3 teh peng, 1 siu dai

// design

To my non-Singaporean friends: Teh peng is Hokkien for iced milk tea, and siu dai means “less sweetened condensed milk”.

A few days ago, I tried to buy some drinks for my colleagues at a coffee shop.

“Uncle, two teh peng, one teh peng siu dai.”

“Huh? Two teh peng? Three teh peng?” the stall owner asked.

“Ah… two teh peng… one teh peng siu dai,” I repeated myself slowly while gesturing with my fingers.

“Two cups, or three cups?”

“Three,” I replied.

This dialogue went on for much longer than what I was comfortable with. I began to grow aware of people behind me in the queue, wondering if I was making a fool of myself. I blamed myself for holding up the line, even if just for a little while.

But before I could say another word, the owner’s son chipped in from a corner of the stall:

“Three teh peng, one siu dai, lah. If you say it this way, we can understand better.”

I nodded and smiled sheepishly. As I watched my order being prepared, I couldn’t help but think about the earlier exchange. Should I learn to say my orders differently, or should the stall owner learn to accommodate the customer’s way of placing an order?

Making the customer learn

Restaurants that use food ordering chits are an example of a system that makes customers do the hard work. You would have to try and understand the chit while referring to a separate menu. The paper that you mark orders on is what the staff reads to prepare your food. The structure, layout and design of the chit is optimised for them, not you.

There’s also a reason why you only have to write numbers or cross boxes—it’s difficult to read someone else’s handwriting other than your own. While it’s also easier for you to indicate what you’d like to order, the chit is really just primarily meant to make life easier for the waiter/waitress.

The first time I walked into a Subway restaurant, I took a long time trying to understand how to actually make an order. I was so concerned about doing it right that I ended up with a sandwich which I didn’t really want. The ironic fact that instructions were plastered all over the glass is evidence of sub-optimal design.

The customer-centric approach

Keep your eyes peeled the next time you go to a Chinese restaurant. As you say out food items from the menu, observe how the staff writes them down. Very likely, it would be written in shorthand and look unintelligible to you. That’s because it is meant for reading out loud to the chefs in the back kitchen.

You don’t have to learn how to say your orders in a different way. In fact, why would you care? You can simply point at the menu with your finger and say a number. The person taking your order is the one processing it in his or her head. All of it done in the the background, completely out of your sight.

Digital service design

The best approach to designing digital services is a customer-centric one. Most organisations today know very well that the customer isn’t interested in knowing how backend operations work. However, just because customers don’t care doesn’t mean they’re not important. Services should be easy to use for both end users and backend staff.

Digital services that focus on replacing the role of the intermediary “processor”—the waitress or waiter—often fail to take into consideration of the people on the receiving end of customer input. This is a symptom of an inadequate understanding of customer-centricity and short-sightedness.

Operational and backend staff are users too, and they deserve well-designed interfaces that make their life easier. Increased productivity and efficiency makes for happy employees, and happy employees make for happy customers.