Managing Experience Design Lessons from Top Chef‘s “Restaurant Wars”

OK. So I actually have two shows of which I’m an utter fanboy — BSG and Top Chef. Last night’s Top Chef was every season’s most anticipated episode, “Restaurant Wars.” The set-up is that you have two teams of 4 chefs, and they have 24 hours to come up with a restaurant concept, menu (with two options for each course), interior design, and service. It’s an intense and grueling exercise, leaving contestants spent by the end.

I couldn’t watch last night’s episode without realizing how much of it applied to experience design and management. There were three key elements that popped out at me. In order to explain, I have to reveal what transpired so…

Spoiler alert!

Communication. This arises in pretty much every team challenge on Top Chef, as it seems that chefs are terrible communicators. Early on in the service, the Sahana team, Jamie in particular, could see that Radhika, the team lead, was not focusing on the right things. Radhika should have been paying attention to front-of-house, making sure people felt attended to, and instead she kept drifting into the kitchen, where she was more comfortable. Someone, probably Jamie, should have said something to Radhika, but she didn’t. It’s as if she didn’t want to suggest that a teammate is not working up to par. Similarly, Radhika, as team lead, had almost nothing to say to her team, and they managed as little islands of activity. The Sunset Lounge team, for all their problems (and there were many) were in constant communication with each other. And they won.

The lesson: communicate. When things aren’t going well, call them out. Don’t be afraid of offending or upsetting others, particularly in group work. Yes, you have to figure out tactful means of communicating, so that your message will be received, but you can’t not communicate.

Experience matters. The judges all felt that Sahana’s team had the better food (if only by a slight margin), but they lost. Why? Because Fabio rocked the front of the house for Sunset Lounge. He made everyone feel welcome and attended to. He was gracious, even a little flirtatious. When things went wrong, like the undercooked black cod, he apologized and offered to replace it. He recognized that dining is not just about eating, and made the guests feel good about being there.

The lesson: Attend to the complete person. Make them feel good. Recognize the role that emotion plays, and don’t assume a superior product will win out self-evidently.

Finish strong. Even though the judges preferred Sahana’s food, the comment cards from the other eaters rated Sunset Lounge’s as better. I trust the judges’ palates here, so the disconnect is revealing. One reason the other eaters preferred Sunset Lounge was the experience, as explained above. More important, though, was that Sunset Lounge finished strong — even the judges said their desserts were the single best component served all night, across both restaurants. Sahana’s dessert was considered among the worst offerings from either team.

Brandon introduced me to the “peak-end rule”, wherein people judge experiences based on either the most extreme aspect (the peak) or how they ended. So, even though the Sunset Lounge’s team’s food was weaker overall, it ended so strong that eaters felt the whole experience was that much stronger.

The lesson: It’s obvious. I know if my practice, though, I have to always remind myself to finish strong, to put that extra effort in at the end.

Book Review: Outliers

I mentioned a while back that I was listening to the audiobook for Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers. Readers of this blog know I’ve been following Gladwell since before The Tipping Point, and I’ve always been quite critical. I’ve written about how TTP didn’t tie together, Blink had no legitimate argument, and his misunderstanding of the role of paper in the modern office.

Outliers is much the same as his prior two books — a set of distinct, well-researched and engagingly told stories tied together by the barest wisp of connective tissue. The theme of his book seems to be: People become successful because a) they’re given remarkable opportunities others are not and b) they work really really hard. Actually, the theme of his book is “stop thinking that brilliance is inborn; all successful people worked hard at it.” Somehow, this is meant to tie together hockey players, Bill Gates, inner-city students, and airlines pilots who don’t crash planes when faced with trouble.

Let me correct myself. Gladwell’s point is to insist on equality of opportunity, and for us to understand the systems and forces at play that lead to inequality. It might be Gladwell’s first book with an explicit social message, and, frankly, it’s one that I agree with. It’s also a realization that any systems-oriented thinker had some time by college if not sooner. You cannot, say, understand Darwinian evolution without realizing the role that opportunity plays in enabling success.

Still, some good stories. Definitely worth checking out from the library.

Battlestar Galactica – 4.5

Watched the first of the last episodes on Friday. If you’re a fanatic like me (Battlestar is the one show I just totally give myself over to in the most pathetic geekboy fashion), you’ll dig this extended blog post that features a) an interview with Ronald D Moore, and extensive notes from the writers and director of the episode. Also, you can hear Ronald Moore’s commentary track of the episode on Hulu.

Drool. Glad to have the show back, if only for another coupla months.

My Upcoming Virtual Seminar: 16 (Mostly) Difficult Steps to Becoming a Customer Experience-Driven Organization

(also published on

Last October, I taught at UIE’s UI13 Conference. All teachers are invited to give an additional 90-minute presentation. In early September, I had my first child (my son, Jules), and that experience encouraged me to focus on what was truly important. I considered what was the most important presentation I could give, what could actually make an impact on the lives of the people there, and it lead me to my talk, “16 (Mostly) Difficult Steps To Becoming A Customer-Driven Organization.” I am presenting this on February 11 (10am Pacific, 1pm Eastern, 1700 GMT) as part of our virtual seminar series.

The talk is drawn from, well, nearly 15 years doing user experience work. It’s culled from a variety of sources, including our report “Leveraging Business Value: How ROI Changes User Experience,” our book Subject to Change, our interactions with clients and colleagues, and lots of reading.

I’ll admit it — the presentation is a little daunting. Covering 16 steps is a lot. But I felt I needed to do that to be responsible to the subject. Changing an organization is arduous. If you follow the steps in this talk, it could take 2, 3, even 5 years. But, and I think this is the most important element to remember — it can be done. It can work. And, perhaps even more importantly — it must be done, if we want the organizations we work for to be humane and respectful.

I hope you find the time to attend this virtual seminar, and I look forward to encouraging a dialogue on this subject. Register with the promotional code FOPM and get 15% off! (And you can use that for any of our Adaptive Path events).

Adaptive Path’s 2009 Events – So many options!

For the first time in Adaptive Path’s history, we’ve released our entire slate of in-person events for the year at the beginning of the year. (I say “in-person” because we’re still working on our virtual seminar lineup). I know it’s going to be a strange year for many folks, budget-wise, but we’re confident we have events that can satisfy various abilities of spend. And if you use the promotional code FOPM, you’ll get an extra 15% off!

I’m mostly involved in our conferences, MX 2009 and UX Week 2009. MX is targeted at managers of experience design teams, and I know I say it every year, but MX 2009 is shaping up to the best yet. I’m really excited about having David Butler, VP of Design at Coca-Cola, speak about how he’s helped the World’s Biggest Brand embrace design (he’s profiled in this BusinessWeek article).

UX Week is still many months away, but we’ve already announced some high-profile speakers – comics artist Scott McCloud, word maven Erin McKean, and ethnography trailblazer Genevieve Bell. Because we’re so far from it, registration for UX Week is currently very low — $1795, where full price will be $2995. (And with the 15% off from FOPM, that drops to $1525.75, nearly half off full price). Last year’s UX Week 2008 was amazing, and 2009 promises to top that.

Along with the conferences, we have our UX Intensive 4-day workshops returning (Berlin, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.), our new Good Design Faster 2-day workshop (how can you miss with a name like that), our pilot event for project managers, and a monthly selection of virtual seminars, including one I’m presenting in February titled 16 (Mostly) Difficult Steps to Becoming a Customer Experience-Driven Organization. Whew!

I hope you overcome your paradox of choice, and join us for the fun this year!

Book Review: The Pixar Touch

As part of my life of nerdiness, I’ve attended animation festivals since I was in high school in the late-ish 80s. At Cal (1989-1993), I would work the shows when Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation came to school (it paid $5/hr!). Computers were also (obviously) an interest, and each year one company would produce a computer animated short that was always loved at the festival — Pixar. I was an eager audience member for Toy Story, and have seen every Pixar film, except for Cars (which looked simply juvenile, and, well, I’m not a car guy).

So, reading The Pixar Touch was a walk down memory lane for me. David A. Price offers a biography of the pioneering animation company, tracing it’s founders from their roots in computer graphics and animation, to how they meet at Lucasfilm, to their struggles as a hardware company, through their ownership by Steve Jobs, the triumph of Toy Story, and Disney’s acquisition of Pixar for $7.4 billion (which, given the terms, you could argue was as much of a merger as an acquisition).

Apart from nostalgia, however, the book doesn’t offer all that much. It’s a serviceable history, relating the facts of Pixar’s story, but it provides very little in the way of insight — what makes Pixar the special kind of company it is, particularly how it has been 9-for-9 in terms of feature film successes, a track record unheard of in major motion pictures. In other words, it doesn’t really reveal what “the Pixar touch” actually is. I think the biggest problem is that it’s clear the author had no access to the three most important people at Pixar – John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, and Steve Jobs. So everything he has about them is secondhand.

If you’re a Pixar fan, the book is probably worth reading, as it’s quick, (I finished it in just a few days), and provides some context about the people who made the company what it is. I suppose I’d recommend it as a library read, since I don’t think it warrants permanent placement in anyone’s library.

There’s one part of the Pixar tale that I did find illuminating. It came from a letter to shareholders written by Steve Jobs in 1997 (thank you Internet Archive!), after he had renegotiated with Disney a more equitable contract:

Second, branding. We believe there are only two significant brands in the film industry– “Disney” and “Steven Spielberg”. We would like to establish “Pixar” as the third. Successful brands are a reflection of consumer trust, which is earned over time by consumers’ positive experiences with the brand’s products. For example, parents trust Disney-branded animated films to provide satisfying and appropriate family entertainment, based on Disney’s undisputed track record of making wonderful animated films. This trust benefits both parents and Disney: it makes the selection of family entertainment that much easier for parents, and it allows Disney to more easily and assuredly draw audiences to see their new films. Over time we want Pixar to grow into a brand that embodies the same level of trust as the Disney brand. But in order for Pixar to earn this trust, consumers must first know that Pixar is creating the films. Hence, our need to dramatically expand the Pixar branding of all our products.

Jobs was right (and, to a large degree, still is). It’s interesting how film studios have pretty much put no stock in branding, probably thinking that the stars are the only brands they need. Pixar, by working so hard to associate themselves with certain characteristics, a certain “brand promise,” were, 10 years after this was written, able to get $7.4 billion from Disney in the acquisition.

Meme Theme – Systems approach to biographies

Just after reading The Invention of Air, I’m listening to the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Outliers. One thing that’s immediately apparent is that the two share a common theme — frustration with the “Great Man” approach to history and biography, where we credit someone’s success to that individual’s talent, perseverance, innate abilities. Instead, both take an intriguing systems approach to biography, suggesting that individuals are as much players in a larger context beyond their control, and success comes from largely from chance — people being fortunate to be in the right position at the right time. It intrigues me that these two writers have made this the central theme of their latest works at this time, and I wonder, well, what larger systems forces are in play that reveals this shared approach to biography.