Menu Psychology 101: Menu Design

Having a good menu doesn’t mean just having good food. It also means having the most psychologically optimal and effective menu to have the most impact on consumers and ultimately extract the most money out of their pockets and into yours.  With the help of menu psychology, you can turn your menu from more than just a list of dishes to a map of hidden breadcrumbs leading the customer to the optimal dish with high profit margins. This isn’t trickery or witchcraft to get people shoving cash at you. By utilizing the power of the suggestion to harness the subconscious you can optimize your results to drive sales.

There are people out there who build their entire careers around menu engineering and psychology, so there is a lot of ground to cover. This is a simple crash course–Menu Psychology 101.

MENU PSYCHOLOGY 101- Menu Design

Types of Items

There are 4 types of categories that your menu items can fall under. The category they fall under is determined by popularity and profitability.

Stars- Your stars are the items on your menu with high popularity and high profitability. These are the items you want to highlight as people like them and they generate high revenue.

Workhorse- These are the items that are high in popularity, but low in profitability. These are the items that you hide in the corner of your menu because they don’t generate a lot of dollars, despite their popularity.

Dogs- Your dogs are the items that are low in popularity and low in profitability. These are the items you may want to rethink about being on your menu or reimagining the dish as a whole.

Puzzles- These are items on your menus that are low in popularity but high in profitability and that you want to strategize using some of our tricks to generate more sales.

You want to maximize your stars, minimize your workhorses (not miniature horses. Totally different. But that may bring in customers as well) or try to make them more profitable without killing their popularity, strategically place puzzles to increase sales, and reconsider dogs. By classifying your items you can determine which tools you want to apply to which dishes to obtain the best results.

How to Find the Sweet Spot

It’s all about the sweet spot. The sweet spot is the place on the menu where you want to place high margin items. How do we determine the sweet spot? Well there are a few things to consider:

Serial Position Effect

Now we are about to get into some technical psychology terms. Don’t freak out just yet. They’re pretty simple. The Serial Position Effect essentially determines how we remember things. We remember in two ways: Recency Effect and Primacy Effect.

Let’s do a thought exercise to get this point across. Imagine you are going grocery shopping and you have a list of 10 items. Instead of bringing the piece of paper, you try to remember them off the top of your head. How do you try to remember them? People have different strategies but convention is that people typically recite them over and over again. By doing this you are invoking both the recency and primacy effects. The primacy effect means that you remember the items at the beginning of the list because they have been repeated more often and have hence had time to leave your short term memory and be filed away into your long term memory. The recency effect is the opposite. You instead remember the items at the end of the list because they are the freshest in your mind and are still floating around in your short term memory. How does this apply to menus? You want to place high margin menu items where people first look (primacy) and where they last look (recency) aka the sweet spot.

Eye Scanning

There is some differing research on how customers scan menus, but the convention is that for two panel menus people start in the top right and then work their way around in either a zig-zag pattern or a counter clockwise fashion. Now based on our serial position effect, we can determine where people are looking first and where people are look last. In the first photo, the sweet spot would be 1, 2, and 4. In the second photo the sweet spots would be 1, 2, and 7, with 4 being a worst spot.

Other things to consider are that people are generally attracted to pictures, bold items, colors, and boxes. So think about these things when building your menu. Don’t clutter it, but strategically place these items where you want people to look. Perhaps the top right corner is a good idea.

IPad Menu

Digital Menu Example via Flickr user Mike Miley

Of course, technology has completely changed the game with the advent of digital menus and menu boards. Menus can be constantly iterated upon and dynamically change as the user interacts with it. Think about a menu that changes based on where a consumer’s eye looks. What if your POS and menu linked to automatically determine your workhorses, stars, dogs, and puzzles and updated the layout according? What if when a diner’s eye stayed on a certain part of the menu too long it prompted the user, asking them if they need help or suggestions? What if refreshing beverages bubbled up to the front page on days when it’s over 90 degrees F outside? With today’s technology, all it takes is some digital creativity, imagination,  and a strong foundation in traditional menu design to make a menu that is worth experiencing and will drive sales.

That’s a wrap on the first half of the crash course, Menu Psychology 101- Menu Design. Be sure to check out the next half of the crash course, Menu Psychology 101- Perceived Pricing.


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