The Anatomy of a Spectacular User Experience

August 1, 2012

We just can’t help judging user experiences

As user experience consultants, we can’t help but judge user experiences as we go through our day. And even though our consulting services focus on websites and applications, a “user experience” isn’t limited to just a human-computer interaction.

Whether it’s the website we use for online banking, the kiosk we use to pay for parking, or the trash and recycling system we use at Whole Foods… we notice when an experience isn’t ideal. It’s just in our DNA.

Usually, it’s the less-than-awesome experiences that catch our attention – because when an experience is good, it is usually invisible to the user. But sometimes, when we’re lucky, we have an experience that is so unexpectedly memorable, we want to share it with others.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have one of those experiences. I had a once-in-a-lifetime customer experience, and it inspired me to spend some time dissecting why it was so spectacular.

The rare find: an ideal experience

First, some context: I have a passion for food. I love cooking food, and I love going to restaurants. In fact, when I am planning out-of-town travel, the first thing I do is research restaurants and make reservations. I’ve even planned trips specifically for the purpose of going to a particular restaurant.

There’s one restaurant that I have been infatuated with for a long time: The French Laundry in Napa Valley. This restaurant has been regarded as one of the top restaurants in the world for many years, and any food geek will tell you it is one of the most coveted reservations to get.

For the past 10 years, I have been trying to get a reservation there. On May 26th of this year, it finally happened. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

What makes the French Laundry so special? Of course the food was wonderful, but that’s not enough – many restaurants have wonderful food. What makes the French Laundry special is their commitment to providing the very best of everything… and never, ever compromising on that promise.

The dissection of an exceptional experience

As a user experience expert (and passionate foodie), I broke down the components of the exceptional experience my wife and I had at the French Laundry:

1. The experience of arriving

Our experience:

  • When we pulled up to the understated restaurant, the first thing I noticed were their vast gardens that supply the restaurant with produce, eggs, honey, and other ingredient items.
  • After a stroll through the garden, we walked toward the restaurant and entered a beautiful courtyard filled with walking paths, flowers, and cozy places to sit.
  • Once inside, we were greeted with genuine smiles and authentic dialog with the host and other staff members. It almost felt like they were as excited to have us, as we were to be there.
  • Inside, the restaurant was warm and inviting, with only a couple small rooms of tables (the restaurant holds 16 tables and serves only 74 customers each evening).

Why this works:

  • The garden shows the visitors how much they care about the ingredients. It is open to the public, with benches and easy-to-read labels that make it clear that they welcome visitors – reservations or not.
  • The courtyard serves as a buffer between the street and the quaint restaurant that was once a single-family home. The transition from public to private space contributed to the feeling of being welcomed into a special place.
  • The authentic interactions with the staff made it clear that it’s much more than a job to those that work there. We all share a love of food, and a love of this restaurant in particular.
  • The small capacity of the restaurant means they are never too busy to provide the highest quality service and food.

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2. The experience of the meal

Our experience:

  • The dining room was intimate, and we were seated in a quiet alcove lit from above by a skylight, which transitioned to candlelight after the sun went down.
  • The restaurant’s logo is a humble clothespin, which was tastefully integrated into the small details such as the napkin and the menu.
  • The food and wine menus were easy to read and understand, and we were never upsold on wine or menu “enhancements.”
  • The staff operated like “dining consultants” who were never pretentious or condescending (and I’ve visited enough high-end restaurants to know that this is not always the case).
  • The serving pieces were designed specifically for the dish being presented. Every course was like eating art.
  • We were encouraged to take a break in the middle of our dinner, to walk around the garden and sip our wine.
  • When the evening came to an end, we were given a goodie bag of sweet treats – and they made sure we had driving directions and transportation to our hotel.

Why this works:

  • The environmental and visual details contributed to the overall experience. No detail was overlooked.
  • We felt as though they had thought of everything we might need, and yet we always felt in control of the experience.
  • We were never rushed; we were encouraged to take time to savor the flavors and the environment.
  • We felt genuinely cared for, respected, and appreciated.

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3. The experience of transparency

Our experience:

  • They didn’t try to hide anything, and in fact encouraged visitors to see the actual ingredients they use, literally growing in the garden across the street. We even saw aproned kitchen staff “harvesting” herbs in small batches later in the evening. That’s how fresh everything was.
  • They were literally transparent about their processes. The immaculate kitchen was visible from the courtyard through a wall of windows; the chefs in their whites were focused and organized.
  • After we finished the meal, we were invited to have a tour of the kitchen and meet the kitchen staff (sadly, Chef Thomas Keller was not there that night!).


Why this works:

  • Their transparency makes the visitors feel welcome in the process, unlike many high-end restaurants that protect the “back of the house” as a secret place where the magic happens.
  • Their invitations to view the kitchen through the windows or a tour makes the diner feel included in the process – not separate from the process.
  • The staff’s passion for food is apparent in every interaction, and every plate.
  • There is no doubt that everyone has a common objective: to create the most enjoyable experience possible.

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So… what does this teach us about user experience?

At Crux Collaborative, we don’t serve award-winning food, but we do create award-winning user experiences instead of food. We are always looking for inspiration, and my evening at the French Laundry was about as “inspirational” as it gets.

My wife and I left the restaurant feeling euphoric. Not just because we spent the last four hours eating, but also because we had an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.  It is not just about the food. It is about the passion each person has to do his or her best, and never compromise. The French Laundry provides the environment that allows their customers to feel exceptional from start to finish.

The French Laundry experience reminds us of what makes any experience spectacular – online or offline:

  1. To create an optimal experience, we must really know the audience, and keep them in mind at all times.
  2. “Transparency” must be more than a buzzword. It must be integrated throughout all aspects of the experience.
  3. The difference between a good experience and a spectacular experience often comes down to the details – and no detail is too small.

By John Golden

John’s career in interactive media design began in 1995 and has spanned over two decades with a focus on developing simple, streamlined approaches for complex problems.

View John's Bio

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