A Well Designed Meal Results In An Excellent (learning) Experience

I’m hardly a gastronome. I’ll eat just about anything, and I’m happy with simple foods – anything from mac & cheese from the box to a grilled piece of fish tossed from the skillet to the plate. But at the ALA Midwinter Convention in Denver a vendor invited me to dinner. I could hardly decline the generous offer.

So we trundled off to what I believe is one of Denver’s tonier dining establishments. It was small, crowded and gave the air of exlusivity. Not what I’m used to by any means. Take me to a beer & pizza joint. I didn’t quite know what to expect.

A look at the menu revealed a number of concoctions that left my head spinning. Anything I could have chosen would represent an entirely unfamiliar dining experience. That could be a good or really bad thing. I wasn’t even sure how to start narrowing down the puzzling options. But that’s not what happened.

My hosts decided to opt for the seven-course tasting menu. Now don’t get the wrong impression. It’s seven courses, but the portions are “tasting” size. At first I was thinking how hungry I was going to be after seven courses of tea room size portions. I was pretty hungry after a day of trudging around Denver from meeting to program. Next I was worried about what I was going to get to eat. Turns out the chef just does whatever he or she likes for the tasting menu. – stuff they don’t even advertise on the menu.  How did I get myself into this mess? I said I’ll eat just about anything, but I tend to draw the line on raw foods, super hot surprises and tentacled creatures.

I don’t think I was the only one having doubts. In fact, that was later confirmed at the end of the marathon meal when one of the hosts uttered “I’m wondering if we should have just stuck with the regular menu?” But once we put in the order there was no turning back.

Now unfortunately I have no way of relating to you what I ate. First, after seven dishes in a row you can hardly remember anything. Second, I never saw the names in writing. Third, all I know is that a snooty waiter rattled off the names faster than Google can find a billion hits on Britney Spears. I can tell you that it started with a plate with four different minuscule appetizers. Two of them tasted pretty good. The other two – well to paraphrase the famous words of Homer Simpson – “We shall never speak of those appetizers again”. Did it go downhill from there?

That’s not the important part of this post. Sure, we went through the shellfish, pasta, meat, fish and I-have-absolutely-no-frickin-idea-what-was-on-the-plate-courses, and there was even an interlude for a sake/lime liquid that served as a palate cleanser (actually pretty darn tasty). What is important is how this meal gave me a completely different perspective on the value of design in creating a great user experience.

This was no haphazard, just put something on the plate meal. This was an exquisitely well thought out, well designed and well executed meal. Everything had its place. Everything had to be in the right order. Everything had to have a certain appearance and taste. Here’s the surprise. Not only was I not hungry at the end of it all, but I wasn’t feeling stuffed either. It felt just right. Total satisfaction. And although there were a few things that went in my mouth that just didn’t feel right, the overall impact of the combination of different tastes, textures, colors, and portions resulted in a perfect dining experience.

It was in the cab ride back to the hotels when the question about whether or not the tasting menu was the right choice surfaced. I kept my thoughts to myself. As I walked back to my room I reflected on the experience, and decided that given the choice I’d opt for the seven-course tasting menu again. It gave me some real insight into design and user experience. If you want those you serve to have a great user experience in your library, design thinking needs to happen on the front end. It was clear to me that the chef who thought up that meal had to be very intentional in the food selection and presentation. He or she clearly wanted to differentiate it from the regular menu items.

It certainly would have been easy enough to just drop a smaller portion of each of those regular items onto smaller plates and serve them up. That’s why great user experiences don’t come easy. They require real thought, an appreciation of the consumer, prototyping (I’m sure the chef has to experiment until he or she discovers the best combinations), solid implementation, a crew of staff that completely get the totality of the experience they are delivering (the chef is the chief designer but if the servers don’t get it the whole thing fails) and a total commitment to the consumer having a great all around experience. I learned things of great value thanks to that seven-course meal. All learning experiences should be so tasty.

So I am in debt to my gracious hosts for taking me to that restaurant and introducing me to the seven-course tasking menu. And it’s good to have a story that helps to share what great user experiences are about.

2 thoughts on “A Well Designed Meal Results In An Excellent (learning) Experience”

  1. Steven — You might consider reading a memoir called “Service Included” by Phoebe Damrosch. Not only will you learn more than you thought possible about tasting menus, but you will also see a great example of constructing a user experience from top to bottom, inside and out, that mirrors your Denver experience but from the other side of the table. (The follow up question may be how can that level of attention to the user be adapted or ‘sampled’ for an environment that is decidedly less luxurious…)

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