Prototyping and Lonestar Taco

Back in April I attended the TYPOSF conference (which I highly recommend) and one theme that ran through a lot of the talks was the move towards a rapid, incremental prototyping process with a collaborative team. Developing and running Lonestar Taco has been a very similar process. I'm mostly used to designing in the medium of the web, so it's been an interesting change of pace to work on systems in a more physical realm.

The same principles apply regardless - gathering and defining requirements, designing solutions, implementing, gathering feedback, iterating. This time though it's entirely our vision, and it feels a little funny to be in the client chair at the same time as the designer role. It's definitely harder to get perspective, so it's even more important to listen to our customers. 

Menu board over timeLonestar Taco menu over six Sundays at New Amsterdam in 2012

New Amsterdam Market gave us a chance to roll out our prototype, from the menu, the organization of the ordering line, food prep and cooking logistics, pricing, sourcing, even our social media. Every week we assessed how things went and took note of what we could improve. Sometimes it was something as simple as positioning the cooler parallel to the grill rather than perpendicular. Other times, it was realizing that propane tanks don't do so well in really cold weather and figuring out how we could adapt. We ended up creating a line of retail products that didn't require on-site cooking and selling tamales that could be kept hot on an electric induction burner. 

"Ghost of Christmas Past" Chili MarmaladeAnother experiment with retail products. This one sold out in two hours.

As in all prototyping, we gathered as much customer and team feedback as possible. We had many variables to take into account - how much was rain responsible for variation in sales? How could we increase our capacity while decrease wait time but not sacrifice quality? And how could we ensure that we were meeting our bottom line? What items were the most popular and did we price them right? There's very thin line between customers feeling like they received value for their money and being perceived as too expensive. We also made sure to talk through feedback from our team, and they always had insightful suggestions that allowed us to make incremental improvements every day. 

Although we've always been clear about our overall vision for Lonestar, it hasn't always been easy to figure out the immediate form that it should take. After last season, we collected a ton of information that is helping us with the next iteration. We're altering the design of the menu and offerings to make it easier for customers to make decisions and to streamline our service. We're focused on securing a permanent kitchen for ourselves - although the initial outlay will be larger than last season, the gains in our ability to produce food, hire staff and making our products more readily available to our customers will enable us to be a sustainable and profitable business. 

Another point from the TYPO conference that resonated with me was the fact that nothing is ever "done", you always have opportunities to improve. And that has been so true with Lonestar Taco. Of course we all have days where we felt like we fell short but it was most important to get our idea out there to give people a chance to kick the tires. I'm excited that we're returning to New Amsterdam Market this Sunday to put some of our improvements to the test and to see all of our regulars.

Why I'm a Designer

Whenever I tell people who know me as a designer that I'm working on a restaurant, I get some puzzled looks. "Don't you make web sites or you're in tech or something?", their expressions seem to say. Yes, and the web is simply a medium. What I'm fundamentally interested in as a designer is the experience that people have when interacting with one another and how the intermediary systems can help or hinder those interactions. 

Restaurants and the web are more similar than you'd initially think. Paul Ford pointed out that the web is a customer service medium - so is a restaurant. Everyone has their opinion and certainly doesn't hold back. (see Yelp and every food blog ever.) It's not called the hospitality industry for nothing! Ultimately you are accountable to your users/customers, because they will certainly vote with their feet if they don't like what you're doing. 

 The same questions arise in both mediums. What happens when someone uses an interface I've designed? How does the person on the receiving end interpret it? Was the message communicated successfully? The design process provides a set of tools to gauge success and come up with solutions to make improvements. 

For instance, we want to offer counter service in the morning and afternoon and then switch to table service in the evening. This decision came about after observing that our potential customers modify their eating habits depending on the time of day. In the morning and for lunch it's mostly people on the run, in between activities or on their way to work. In the evening, people are unwinding and socializing, they certainly don't want to stand in line. However, switching service modes is unusual for most restaurants and there isn't a shorthand way to convey that. 

How can we design the space and signage to be flexible enough to switch between the two modes of service and to make it clear upon a glance what to do when you enter the space at any given time? I constantly have to examine the interface and imagine the experience from the other side. Honing my sense of empathy is an essential part of being a designer and part of why I was attracted to the discipline in the first place. 

 When I think about a restaurant as a number of interlocking systems, I get ridiculously excited. A menu seems simple but it's not at all! It's not just the visual design of the menu, it's how the items on the menu are broken down into their components, how the prep kitchen organizes the production of those components, where the components are sourced from, if those items are even seasonally available, how to price the menu item, how the item is described on the menu, if customers understand what the item is, and the placement of the item on the menu. All of these things can be implicitly or explicitly communicated to customers and will color the overall experience. And tweaking any of these variables could drastically affect how well any given item sells, and making decisions based on collecting data and feedback can make or break the business. 

 Without a doubt I love that the design process fosters a spirit of collaboration. A tight-knit team that has good lines of communication is required for all of these projects regardless if it's a web site or a restaurant. The best projects happen when everyone feels empowered to make a significant contribution, and the systems you've designed are nothing without a team behind it. Design brings observation, empathy, and collaboration into a single process where we can put something worthwhile into the world. In the end, the form isn't as important as the relationships that these systems help build.

Friends of Bob Newman

Recently I had the honor and pleasure of working with Bob Newman on a redesign of his web site and had helped him launch it in the beginning of March. I recently found out that Bob had suffered severe head trauma and has been in the hospital for more than a month and is still in the process of recovering. I was upset when I heard about what had happened, but the outpouring of support from the design community has been heartening. His hospital bills have been mounting, so a number of his friends and colleagues have put together a donation campaign to help support him. Magculture is also doing a project called "My Favorite Magazine" in which all the profit goes straight to Bob. Please spare a moment to spread the word or help out in any way you can.

Tacos are Better Than Burritos

I'm in the land of burritos and I would like to say unequivocally, once and for all, tacos are better than burritos. It's not that I don't like burritos! I enjoy them very much. I will always prefer tacos and here's why:

  1.  Let's face it: burritos are too big. It's the supersized food item equivalent of the Big Gulp, and just because it exists doesn't mean you should eat it all the time. I ordered a "baby" burrito yesterday and I still couldn't finish it. It's a waste of food, and a leftover burrito is never good the next day. 
  2. The proportions are off. Even in a good burrito, there's too much beans and rice. Don't you hate that half the bites you take are just filler? Or you get a big mouthful of just tortilla? It strikes me as being too kitchen sink-y, and I lose my attention before I'm even finished. 
  3. Those godawful flour tortillas. Seriously, I've never had a good flour tortilla in a burrito. They always end up having this sort of mealy texture that is unappealing. 
  4. You can only have one "flavor" - like you'd only be able to have an al pastor burrito. With tacos you can mix and match, and eat however many you are hungry for. 
  5. Burritos are NOT portable, contrary to popular belief. I smuggled a burrito from Chipotle into a movie theater once and it was a huge fail - it was a total mess and half of it ended up in my lap. That is not a portable food item and I dislike that it is treated like such. 

The best burritos are greater than the sum of their parts. So you could throw a bunch of fairly low quality components in, but it's when you take a bite and all the flavors meld together and that transcendent moment happens. I think this is why people are so passionate about their burritos. But this makes it easy to hide poor quality, flavorless meat. Rice and beans are treated as filler. Conversely, if you have great quality filling, you're covering it up with all the other stuff you've jammed into the burrito. 

Tacos are focused - they show off exactly what you're eating. If the quality of the meat is not so great, it shows. The proportion of filling to wrapper is balanced. Tacos force you to slow down for a minute, even if you're eating it on the street. It's more mindful eating - I love the smallness, intensity and variety that tacos bring to a meal. 

So please don't ask me to make you a burrito when you visit Lonestar Taco. :)

South Street Seaport

South Street Seaport has mostly been in the background of my life. I vaguely remember seeing the tall ship as a child, maybe on a field trip or when my grandparents would take me to the Staten Island Ferry. It's a 15 minute walk from my grandparents' apartment in Chinatown but always has been a world away to me.


As an adult and resident of New York I've actively avoided it - I had the perception that only tourists go there and it had basically turned into a bland mall filled with the 500th location of multinational corporations. I'd take any out of town visitors to the Highline or Prospect Park or the Lower East Side or the Guggenheim, never the Seaport. Those are places that I wanted to share with others, they're part of what, to me, makes New York unique.

I've spent a lot more time down at the Seaport this past year and I've gradually developed a fondness for it. Sort of like how you dismiss a certain genre of music as being "not for me", and then you listen to it a bit more and you sense there is something that resonates underneath. There's the allure of being right by the water, and I never tire of watching the light change throughout the day on the river. It makes me realize how much the city turns inward toward the land, but right on the Seaport the water is so tantalizingly close.

Coming to this space as a participant rather than a bystander had a lot to do with the shift in my perception. Every Sunday we carved out a bit of space in a parking lot to set up Lonestar Taco  and I interacted with hundreds of people from all over. Neighborhood residents, east siders, jerseyites, out of towners. People still feel a draw to this place, whether for New Amsterdam Market, the history, being on the water, catching a ferry, taking a bike ride. I began to sense how vibrant the seaport had been in the past and the potential of what it could be.

How does one create a sense of place and identity? How does one place gain momentum and turn into something lively and vital while another withers away? Through being involved with New Amsterdam Market, I can see how one person, then a small group of people, can slowly gain consensus and bring a community together to the point where there is the possibility to sway forces larger than ourselves.

Right now everything feels so precarious, just a tiny breeze and the future of the Seaport and its residents could be swept in a totally different direction than what everyone was expecting. I feel like I'm part of this community now, and the future of this community is going to have a citywide impact for decades to come. In my travels, almost the first thing I do is ask where the market is. I've come to realize that it is an expression of a people and a culture. If New York is a world class city, where is our permanent market? Who are we and who do we want to be?

Not Hating WordPress

I'll start with WordPress first because most people would say it's the obvious choice. I think people get the impression that I hate it, but that's not necessarily the case! It's just never hit that sweet spot for me when it comes to my personal sites, but I've definitely chosen it for client sites in the past with no qualms.

The author has an empowered role in WordPress; for instance, the fullscreen edit view encourages focused writing and you have control over your permalinks on an individual post level. You can add custom fields and Pages and widgets and all sorts of things so authors can easily maintain content areas outside of "posts". The Quick Edit and Bulk Edit views are intuitive and streamline content management. I appreciate the levels of granularity in user roles and privacy. The markup that the WYSIWYG editor generates is surprisingly cruft free if you stick to the basics.

Asset handling is good, in the sense that you can drag and drop multiple items into the browser window, but I find the organization of assets to be a bit lacking. You can't group assets into sets and the default "slideshow" is just a bunch of square thumbnails. There are plenty of plugins though to remedy that.

I'll start with the upside on the designer/developer front: there's a huge community  so if you have a problem, chances are someone's encountered it in the past and the answer probably already exists on the Internet. Or you can ask and someone's bound to know. Plus (this is especially good for clients) you can always find someone to take over development or maintenance because the community is so large. And you know that development of the product itself isn't going to stop any time soon, it's got too much momentum behind it.

There are boatloads of great looking themes that are free or a nominal fee so you have a running start when it comes to customizing a site. Like themes, there's a galaxy of plugins so if there's something that's out of my ability or timeframe to code then I can just grab it. It's also flexible so you can build things that don't quite fit into the "blog" paradigm, and since it's dynamic your changes are reflected instantaneously.

The upfront cost is "free", but you do have to host it somewhere. Maintenance is a bit easier now that you can set it to auto-update, but you have to constantly monitor your plugins to make sure they didn't break in the upgrade. I've had a client's embedded contact form completely break for days because an update no longer allowed script tags in the post body and just stripped the whole thing out without warning.

So now comes the not-so-great things - which are all the things that made it great to begin with. The huge community can be a detriment. Sometimes the answers are just plain wrong, or a plugin may be great but then WordPress releases a new version and the developer lost interest in maintaining the plugin and you're up shit creek. Or there are security holes in the plugin that you suddenly have to deal with. It's definitely better now, but with its popularity and ubiquity (like Windows) it's always going to be a target. In the same vein, never ever use the native WordPress commenting system because you will drown in a sea of spam. Offload that to Disqus or whatnot.

The 100% dynamic aspect ends up making the site really slow if you're not careful with your queries and god forbid you're hosted on a shared server. And you'll get the dreaded "site unavailable" if you've got too much traffic. True, the right host can mitigate many of these issues (I recommend WPEngine - pricy but worth it - amazing support, a staging area built in and you can deploy with git!)  but often it's not something that the everyday person considers and is probably out of the budget of most casual writers.

Lastly, I personally dislike the templating language. I have a decent understanding of programming principles and to me it feels kludgy, hard to read and understand. Why are there multiple ways to query the database? Why do I have to reset my query every time I want a new chunk of data? The lack of separation between layers makes it tedious and it is not fun at all to deconstruct a theme. I want to focus on making the interaction great and instead I'm bogged down in wondering why the metadata field isn't outputting correctly. I'm sure there are some people who love it (more power to them) but it's just not for me.

I'd see it working well for a number of scenarios - a group blog with a moderate amount of traffic, someone who needs to take advantage of custom post types, anyone's who's willing to put a moderate amount of time on a monthly basis for maintenance or who likes to tinker. It's not good for someone who's just starting to write or a small business that basically wants the equivalent of a business card, there are more elegant solutions out there.

The only site that I administer that I'd consider using WordPress for is Lonestar Taco - mostly in thinking about inviting future staff to write and that I've had a pretty good experience in teaching novices to use it in the past. However, there seems to be a whole new crop of publishing systems out there, so I'm not going to settle for WordPress quite yet.