At CAMA we explore how the design of the built environment influences our health and wellbeing. Food for Thought is a series of articles exploring how to design interiors that nudge healthier eating habits. In this first installment, we identify design strategies that nudge behavior and explore how the design of McDonalds restaurants has evolved along with consumer attitudes and expectations of fast food.
People rarely make decisions on their own, and the context in which decisions are made hugely influence behavior, for better or worse. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the popular book, Nudge, identify five strategies that designers employ to nudge people to make better decisions. They offer this helpful mnemonic device:
(N) - iNcentives - Thaler and Sustein support the free market system, acknowledging that the price of goods significantly impacts decision-making. Example: The extra cost of buying organic produce or the low cost typically associated with high caloric fast food.
(U) - Understand mappings - Help people more easily plan and understand the effects of their decisions. Provide useful information not in abstract numerical terms, but in more accessible ways that can be applied directly to a situation. Example: The calories contained in an average serving of French fries are the equivalent of running for an hour.
(D) - Defaults - If a default option is provided, the vast majority of people will end up with this option, whether or not it is good for them. Example: Most restaurants default to large portion sizes causing diners to overeat.
(G) - Give feedback - Systems that provide feedback help people make more informed choices and improve performance. Example: Nutrition labeling programs that identify healthy cafeteria offerings and sync with dieting apps.
(E) - Expect error - Expect people to make mistakes and be as forgiving as possible. Example: The occasional indulgence is only natural. Provide options that satisfy this urge but support long-term health goals such as frozen yogurt with a variety of toppings or fruit dipped in dark chocolate.
(S) - Structure complex choices - As choices become more numerous and varied, people rely on simplifying strategies to guide decision-making. One common strategy is collaborative filtering where people make selections based on the reviews of others with similar tastes. Example: Many travelers choose a restaurant in a foreign city based on reviews from TripAdvisor.
“Small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior.”
-- Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein authors of Nudge
Thaler and Sunstein identify two systems of thinking: one that is intuitive and automatic, the Automatic System, and another that is reflective and rational, the Reflective System. Another way to describe these two systems is gut reaction versus conscious thought.
Furthermore, decision-making is influenced by temptation. People often underestimate the powerful effects of context on temptation. For example, prior to dining out, you intend not to order dessert. However, when everyone at the table chooses otherwise, you may reconsider, especially after viewing the decadent, mouth-watering selections on a nearby dessert cart.
Mindless choosing in which people make decisions in a state of autopilot also influences decision-making. When it comes to food, temptation and mindlessness go hand in hand. Thaler and Sustein recognize that “eating turns out to be one of the most mindless activities we do” which is why people, to their dismay, will eat an entire bag of potato chips or carton of ice cream in one sitting.
Fast food icon, McDonalds has capitalized on the automatic system of thinking by providing convenient, craveable, and predictable food at a low cost. In 1948, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald developed a highly profitable recipe for success: a simple menu of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, shakes, soft drinks, and apple pie coupled with a highly efficient, assembly-line kitchen design. Today, McDonald’s has more than 30,000 restaurants serving 52 million people in more than 100 countries each day.
The evolution of McDonald’s restaurants is a wonderful example of choice architecture at work. Indoor dining areas, which surprisingly did not appear until 1962, deliberately discouraged patrons from staying longer than was necessary to finish their meals. Uncomfortable fiberglass furniture, painted in garish colors, and a “no loitering” policy supported by the deliberate omission of pay phones, juke boxes, and vending machines helped create the desired effect of increased turnover.
In the early 2000s, the company embarked on the store’s first major redesign since 1969. If you haven’t frequented a McDonald’s restaurant in a while, you may be surprised that a red-haired clown no longer greets you. You could quite possibly mistake the grown up interior, which now offers a comfortable lounge section and free wifi for that of a Starbucks, although it is highly unlikely that you would have missed the yellow brows adorning the more contemporary roof on your way in.
Clearly a please loiter policy is in effect, and a new set of design principles encourage customers to not eat and run, but rather, linger and possibly sample new additions to the menu like snack wraps and sweet tea, not to mention an assortment of gourmet coffees and fresh fruit smoothies from McCafe.
Interiors apply bright, primary colors judiciously as accents with calming earth tones pervading. Overhead fluorescent lighting has been updated with indirect features and decorative pendants. You may be surprised to find that your chair is no longer bolted to the floor. Wooden tables and chairs are now the mainstay with additional seating such as colorful stools and faux leather chairs and booths rounding out the options. Furthermore, the furniture layouts support three distinct dining zones:
Group Dining – Supports large groups or families with flexible, easily reconfigured seating arrangements.
Fast Casual – Counters and stools provide a grab and go option for hurried professionals.
Linger and Lounge – Plush, comfortable lounge furniture and free wifi access encourage young adults to meet and socialize with friends.
The design of these three distinct zones is a deliberate attempt to target a range of customers with different tastes. Denis Weil, McDonald’s VP of concept and design explains, “That each space also connotes a different maturity level that might lead to a specific menu choice is precisely the point” (Paynter, 2010). Jim Carras, McDonald’s senior vice president of domestic restaurant development notes, “The overall redesign allows us to broaden our menu. Customer experience can match menu variety” (Horovitz, 2011).
The spikes in revenue of newly renovated McDonald’s restaurants demonstrate how American consumers value, and have even come to expect, a certain level of design even at fast food chains. Creating a new dining experiencing is crucial to ensuring the McDonald’s brand remains relevant. President and COO, Don Thompson explains “People eat with their eyes first. If you have a restaurant that is appealing, contemporary, and relevant both from the street and interior, the food tastes better” (Paynter, 2010).
Horovitz, B. (2011, May 9). McDonald’s revamps stores to look more upscale. USA Today.
Paynter, B. (2010, October 1). Making over McDonald’s. Fast Company.
Thaler, R.H & Sunstein, C.R (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. London: Penguin Books.
Designing Life Indoors is an ongoing series of white papers exploring how the built environment impacts health and wellbeing. Contact Liz at email@example.com to learn more.