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(When) Will the Circle Be Unbroken? The Importance of Usability Testing

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June 01, 2002
Usability Testing
Bill Fitzpatrick - bill_fitzpatrick@spartancomputer.com

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© 2002 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

The important point that follows was born when opportunity turned into failure and innocence morphed into sour grapes. It was my opportunity and those were my grapes.

Lest you think I am a wild-eyed Luddite1, or worse2, I am pleased to note that in addition to my own practical experiences, I have company. That’s right, should you question my central notion that features sell and restaurant managers suffer, be aware that you are also taking on New York University professor Todd Gitlin. His new book, Media Unlimited—How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives3 speaks to information overload. In the multi-unit restaurant industry this information overload can be viewed in the restaurant manager’s cubbyhole. Watch, as the new restaurant manager, armed with a high-school degree and a background in shop, attempts to douse an alert, override labor scheduling and figure out the P&L in Excel.

The dynamics that cause the mismatch between the abilities of our well-meaning manager and the requirements of the software are easy to understand. Instead of issuing RFPs that go along the lines of, hey, Mr. Vendor, all we need are these basic features, that, based on our research, our restaurant managers will be able to use and understand. Instead, checklists of required features are presented. These lists are often twice as long and three times as hopeful as the lines at Lourdes. Encouraged, software providers, led by people whohave never worked in restaurants, add features that from their privileged perspective will be easy to use. The twin problems of feature creep and information glut appear and act just like southern kudzu. The green vines look pretty until you discover that they grow three feet a day and are not easily destroyed.

This truth was first revealed to me nearly 10 years ago while traveling the sales highway in Perth, Australia. Red Rooster was evaluating perspective point-of-sale vendors. InfoGenesis, my employer at the time, marketed a point-of-sale system for the quick service industry.

The RFP required me to describe in written form, and then demonstrate in a marathon presentation, complete system capabilities. I spent close to a week working on the former and five sweaty hours in front of client contacts addressing the latter. I spent two hours in the local pub after finishing second. I spent years wondering how, in an industry where restaurant managers have the shelf life of a tomato, they could learn how to override the sales forecasting module that feeds the labor scheduling module that feeds the production management module.

The truth is—they can’t.

So what can be done to bridge the gap between the complexities of the software and the realities of the restaurant?

Several restaurant operators, instead of installing complex applications such as labor scheduling at each restaurant, have elected to centrally manage the application. After the central processing, labor schedules (which can be overridden by the restaurant manager) are e-mailed to the unit. This is a practical yet paradoxical approach. The multi-unit restaurant industry has spent millions of dollars in the deployment of back office computers. Millions more have been spent refreshing the technology. And then the application is centrally managed.

A second option is to keep it simple. Roger Morris understands that approach. In addition to being vice president of IT for K-Mac Enterprises, one of the most successful Taco Bell franchise operators, Roger also oversees the marketing of their internally developed POS software. Several years ago, Roger, after considering a question from another Taco Bell operator, turned a feature deficiency into a feature benefit. “We took the feature out of the product because the restaurant managers weren’t using it,” he said. There were other franchisees in the room, and the best the group could comment was, that makes sense. I was also stunned. I had never heard of feature removal. I thought features were as permanent as sales hype.

Implementing usability tests would benefit all. Software companies would waste less time in getting a realistic, ready-to-market product available for sale. Restaurant operators would benefit by the increased use of the application software. Restaurant managers might become more involved if the product could actually be used.

And if I ever need to get back into software sales, I might be able to complete the sales demo.

1 Angry mobs of Englishmen who, skeptical of technology, axed, or otherwise disposed of, the big machines of the early 1800s.
2 Modern day Irish descendents of the early Luddite movement.
3 Gitlin, Todd. Media Unlimited—How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002.

Bill Fitzpatrick is the senior vice president of sales and marketing for Spartan Computer Services. Bill can be reached at bill_fitzpatrick@spartancomputer.com.

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