Gordon Ramsay and the UX lesson

I'm going to attempt the impossible here, and apply a little Gordon Ramsay without the need for any asterisks or bleeps.

For a while now I've been a closet fan of the Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (or RKN as I'll call it) show, in all flavors. As a businessman and a food lover, I love to see how these businesses are turned around, or not as the case may be. If you've never seen the show then the format is simple; Gordon Ramsay, a famous chef and entrepreneur, is called in to a failing restaurant of one kind or another. He eats there, he checks out their kitchen, he meets the staff, and then tries to turn a failing restaurant into a winning one - all whilst employing sufficient swear words to make a sailor blush. 

And it's always struck me that what he applies is a UX process. So here are the five reasons why that is.

Step 1: sample and evaluate

The first step Ramsay takes is to sit in the restaurant and sample a range of their food. This invariably involves him discovering that it is terrible; he chews, he swears, he spits it back out and seems horrified. Often this also involves checking out the sparsely populated tables and the poor service or decor.

In other words, he undertakes an expert review.

A good UX process, when identifying why a business is failing, starts with the same. Whilst a basic expert review involves simply throwing a checklist against a website to see which errors stick, a full UX review looks at the business delivery as a whole. What is the business trying to achieve, who is it trying to engage with, how well is that working, what's going wrong. Sure the website is checked too, but the expert review focuses on the overall health and performance of the business (or at least it does if you work with us).

Step 2: check out the production

Once he's shown sufficient disgust at the table, Gordon then heads into the kitchen. He meets the staff, he meets the head chef, and then he observes them at work - usually with an exasperated and bewildered look on his face. He watches as chaos ensues, he swears regularly as he watches how the terrible customer experience he's just sampled is crafted and built. Then he pulls the business owners aside, and tells them just how screwed they are.

In other words, he undertakes a business process review.

A good UX process will certainly start with the delivery / channel review, but will then move on to review the business. To put it bluntly, if crap is coming out of the business, then a little polishing is not going to help. Lipstick and pig should not meet - you need to fix the problem from the inside out. It's only by studying how a business is running on the inside that you can fully understand what's going wrong on the outside.

Step 3: Talk to the customers

Next, Gordon takes to the streets. He usually heads down the high street and stops people to ask what they think of the restaurant. Sometimes the problem is simply that they don't know it is there or aren't aware of what it sells, but more frequently the problem is a very simple one; they don't want what the restaurant is selling. Perhaps this restaurant is trying to sell pretentious a la carte meals in a place where local dishes are the order of the day, or perhaps it's the right food but just poor quality. Either way there is a mismatch and it's killing the business.

Sometimes he'll talk to customers in the restaurant or observes as they eat, talking to them afterwards about how their experience went (with absolutely nobody being surprised when the news is far from good).

In other words, he user tests/user researches the business.

A good UX process will perform exactly the same steps. It might be field research (interviews, observations, measurements) or it might be lab research (groups, tests, task analysis) but either way our job is to measure the shortfall between what people want, and what the business is delivering.

Gordon finds the shortfall can be in goal (the experience they are after), in content (the cuisine they seek) or in quality. And we find exactly the same. 

Step 4: Go back to basics

Now, the fixing begins.

With a good idea on what's going wrong, Gordon normally starts by attempting to fix the issues he's seen with the food and the overall experience. He identifies foods that are right for the market, he identifies an overall experience they will warm to, and he attempts to install that in the restaurant.

Often that means simplifying the menu; in an attempt to reverse the falling sales many restaurants attempt to add more and more foods, responding to every wish and shiny new thing that may draw attention. The menu grows, but so does the complexity in delivering it. The ability to match expectations falls, the clarity in purpose disappears, and the customer becomes overwhelmed with the experience and underwhelmed with the implementation.

The restaurant itself also gets a make-over, and usually for good reasons. An old-fashioned and out of date restaurant speaks to products and service that are equally as unloved; if you don't care where you serve your customers, you probably don't care what you serve.

In other words, he fixes the delivery funnel.

Again, a good UX process will move from identifying the problem (steps 1 to 3) and will then make recommendations on how to fix them. Whilst some of these can be solved on the surface, many will travel far deeper. Just as these restaurants can't be fixed by simply printing a new menu and applying some paint, the average business can't be turned around with a new template site and a few new images. If a business is failing then it's likely that the solutions involve refocusing the products and services, simplifying the product range and ensuring that the delivery funnel (people, processes and content) all work as efficiently as they need to.

This will often involve the important issue of scaling. Ramsay often spots that a kitchen can serve two people well - but at twenty it falls apart. The business simply can't handle scale that it needs to survive.

The same is true for service businesses. And just as those restaurants need an update and some love applied, so do the websites and the products of many businesses.

Step 5: Rouse the town folk

Ramsay likes to prove this format will work, so he normally calls in some friends - some foodies, some experts, a few influential locals. He'll get the kitchen to serve them, then capture their responses to the new restaurant and menu, using this to convince the owners (if they still need convincing) that this is the right way to go.

Then having come up with a new menu, straightened out (or fired) the staff, simplified and focused the kitchen and refreshed the restaurant decor, Gordon's next step is to head back to town and to drive customers back to give it a second shot. It's an interesting point in the show, as it is literally a make-or-break moment for many businesses. Rather than slowly testing out their new format it throws the kitchens right into the deep end, and some amount of chaos and thrashing normally occurs. By the end of the night though you often see a newly focused and highly driven business emerging from the ashes of the previous slow train wreck.

And yet again, that should be part of any good UX process. 

Once a business has been straightened out a sample of the audience is tested (user testing, I'm calling thy name) and once that shows the successes are waiting to roll in, the audience is re-engaged. Whilst we can't all walk down the high street with a few flyers and turn our businesses around, the digital world abounds with means to do so. A good UX process drives traffic through the improved channels, and sits back to watch the results roll in.

And here endeth the lesson - but not the UX

As he exits stage left, Gordon Ramsay normally tells the now successful restaurant owners to keep the passion, and to keep the focus they've now discovered. In other words, don't end up back where you started.

UX is of course the same. You can fix what's wrong with a business today, but given the shifting nature of customers/audiences/technology/content/prices/expectations and a dozen other factors, staying the same means planning for failure. You need to keep measuring that you are on target, keep listening to your audience and keep improving what you do.

Kitchen Nightmares is an interesting study in why UX is important. It's also put me off carveries for life, but that's a different story.