Coffee Shop Epiphanies: Influences of Design on Behavior

Coffee shops provide a great opportunity to observe the flow of product from customer order and collection of cash to the delivery of the order and order pickup by the customer.

The coffee shop I sit at has the entrance for its order queue close to the entrance to the store. So, when customers walk into the store they immediately find themselves in queue to place their order. The customers place their order at one of two cash registers that are set side by side along the path of the flow. They then walk further to the end of the line where their order is delivered. In a relative measure, the exit of the queue is much farther from the store entrance than the entrance of the queue.

Recently I made a couple of observations:

1. Some customers order specialty coffee products (e.g. espressos, lattes, etc.), while others order brewed coffee. Specialty coffee products takes time to make while brewed coffee is ready to serve on demand.

Customers who order specialty coffee products move to the end of line and wait there for their order. Almost all of them wait right at exit of the queue. During a surge a cluster of people forms there essentially blocking the exit.

Customers who order brewed coffee have their coffee delivered to them right at the cash registers. Their order is not delivered at the end of line. So these customers, almost exclusively, exit the queue through the entrance of the queue instead of taking their order and following the line and exiting at its end. I suspect two contributing factors: the exit to the store is closer to the entrance of the queue, and the exit of the queue is blocked by the cluster of people waiting to pick up their order.

2. Many customers after picking up their order from the end of line still do not exit from there. They instead move back through the queue and exit through the queue entrance and then on through the store exit. I suspect that is because there is no direct way to exit the store from the exit of the queue. The customer has to navigate through the seating area.

As I made my observations on how people were behaving, I found myself getting irritated. Why couldn’t these customers, who had a brain and the ability to sense their environment, follow the line from the queue entrance to the queue exit and then out of the store? It’s not hard! Stop creating back-flows! How inconsiderate! So selfish! So oblivious! Ugh! I’m sure my disgust was plainly apparent on my face. I recall my many sanctimonious conversations with friends and colleagues on the thoughtless behavior of people.

Then I experienced an epiphany. My mind, without my conscious awareness, flipped its perspective and answered the question, “What is it about the design of the space that led people to use it in the way they were?” It shifted from blaming the human to accepting human behavior as an uncontrollable factor and addressing the inadequacy of the design of the space that enabled humans to behave in an undesirable way. That released my mind from being stuck and frustrated to feeling creative. With that one realization, my mind started working on redesigning the space.

Still, I wanted to continue observing the activity to understand it a little more deeply. But what happened caught me by surprise. Even though I had had the epiphany that the design of the space was the problem, and that people were responding to the design, I still found myself getting irritated with them for what I ascribed to them as their conscious decisions. That triggered my second epiphany, that unless I consciously focused on the first epiphany, my mind will naturally shift to blaming people for their behavior instead of the design of the space that enables it.

Postscript: Our brain evolved in an environment to notice activity that signaled potential danger: movement, sound, smell, etc. So it is biased to see this foreground. So much so that most times it doesn’t even see the background; the relatively unchanging environment. People and their behavior are always in the foreground. The context for their behavior, the design of the space, is in the background. When we are faced with behavior problems, our mind instinctively focuses on the human, rather than his environment. It takes conscious awareness to not do that.

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