The science of menu design

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Attempts to influence are all around us. Take your local café or restaurant, for example. They need to get customers to order high margin food and drinks so their business thrives, yet so many do it badly.

I was recently invited to talk about the science of menu design at a food industry symposium, so I’d thought I’d share with you some of my key techniques to influence customer choices.

While the focus is on hospitality, the principles I describe below can apply more generally to any business trying to get customers to buy. And besides, it will give you a spot-the-behavioural-techniques game to play next time you are at a restaurant.

1. Sensory associations

The moment a customer touches a menu, expectations are formed through sensory associations. Attributes such as the weight of the paper, its quality, and whether the menu is in a folder or laminated will prime customer perceptions of quality and cost. For example, a 2012 study by Piqueras-Fiszman and Spence found the weight of a wine bottle changed expectations of price, with a heavier bottle signalling a better quality, more expensive wine.

2. Choices

The number of choices provided to a customer needs to be carefully considered for two main reasons.

First, the more choices, the more ingredients and processes a restaurant has to support, and that can get expensive and wasteful.

Second, more choices can overwhelm the customer and scare them off.

This photo, for example, is from a Chinese restaurant where the menu is almost as big as me.

When it comes to choices, the keys to influence are as follows.

Constrain options

Fewer options are usually better. It speeds up customer decision-making time and means the restaurant can keep a tighter control over stock. The upside for the customer is they spend less time agonising over the decision, and more time enjoying the dining experience. As a general rule, a restaurant should limit their menu to seven items in each category.

Primacy and recency

Customers tend to remember the first and last items in a list, so it is best to include the highest margin items with that in mind.

Cue choices

Indicating which dishes are the most popular or recommended by the chef are good strategies to nudge customers toward particular options. When in doubt, customers will do what others do.

3. Descriptions

How a restaurant describes a dish can change what and how much customers will buy and consume. For example, Irmak, Vallen and Rosen Robinson found dieters ate an average of only 4.88 lollies when they were called candy chews’, but 8.38 when those same lollies were called ‘fruit chews’. Turnwald, Boles and Crum discovered students in a university café purchased 25% more veggies when they were described in indulgent terms. For example, ‘zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes’ were much more popular than simply ‘sweet potatoes’.

4. Pricing

I could write all day about pricing techniques in menu design but the key factors that influence customers are as follows.


Having a higher priced item listed early on in the menu will anchor customer pricing expectations. Having $99 crayfish makes $36 steak seem reasonable, for example.

Dollar signs

Yang, Kimes and Sessaregio found when a café included dollar signs in its menu, customers purchased less. Why? Dollar signs remind them they are spending money.


Coulter, Choi and Monroe discovered customers mentally reciting a number with decimals perceived that number to be larger. In other words, decimals elongate the number, taking longer to process and encouraging the brain to think ‘gee, it must be a big number’.

NOW READ: How Shopify’s chief and founder Tobi Lütke uses priming to change employee behaviour

NOW READ: Will Smith and the art of influencing people subconsciously


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