What Experience Design can learn from this week’s Top Chef

No spoilers for the first four paragraphs.

This week’s episode of Top Chef was likely the best of the season, and definitely featured the most inspired and, according to the judges, delicious cooking so far. Chef Tom even said it was among the best single meals ever served on nine seasons of the show.

How could that be? The cooking so far this season has been decidedly middle-of-the-pack compared to prior seasons, and then all of a sudden it gets transcendent?

Because this week we saw leadership and vision, presented quite delightfully by guest judge Charlize Theron. Capitalizing on a cheap marketing tie-in (she plays The Evil Queen in an edgy telling of Snow White, coming to theaters in summer), Padma tells them to make something “wickedly beautiful,”. And, intentionally or not, Charlize then demonstrates remarkable leadership. She inspires them (who doesn’t want to please Charlize Theron — even the women love her), she encourages them (“indulge”), and she even gives some creative direction (“think like an evil queen.” This is the first time these chefs have really been given license to go over the top, and just enough structure to have a sense of rules to play by.

And what results is what happens when you give creative people just the right amount of leadership and structure without telling them exactly what to do. Each chef produces a delicious, inspired course, utterly unique, yet, thanks to the clear vision, it comes together in a remarkable whole.

…and now time for the spoiler-ridden commentary…

Hoo-boy! The Mozart of the Palate does it again! Paul’s dish was the hardest to appreciate through the telexision, but clearly his ability to play your tongue’s taste buds like keys on a piano is in full force. I love how Grayson admits her literalness, and I’m surprised she was able to realize that vision so directly. I can’t wait for Lindsay to get booted off in a fit of utter humiliation. I’ve never liked Michelle Bernstein as a guest judge, and I really don’t care for her protégé. The editors know that we diehards pick up on certain cues, because when Chris calls his wife, and we see the photos of the family, every fan’s first thought was, “Chris is going to lose tonight.”

The only thing that bummed me was Beverly beating Nyesha in Last Chance Kitchen. That twist just clearly proved too much, and Nyesha had likely put together a much better, and more flexible, setup than Beverly. Though, according to Tom, the decision came down to a nitpick — seasoning — and I don’t think you can lay that on Beverly’s preparation. I was hoping to see Nyesha pull an Ozzy and make it back into the competition, but I suppose I’ll have to wait until the next Top Chef All Stars.

Musing on Managed Experiences

On our last day in California, we stopped to pee at Trees of Mystery, a roadside attraction showcasing redwoods, a gondola called the Sky Trail, and, of course, a gift shop. I remember visiting this over 20 years ago with my parents, the most vivid memories being the giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox out front.

Trees of Mystery is now the very definition of a tourist trap (its Wikipedia page makes that clear), though I suspect when it opened, which I believe was originally in the 40s, it actually served a purpose — this was not well-managed parkland at the time, and Trees of Mystery offered folks who weren’t super outdoorsy the ability to see and learn about redwoods.

It’s purpose these days is less clear. With the establishment of Redwood National Park (in 1968), and the various state parks that comprise it, you can now have a well-managed, lowkey, redwood forest experience for free. At Prairie Creek, you can walk along the Revelation Trail and have a walk very similar to what people continue to pay $15 a head for at Trees of Mystery. I would argue that the real mystery is, why are people willing to spend so much money for something they can get for free?

The most obvious answer is marketing — Trees of Mystery has two giant statues out front, and you’ll find their brochures 100 miles in any direction. Prairie Creek State Park is not unknown, but doesn’t really engage in “outreach”. The next answer that comes to mind is safety/security. I think many see National Parks as unruly, unclear, potentially wild places. Whereas, a roadside attraction charging $15 will clearly be a safe, clear, managed experience. I suspect many don’t trust themselves to get the most out of a National Park, and would fear spending a lot of time being lost or confused. For $15, you’re guaranteed a focused experience that you’ll get *something* out of.

“Service Design” / “Customer Experience Design”

In a recent post to Creativity Online, Jen Bove (who is a friend of mine) posits: “Service design, while often talked about in academia, is getting more and more attention from design companies and service providers, as the impact of experience design has been proven to increase customer satisfaction and brand perception.”

And while I agree that the practice of service design is ascending (slowly), I’m dubious that the term “service design” is getting more and more attention, at least in the United States. In my recent trip to London, I visited with Chris Downs, one of the founders of Live|Work, the UK’s premier service design consultancy. In our conversation, we reached a supposition that the term “service design” has succeeded in the UK and Europe because there have been government-sponsored public sector service design projects which have demonstrated its value.

In the US, our public sector is notoriously bad at supporting good design, so there’s been no public discussion of service design. In another conversation I had with Don Norman (who is currently obsessed with service design), he felt that the term would remain an academic one.

For my blog posts at HarvardBusiness.org, I’m talking almost exclusively about service design, but I’ve never used that phrase. Instead, I use “customer experience”, the phrase that’s received traction in the US, and it’s variants “customer experience design” or just “experience design.”

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.

Denver Art Museum’s technology-enabled experiences

At FOO Camp I met Bruce Wyman, the Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum (He occasionally blogs on the Museum’s site.). For the past few years at UX Week, we’ve had museums (first in D.C., now in SF) share with us how they design for experience. Had I met Bruce a few months ago, I would have definitely invited him to be part of the event, because the work he’s doing is very impressive.

Projects of interest include:
Multi-touch table for exploring art

Select-a-chat, which uses a physical object as an interface to a digital experience (it’s explained here)

Bubbloo, where you pop bubbles projected on a floor to reveal art on the wall (explained here)

Flickr Cascade, where they pull Creative Commons licensed photos of the DAM and show them in an app they wrote that takes advantage of Mac OS X’s Core Animation).

If you’re a total nerd about this stuff, go to Bruce’s YouTube page and follow the links to the DAM Tech Walkthroughs, where he explains the technology and ideas behind the various pieces.