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Lunch With McDonald’s McKiosk: I’m Hatin’ It

Here’s a Robot That Will Never Replace a Human

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. – Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (pure fiction)

During a recent trip to Saint George, Utah, my wife and I stopped at McDonald’s for a fast lunch. We’d just driven a grand scenic loop through the picturesque mountains of southwestern Utah, passing through Veyo, Enterprise, and Cedar City. In one morning, we’d seen snow, sun, rain, and then back to sun. We returned to Saint George in time for lunch. McDonald’s appealed to both of us. The McDonald’s at the southern tip of Saint George is one of those new, ultramodern, box-like, white-tan-and-yellow building designs that McDonald’s is now assembling like giant Egg McMuffins across the American landscape.

We entered the restaurant from the side door and my wife went to snag a booth. I already knew what she wanted to order: a regular hamburger, a small order of fries, and a Diet Coke. Essentially, that’s a Happy Meal minus the toy. On the other hand, I planned to order a Quarter Pounder, which McDonald’s has recently reformulated to make it taste really, really good.

I sauntered up to the counter where a large family was just starting to order. There was a Mom, a Dad, and five kids. None of them seemed to have given the slightest thought to what they wanted for lunch prior to stepping up to the counter. In fact, they seemed awestruck by the menu and had lots of questions for the lone person running the register. Perhaps this was their first visit ever to the confusing world of McDonald’s.

I realized that it might be ten minutes before this family finished ordering. As I turned, fidgeted, and surveyed the restaurant, I noticed that this shiny new McDonald’s had installed an ordering kiosk – a giant, touch-sensitive LCD screen that was just inviting me to try it. Hey, I’m an engineer-turned-editor. I love shiny new tech. Here was a way to speed up my ordering experience.

I scrambled over to the ordering kiosk before anyone else had a chance to beat me to it.

Now, I knew about these McKiosks. My wife has used one near downtown San Jose where we live. That kiosk comes complete with a human to explain how to use it, and that bit of information should have been a clue to the experience I was about to have. But, did I listen? Nooooooo, I didn’t.

I touched the screen to activate the ordering session. The McKiosk asked me if I wanted to eat in the restaurant or if I was ordering takeout. I punched the “Eat in” button and got the ordering menu.

First, I looked for my wife’s hamburger. The ordering screen was divided into three sections. Vertically arranged on the left were food categories on an endless, scrollable, vertical conveyor. On the right was a large area devoted to selections within the selected category. At the top were some irrelevant ads that tried to convince me that I really wanted something that was packed with sugar.

I didn’t see anything resembling a hamburger on the left-hand scrolling conveyor so I swiped up on it and scrolled, and scrolled, and scrolled. Now, if you look at a YouTube demo of this kiosk, you’ll see that it originally was so simple that the left hand category selector didn’t need to scroll. There were few enough categories so that you could see all of the categories at once on the left edge of the giant screen. However, the CX (customer experience) engineers at McDonald’s University or McDonald’s Labs or wherever they imprison the lunatics who developed this kiosk ordering screen had decided to double or triple the number of categories, so that they had to develop this scrolling conveyor.

Now, in my opinion, the whole purpose of a restaurant menu is to be able to see all the things you can order. I know that, in this modern age, the menus with the hand-placed, little plastic letters are long gone. The huge, detailed LCD panels that replaced the low-tech menus are now filled with giant, mouthwatering photos of what your food would actually look like if carefully fashioned by experienced food artisans, so there’s no longer room for all of the available selections on the menu. Apparently, you’re responsible for memorizing these menus before you get to the restaurant. The family at the counter had sadly neglected its McObligations on this front.

It took me a while, perhaps two or even three trips through the endless category loop, to find the burgers. I poked the “Burgers” category button and was rewarded with a list of available hamburgers. There were so many that they didn’t all fit on the screen. The list appeared to extend off of the right hand side of the screen, where I could see the outlines of more menu items but not the items. However, that didn’t immediately present a problem because I quickly found the hamburger icon and poked it.

Next, the kiosk asked me if I wanted to customize the hamburger. Huh? Is this Burger King, where the motto once was, “Have it your way”? No! This was McDonalds and I wanted it their way! All I wanted was a stock McDonald’s hamburger. But I couldn’t resist. I wondered, “How could I customize a McDonald’s hamburger?”

Curiosity killed the cat.

I punched the “Customize” button and was greeted with six customization tabs – for a hamburger! The customization items included mustard, ketchup, diced onions, pickle, meat, and salt. There was a numeric selector for each choice. This is a one-dollar McDonald’s hamburger and I now have six choices to make if I want to order one. If I’d made any changes, I would then need to scroll down and press the “Apply Changes” tab.

Are you freakin’ kidding me?

I dispatched that screen sans burger customization. All I wanted was a simple hamburger. It takes three seconds to say to a human cashier, “I’ll have a hamburger, please.” I’d already racked up two minutes ordering one humble hamburger at the McKiosk.

Next, my wife wanted fries. I started scrolling the endless category loop again. I saw a tab go by with pictures of drinks, so I figured I’d better order my wife’s Diet Coke while I had the opportunity. That icon might not pass my way again. I poked the icon with the drink pictures and ordered a medium Diet Coke.

“I’m getting the hang of this,” I thought, with unwarranted self-confidence.

Next I went searching for the “Fries” category on the endless loop. I found it and ordered my wife’s fries in a flash.

“I’m really getting the hang of this,” I thought, with even more unwarranted self-confidence.

Time for the fall. Time to order my Quarter Pounder. I poked the “Burgers” category icon again. The screen filled with burgers, but not the one I wanted. No problem. I could see there were more burgers scrolling off to the right of the screen. I swiped left, but instead of getting more burger choices, the kiosk decided I’d ordered whatever burger my finger first touched when I tried to scroll. I backed out of that random choice, tried to scroll again, and got another random burger choice.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

After a couple of more attempts, I finally managed to spot a Quarter Pounder on the screen, poked the button, and canceled the customization option once more. No, I damn well didn’t want to customize my Quarter Pounder. I was now seven minutes into the ordering process and I just… want… my… damn… hamburgers.

I ordered a drink for myself and then breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m ready to check out,” I thought, again with unwarranted self-confidence.

I poked the “Checkout” button and was told to grab a table tent from the adjacent stack so that my order could be delivered to my table. There were two stacks of table tents. The tent at the top of each stack bore the number “6.”

“How is this going to work?” I wondered. Even on “The Prisoner,” there was only one real Number 6, even when there were two of them. One was an imposter.

I solved this problem by lifting up the number 6 table tent and taking the tent underneath with a different number. I entered that number and was finally able to punch the button that said, “Pay here.”

The kiosk ruminated a bit and then apologized. “I’m sorry,” it said, “My credit-card reader isn’t working. Please take this ticket that I’m printing out to the counter and pay there.”

I trudged back to the counter. By now, the family I’d tried to avoid at the counter was long gone. That was ten minutes ago. They’d been smart and had ordered from the human. I paid, reminded the person behind the counter to give me my drink cups, filled the cups with Diet Coke, dropped them off with my wife at the table, and went back to the counter with my not-number-6 table tent to pick up my order. I was not going to wait to see how well the delivery system worked in this place.

When I returned to our table with the order, my wife was laughing so hard she could barely stay upright in her seat. She’d witnessed her high-tech, computer-designer, self-proclaimed CX expert husband struggle mightily with the shiny, new McKiosk for ten minutes to create an order that any human over the age of ten could have taken in fifteen seconds. Just one final humiliation to pile upon the others I’d collected over the last ten minutes.

Thanks, McDonald’s.

I’m hatin’ it.

PS: As it so happens, there are a lot of posted YouTube videos that resemble this article, which I discovered in my exhaustive, in-depth, hands-on research prior to writing this article. So, McDonalds, perhaps you might think about retraining your CX engineers. At the very least, please force them to use their own kiosk in front of their significant other before you field their work.

PPS: Taco Bell’s ordering kiosk doesn’t work any better than yours, McDonald’s. Perhaps you used the same CX vendor?

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