Hungry? Technology might tell you what to eat.

by Anicia Peters Brian was on vacation with his family driving through Minnesota. As they approached Woodbury, Minnesota, they decided to stop by the nearest fast food restaurant, a Wendy’s, to pick up a light “snack.” Brian was a technologist so when he walked up to the counter he immediately noticed that the menus consisted of digital screens. While he was impressed (“that’s cool!”), he was also hungry, so after polling the family he ordered and proceeded to enjoy his lunch with his family. About half way through the sumptuous bowl of saucy chicken, Brian thought to himself, “Why did I buy this big bowl of chicken when all I wanted was a snack?” It so happened that as he contemplated this, his attention was caught by one of the screens on the menu displaying the very food he was eating. The light bulb went off! “I was upsold!” The menu worked, he ordered something he wasn’t intending to order, but the question he contemplated was, why was the menu so effective? One of the reasons that this menu was effective in influencing Brian is that the menu boards featured video clips and animation of menu offerings. Industry insiders refer to these types of menu boards as dynamic digital menu boards and they first debuted in 2008. These boards are a specialized form of digital signage capable of displaying full-motion video in menu offerings, driven by real-time sales data that can be updated in real time. Digital signage usually consist of flat panel displays positioned in public spaces that are controlled via a centralized network and they integrate multimedia such as live high-speed Internet feeds, audio, text, animation and video. Digital menu boards are expected to become quite common in indoors and at drive-throughs over the next few years due to low costs, flexibility, ease of maintenance, and the requirement that nutritional information be posted on menus. Digital signage has become ubiquitous in public spaces over recent years. There are several examples of other types of innovative digital signage such as the glasses-free 3D auto-stereoscopic screens, gesture and touch based displays, mobile interactive screens, displays integrated with live social media feeds, augmented reality displays, public displays using facial recognition to post message to the viewer’s Facebook page. Displays can even be equipped with anonymous audience measurement, which allows the system to determine the gender, race, gaze duration and proximity of the observer, all in real time, with the purpose of adjusting content to cater to the type of person watching.

Digital Menu Boards at a university cafeteria, Glasses-free 3D auto stereoscopic displays, and  Augmented Reality Displays

Digital Menu Boards at a university cafeteria, Glasses-free 3D auto stereoscopic displays, and Augmented Reality Displays

For the vendor, the challenge is that this information is presented in an increasingly competitive environment, where competition for our attention requires more and more vibrant, active, and distracting displays. For the observer, it means exposure to unlimited information organized in different formats, media, and channels and with little or no control over the information. This exposure not only greatly increases decision complexity, but the observer also has limited working memory capacity, time and money. Thus, the observer will likely become overwhelmed and experience information overload, where s/he will likely be unable to recognize, understand, or handle the amount of information. This results in among others sub-optimal decisions, delay or avoidance of making a decision, or failure to attend in any way to the display contents. The process of ignoring the display is referred to as display blindness, and it functions as a coping mechanism that human beings use to filter information that seems irrelevant or unimportant. For example, this is an important difference between you and your watchdog, which is always ready to observe intruders or wayward squirrels in the yard. One of the techniques most effective in counteracting display blindness is the presentation of video. Video is vivid and visually salient, and has been shown to capture and, often, retain involuntary attention. Attention actively influences decision-making. Viewers find it difficult to move their attention and gaze away from a video. Of course, there are several other factors influencing the video’s saliency, including line-of-sight positioning, location of the video on the display, priming, sequencing, duration and repetition, relevance of the stimuli, the mood and decision-making stage of the decision-maker. The video’s visual saliency can also act to declutter a display. An important question is, when is video most important in influencing a consumer? Obviously, being exposed to the video stimuli at the Point-of-Sale such as while waiting in line at a fast food restaurant would be expected to influence decisions about what to eat, but how does this occur and when is it most effective? Depending on the purchase type, consumers might undergo several decision-making stages. The Engel-Blackwell-Miniard (EBM) decision-making model (see figure below) lists four sections: information input, information processing, decision process, and environmental and individual variables influencing the decision-making process. The decision process consists in turn of 7 distinct steps. The model recognizes that not all decisions go through a sequenced process such as repeat purchases that might skip most steps. Research shows that videos influence the search, alternatives evaluation, and purchase steps the most. The search step is characterized by searching both internal memory and external sources of information, like in the visual environment or sensory information (olfactory, visual, or auditory). During the alternatives evaluation step, consumers evaluate all options to make the eventual choice. Given that fast food decisions are not durable decisions, it is even more susceptible to recommendations featured in imagery presented in a video. Think about your own use of a menu at a restaurant … undoubtedly, each of us has at one time or another pointed to a picture in a menu and said, I’ll take that one.

EBM Decision-making model of Engel, Blackwell and Miniard (1995) as adapted from source

EBM Decision-making model of Engel, Blackwell and Miniard (1995) as adapted from source

Fast food establishments such as Dairy Queen claim that video ads cause fast turnover rates and as high as 80% of video featured items exceed sales expectations. This claim was investigated over a series of seven experimental laboratory studies, an eye-tracking study with a retrospective think-aloud protocol and three field studies. All research results confirmed that patrons tend to choose the menu offerings featured in the video ad. Also tested was the hypothesis that the video ads can influence healthier eating decisions, but this is a topic for another day. School and hospital dining centers have already started to roll out digital menu boards in their quest to get patrons to make healthier food choices. So, Brian was right in thinking that the digital menu board has upsold him. Anicia Peters is a 2009 fellow of the Fulbright Science & Technology Award program from Namibia. After completing her PhD in HCI at Iowa State University, she is currently a PostDoc Scholar (HCI) at Oregon State University, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Corvallis, Oregon. She is a full-time faculty at the Polytechnic of Namibia.

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