Observing Xi’an

           New York City is filled with thousands of restaurants, a good many of which are of the quick in-and-out variety. You come in, order with someone at a counter and take a seat as opposed to the inverse. One of these places is Xi’an Famous Foods on St. Marks and 1st Ave and it was here that I decided to do my observation.

           Xi’an Famous Foods is a veritable hole in the wall with the dining area being about 20’ – 25’ long by 13’ – 15’ wide. At the top of the dining area is a small terminal where the Point of Sale or POS is. The POS in this establishment is about 10”x10” and is approximately 3.5’ off the ground. In the time that I was in the establishment, two people switched off between manning the POS and giving out the “to-go” orders. When a customer would approach the counter, the server manning the POS would choose the dish the customer had asked for, ask them how spicy they wanted the dish, ask them their name and if it was for here or to go. I assume that the interface showed images of the dishes offered by the restaurant and because there were 30 in total, I imagine there were about 15 to a page. Once an image was chosen, I figure another screen popped up with options to customize the order, followed by a name screen equipped with a “Here” and “To-Go” button. There was a screen below the terminal facing the customer that displayed their order on the right hand side and sales and deals on the left.

          In terms of how the servers used the POS I noticed a few things. Both of them were able to use the tech fluidly and without difficulty and were able to switch seamlessly between prepping a to-go order and operating the terminal. The height of the POS, though convenient for both servers in this instance, was not customizable so those who were not an average height would suffer. Even with the “normal height” of the POS however, the server was never really able to make eye contact with the customer while operating the POS and was therefore locked in a constant up and down battle. The server mostly chose down in the instances I observed. There was a preference for staring at the screen as opposed to engaging with the customer, which begs the question: is this on the tech or the human? Is it the tech’s responsibility to make the server engage in interaction with the customer?

         There’s no solid way to measure how intuitive the tech was but considering how seamlessly and fluidly both servers used it, I can assume that it was easy to use. The time between an order being given and a button being pushed was virtually instantaneous; the tech didn’t seem to get in the way. In fact the tech seemed so intuitive that the server didn’t need to devote his entire attention to it. As he took his orders he would also be engaging in conversation with his employees behind him in either Mandarin or Cantonese.

          I observed about six or seven customers come to the counter, the first four of which were English speakers and the fifth of which was Chinese. Despite her ordering in Chinese however, there was no delay from the server. He quickly punched her order into the POS and gave it to her when she it was ready. The only time in which the server would take a bit longer with the POS was when he needed to spell the names out. If the ordering and customization of the food took about five to ten seconds, the entering in of the name took about ten to fifteen depending on length and difficulty. The entire interaction however would take less than a minute.

          Xi’an Famous Foods is definitely a hot spot. It’s been frequently written up in food magazines, covered by major food networks and is housed on one of the busier streets in New York City. As a result they’re faced with an interesting dilemma: how can we have the long line that forms in this incredibly small space not be a deterrent to those who want to eat here? After all, they need to pay what I am sure is an exorbitant rent and they want to get to as many customers as possible. This is all to say that the system that takes the orders needs to be as seamless and fluid as possible, which I believe this system was. It seemed to have all the features that Norman and Crawford posit make up a good design: there were clear signifiers, natural mapping and seemed both usable and understandable.


P.S. I overheard a lot of people talking about this assignment anxiously. They seemed to want to find the biggest and best – whatever that means – interactive technology the public had to offer. This had me feeling a bit self-conscious about my choice because it was more run of the mill but then I realized, if we can’t optimize the run of the mill, should we be in such a rush to move on? Is a simple POS system more or less important than an interactive kiosk? I can’t quite say. All I know is I recently watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi about a man named Jiro who dedicates his life to creating sushi. With each piece he makes, he tries to get closer and closer to perfection. At first I thought this was sort of…silly? How hard could it be to make something that looked so simple. Intro to Fab first introduced me to the fact that simplicity can be the hardest thing of all and while the POS seems close enough to perfection for thousands to rely on it there are still improvements to be made.


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