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Brand = User Experience: The Interface Of A Cheeseburger


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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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? Link

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 Link

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

  1. 1

    FIRST! Great article, pretty funny

  2. 2

    I’m interested in the things that you’re discussing but not the way that you’re discussing it. We get the relationship between Google and McDonald’s, there was no need for any of the crazy metaphors.

  3. 3

    Breastfeeding and McDonalds and Google. Never thought I’d see those together! I’m still a bit blurry on what you are trying to convey however…

  4. 4

    Great piece, Oliver. Though I rarely visit マクドナルド, I’m sure the next time I do, I’ll be reminded of UX = Brand. Looking forward to the next part.

    @Paul: ‘crazy metaphors’ are certainly more memorable.

  5. 5

    Very interesting way of going about this. Excellent article, can’t wait for the next in the series!

  6. 6

    Nice epiphany! I think this is exactly the understanding that companies like Apple have built into their character (Apple especially in the Jonathan Ive era) and exactly what so many other companies either refuse to understand or are struggling to get their head around.

    Nice article.

  7. 7

    I’m kind of with Jurica on this; there’s a few obvious points surrounded by a lot of tripe.

    The quote, “… designed for you to switch off your brain…”, comparing Google and McDonalds, is rather humorous. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but aren’t most Google users in search of an answer to their question(s)? If it could be considered a doorway to knowledge, I fail to see how that’s any form of brain deactivation. The comment reminds me of the obviously false statement that you can’t learn anything from television.

  8. 8

    So many burgers together in one article… damn, I’m hungry now! :D

  9. 9

    This is really interesting and quite true. But does the thought that you might be designing McWebpages horrify you as much as it does me? I know that wasn’t your main point, but the last thing I want is to make characterless cookie cutter pages with no soul–not to mention bad for the digestion. (although at least Mcd’s has a healthy choice menu these days!)

  10. 10

    @Colin deactivation on the interface level I believe is what Google is after. However, good point. Not sure that we turn off our brain the same way on Google as in McDonald’s as implied. but I could be wrong.

  11. 11

    I’m very conflicted about this article.

    At first glance, it’s… really, really stupid.

    But looking deeper, I mean, fast food menus are some of the most intuitive menus there are, aren’t there? You don’t have to think, except with your stomach.
    So it’s an interesting theory …

  12. 12

    I did get hungry while reading this article…

  13. 13

    Nice article. Sadly our internal conversation are not that deep or philosophic when we make decisions like this. Everything is very subjective and very superficial. But yes, I can agree that at the end is “all about ‘cold’ user interaction design”

    I will look forward for the second part.

  14. 14

    This is a good exercise in demonstrating that UIs are all around us, but we don’t notice them unless we look. But isn’t this the hallmark of a well-designed UI; one that is so streamlined and painless that we barely even notice it?

    Thankyou SM for the push to start looking for UI inspiration in places I never would have before.

  15. 15

    great article, quite interesting the connections you make!

  16. 16

    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.

    Be careful not to extrapolate the desires of others based only upon utilitarian expectations. This isn’t the only modality, and possibly not even the most common one that adults naturally have. Many of us enjoy socializing, and spending time ruminating, during, after, and even before consumption of food. Visual and olfactory impressions can be at least as important as taste (if not moreso) in the consumption experience of fine cuisine, as well. Certainly, many of us like the idea of picking up a menu and imagining the choices to be brought before us enough to defer satiation while increasing satisfaction.

    I think that what McDonald’s does is not merely reactionary to our demand, as your piece seems to suggest. I think their success lies in shaping our demand to meet their needs as well: when we want something fast, McDonald’s has trained us to forgo the interesting by accepting a dull but uniform (and therefore “safe”) product, and then to consume it fast and then leave, or forgo eating on premises altogether, because it fits their needs from an efficiency standpoint. (The garish color scheme reflecting mustard and ketchup that they’ve had up until recently in all their locations isn’t because it makes the hamburgers pop out the window any faster, but probably because it makes us unsettled enough to not want to stick around.) Most importantly, they’ve also promoted the idea of eating fast (eating from the car or at least in a hurry) as a good thing.

    I’m not a committed slow foodie, but I do think we’ve been conditioned to accept this and even think of it as normal behavior for us to participate in regularly, when perhaps we shouldn’t. Yes, babies instinctively go to mom’s breast when it’s available. But as there are no ready alternatives for babies themselves to select among (in fact, all they can do is basically suck or not suck), that hardly provides a good analogue or blueprint for adult decision making and interaction. And even those early feeding transactions are at least partly reinforced and shaped by the emotional and physical responses the mom gets, feeding her child.

  17. 17

    “Buying and consuming a Cheeseburger is an automated routine — simple and mindless”

    Buying most food is like this, the analogy is horrible. I put little thought into what I order at takeout/resturants. Provided it does not suck it will be fine.

    “But looking deeper, I mean, fast food menus are some of the most intuitive menus there are, aren’t there? You don’t have to think, except with your stomach.”

    Unless the menu is in another language ALL menus are as simple as fast food. Pick something and eat it. You could goto a very very expensive resturant and still get a good meal. Goto main courses, random whatever, order. How hard is that? It is not the menu that is complicating anything it is the person ordering. Find a menu that is more complicated, they dont exist or are an extreme minority.

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    Wow! I really do like the theory.
    The relation with the human nature is a good look at UX design and a right one imo. Don’t focus on the examples my friends, think about the main idea.

    Looking foward to the 2nd part ! Real good stuff :)

  20. 20

    Interesting, in a wierd way.

  21. 21

    i think the whole analogy turned the idea of the word interface upside down. the word gives the chance to transfere the idea of action and reaction into the digital/technical world. going back to everydaylife and showing that action an reaction can be found there as well (especially on the metaphore of a LEARNING baby) is kind of invalid.

    i know that feeling when you’ve been working like hell and suddenly it seems like everything you do is linked to the topic you’re working on. it feels a bit like a conspiracy theory in a positive way but it’s an illusion. seems to me like something like that happend here as well.

  22. 22

    Leon Paternoster

    October 25, 2009 1:26 am

    Even more awesome than the first time round.

  23. 23

    I think what we are really looking at here is Unconscious competence. – The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

  24. 24

    Awesome article, the inappropriate analogies were fun and made complete sense.

  25. 25

    Haha that was an awesome article! Thanks for sharing :)

  26. 26

    Normally I would NOT read an article like this. But, “The Interface of a Cheeseburger” (huh?) …

    hooked me in and the continuing metaphors kept me hooked all the way through the article.

    @Colin. Google is in the equal sign. Or, Google is the (open) doorway, no brain activation required to walk through it.

    @Paul. I guess if one succeeds as a McWeb page designer, no one would “see” you or your work. Same as no one “sees” the architecture or interior design at a McD’s.

    Good for the designer’s ego? Nope.
    Good for the user. Yup.

    @Simon Robb. Well Said!

    @artifex. Ah! You, or someone like you, probably designed those websites that I’ve never entered because I couldn’t find the right way to get in! In other words, I’m not dressed well enough to enter your fine dining portal.

  27. 27

    Ivan Philipov

    October 25, 2009 2:46 am

    Okay…you’re smart. Okay, you know few buzzwords and you can finish those complicated “bizness” sentences…but otherwise the whole article is about “okay, the sky is blue, but I’m going to explain this observation in a whole new perspective and in a very sophisticated manner”. Phew…

  28. 28

    A decent entry but it is a given that design is often meant to make you switch off your brain. It’s simply the fact that most consumers seek quick answers to their problems. Google products themselves do not make you switch off your brain entirely but they do make you not sweat the small stuff. The interface allows you to interact easily and to find your answers quickly.
    The same goes for McDonald’s. They want you to get in, spend money on food and get out to make room for the next customer. They don’t want you to sit and stare at the trash can for an hour.

    If you want to talk about UX in retail brands let’s dive into Chiptole. Their restaurants are designed to look sleek and provide an experience that enhances the food (as if it were necessary :), but they are also purposely not designed to house the volume of traffic that they receive. This is why those lines are massive at peak hours. What does that do to new Chipotle customers, it reassures them or pushes them into the store. If the line is this long it must be good right.

    Now the company is getting into servicing the returning customer which shows that they are progressing further into brand loyalty. Online ordering and App orders are on the rise and they work well. I could write an entire article just on their UX all around. Since they are a relatively new brand it is a great topic of discussion because you can see them eMerging their brand.

    Get more into your topic next time. Otherwise…it’s a decent piece.

  29. 29

    Very interesting, but … very funny. This is an unusual approach of the problem.

  30. 30

    McDonald’s = Google. Mhhh… I’m going to eat something by Google :p

    Great article! :)

  31. 31

    Beautifully written piece. Looking forward to part two.

  32. 32

    GREEEAT article!
    In the right moment for me. Helped me a lot in a project currently working on.

    More! More!

  33. 33

    Crazy and amazing at the same time.
    Great article!

  34. 34

    @Colin : By “designed for you to switch off your brain” I clearly understand that the interface is made to avoid any distraction between the user’s purpose and the way to accomplish it, in a way you “don’t have to think” to get it done. The article itself is rich in such analogies.

  35. 35

    Very interesting. I am french and it would be too approximative in words to reply, but great feeling when reading this article

  36. 36

    Johnny Nothing

    October 25, 2009 8:36 am

    This article made me think. I like when that happens.

  37. 37

    @ Johnny Nothing :
    Yes, exactly the same for me : “This article made me think. I like when that happens”

  38. 38

    Me, personally, I’m not afraid of long articles. If you describe your ideas more thoroughly, it would be great.

  39. 39

    I don’t see the analogy, I prefer Burger King over McDonalds any day, but I still don’t go out and use Yahoo! I would like to use Yahoo! more than Google, least it doesn’t become the Big Brother we all fear. But I am just SO used to Google that I use it anyway, like my brain shuttting off like you say (which might be an acomplishment on the programmers side, but on my side it’s just making me look dumb, like being controled by a puppeteer or something).
    PS: Sorry for my crappy iPhone typing in case I missed any typos.

  40. 40

    Ian Storm Taylor

    October 25, 2009 11:25 am

    Unless the menu is in another language ALL menus are as simple as fast food. Pick something and eat it. You could goto a very very expensive resturant and still get a good meal. Goto main courses, random whatever, order. How hard is that? It is not the menu that is complicating anything it is the person ordering. Find a menu that is more complicated, they dont exist or are an extreme minority.

    I completely disagree. It feels almost as if you are just trying to disagree with the post without having thought about what the author is arguing.

    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?

    And even in other fast food places, the menus are not always as simple. Ironically enough, have you ever been to McDonald’s affiliated chain, Chipotle? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Chipotle, and will eat there over anything, but their menu is horribly confusing for newcomers. I cannot count the amount of times a new customer in front of me has asked me questions about the menu because they could not understand it.

    I’m just not sure how you are even making the argument that you have made. It just seems like your just hunting for disagreement.


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