….

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