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Research finds blind spots, opportunities for online restaurant menu design

Since COVID-19, the restaurant industry has relied heavily on online sales for takeout and curbside pickup. Consumers have followed suit, turning to restaurant-prepared meals not just for dining out but for dining in at home, as well. In fact, RMS found that 67% of frequent diners consider takeout crucial to the future of dining. And the one constant regardless of where the meal is consumed? The online menu.

As consumers decide to stick to pandemic-developed dining behavior, Revenue Management Solutions realized there was a real need to learn more about how consumers navigate online ordering platforms, said Dr. Christina Norton, director, behavioral research for RMS. Beginning in May 2021, that’s just what RMS did. In partnership with the University of South Florida, RMS kicked off the first-ever, remote eye-tracking study of online ordering behavior.

Using new technology developed by iMotions, researchers used participants’ own webcams to gather eye-tracking data as they ordered from TGI Fridays’ online test menu via their desktops or laptops. What the researchers found in their analysis revealed big opportunities for restaurants to refine their online platforms and strategies. Read about the new findings about how people explore online menus and the discovery of four distinct ordering or “buyer” journeys.

Study reveals consumers view online menus differently than web pages

Over the years, researchers have studied how people view a website (typically either left to right or in a ‘Z pattern’ — that is, starting at the top left, moving to right, then across the page and down the bottom.) But do consumers view digital restaurant menus similarly?

RMS wanted to test whether the research on website navigation held true for online menus, explains Norton. “We suspected it didn’t, since the research for web designers and user interface was based on navigation of block text — and a menu is not written as a block of text,” she said.

Norton’s assumptions proved correct. According to the eye-tracking data and the research team’s gazepath analysis, preliminary findings indicate a persistent blind spot on the left side of the menu.

RMS study participants navigate online menu in modified F-T pattern.

Though each respondent had a unique path, respondents started with a site’s main menu categories (appetizers, sandwiches, etc.), reading across from left to right or horizontally. Respondents’ focus then shifted down toward the center of the screen, like a “T,” and navigated predominantly to the right of the center, meaning the entire left side of the menu was completely overlooked.

When presented with a vertical navigation (as opposed to using an arrow to navigate horizontally), respondents started viewing the menu by reading it in an ‘F pattern.’ After spending time familiarizing themselves with the menu, the eyes then shifted to the center-aligned portion of the T where the user made decisions about what to order. The net? Results showed that approximately 50% of the time, respondents missed items displayed on the left of the screen altogether, creating blind spots.

Gazepath findings offer opportunity to rethink menu configuration

According to Ryan Garner, data architect for Revenue Management Solutions, the results offer restaurant brands an opportunity to re-engineer their menus for profit.

“Restaurants may be leaving money on the proverbial table due to their online ordering design,” he said. By recognizing diners’ limited attention span (in the study, respondents spent only 10 seconds looking at four items), Garner says digital menu designers ought to embrace the collective conditioning of scrolling right and consider reconfiguring the online layout, including navigation. “Taking these gazepath findings and translating them across menus could be a game changer for operators,” he adds.

Take it from TGI Fridays. “In the past 18 months, we’ve undergone a seismic shift in the way our customers interact with our menu,” said Sara Bittorf, Chief Experience Officer at TGI Fridays. “The research has already given us tools to improve the guest experience and increase menu profitability. We’re looking forward to exploring further menu engineering insights as the research proceeds.”

RMS is finalizing the next phase of the ongoing research, which will be open to interested brands. Subsequent phases will investigate how consumers navigate brand menus with designs across various mediums, including online, mobile and physical menus. The analysis will also include age and gender demographics, cost/spend recall versus actual cost and other ordering behaviors.

RMS is committed to your success and is here to help. If your brand is interested in participating in the next research phase or would like help running menu diagnostics, reach out to RMS.

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