What you’ll like for dinner

Or: How persuasive design saved my lunch

While I was on route to Amsterdam for IXDA14, something struck me about the way the dinner options were presented to passengers. Here’s what was happening. The flight attendant delivered the menu in the same way to each row:

“Would you like barbeque chicken, beef strip, or vegetarian?”

I’ve been a vegetarian for twenty years now, and I’m a little sensitive to these moments. At first, my identity hackles were raised. “Hey!” I thought, “Why wouldn’t it be ‘Chicken, beef, and spicy red-beans-and-rice?’ We eat food, not a category of food! Those options should be presented as equals because we’re equals…Blah blah blah…ramble ramble…”

Fortunately, as is my habit, I caught myself mid rant, and tried to consider what was good about it. And sure enough, on reflection it’s the exact right way to present these options. Cooper’s been paying more attention to persuasive design of late, so let me explain, because that’s exactly what’s going on. The flight attendants are using choice architecture to keep vegetarians fed.

You see, one of the problems that vegetarians encounter when eating buffet-style with omnivores is that when there is a veggie option present, if it’s too good, there’s a risk that the omnivores will eat all the veggie stuff before we get to the front of the line, leaving us poor suckers with empty plates and sad-trombone bellies.

If the attendant presented “chicken, beef, and spicy red-beans-and-rice,” that’s exactly what’s at risk. An omnivore hearing that might think, “Hey, I’m a huge fan of spicy red beans and rice! Cajun spice is awesome. Bam! Let’s kick it up a notch!”

But when hearing a menu consisting of two easy-to-visualize options and the category of “vegetarian,” omnivores are more likely to be turned off by that third option. “Vegetarian? Screw that. I’m not a vegetarian. I like my meat heaping and with a side of meat. Meat me up, attendant, with the finest, meatiest meatings you have!” They’re less likely to ask after the actual contents of the vegetarian option, as they’re busy thinking about whether they’d like chicken or beef.

Meanwhile the vegetarians (even if their delicate identities are a bit bruised) are relieved when they hear that their needs have been considered. The unlucky ones in the very back of the plane (who failed to arrange a special meal in advance) might even get to eat.

descriptive option categorical option
omnivores Might choose :) Less likely to choose, still :)
vegetarians Less to eat :( More to eat :)

It’s not foolproof, of course, but I’ll bet if we could do a plane-by-plane comparison of “vegetarian” vs. “red beans and rice”, the categorical option would result in much more of everyone being happy. And that’s one of the powers of well-done choice architecture.

1 Comment

Mike
Another perspective: "spicy red-beans-and-rice" by itself is not a clear indication that it's vegetarian. Maybe it's made with chicken stock or some other animal derived ingredient. By clearly stating that it's vegetarian, there's no ambiguity for the customer.

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