father and daughter eating french fries together

Burgers With Balance

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We are what we eat, and that goes double for kids. The eating patterns we develop as children stick with us for life,1 which means that kids whose nutritional needs aren’t being met today may be set up for more severe health problems tomorrow. As of 2018, nearly one in five children and adolescents in the U.S. is considered to be obese,2 with Hispanic and Black youth being particularly at risk.

All parents want their kids to grow up healthy — but serving up three healthy meals a day requires time and resources that many of us take for granted. Putting together a nutritious, home-cooked meal means driving to the grocery store, buying some (increasingly pricey) fresh foods, and then spending hours in the kitchen prepping, cooking, and cleaning up. 

For many families across the U.S., fast food restaurants provide some much-needed convenience and accessibility. Burgers and fries make for an affordable, delicious, and filling meal — one that most kids will be more than happy to receive. The problem, of course, is that it’s not the most nutritionally dense option available.

The importance of childhood habits

Over the past several years, as childhood nutrition has drawn more and more attention, many big fast-food chains have expanded their menus to include more balanced alternatives, for grown-ups and for kids. You may not be surprised to find out that uptake for these menu items is often relatively low. After all, why would you order a side salad or cup of fresh fruit and vegetables when you can smell the patties sizzling on the grill? 

But with more than a third of Americans3 visiting a fast-food establishment every day, it’s worth asking what kinds of changes could help nudge families towards healthier options. At scale, the benefit for childhood nutrition could be huge. 

TDL collaborated with one of the world’s largest fast-food chains to tackle this problem. Our partner serves millions of families from coast to coast every single day, and wanted to understand how the choice architecture of their restaurants could be modified to encourage healthier decisions among kids and their parents.

woman and child cooking chicken nuggets

The research phase: Getting to the meat of the matter

We started out with a little fieldwork, auditing the behavioral design of some of the client’s nearby restaurants nearby our office in Montréal. We looked at how the customer journey unfolded across the various sales channels where their interactions took place: at the counter, at sales kiosks, at the drive-thru window, and so on. For purely scientific purposes, we also sampled a few of their breakfast options. (Our conclusion: they were delicious.)

But as anyone with an interest in science will know, using yourself as your sole research subject is, methodologically speaking, no bueno. To get some proper data, we surveyed hundreds of parents from across the U.S. about the relationship they (and their kids) had with fast food: what menu items they chose and why, what their attitudes were towards health and nutrition, and so on. 

Our results confirmed that one of the biggest barriers we faced was parental expectations: parents simply don’t expect to find healthy options when they walk into a fast food restaurant, and are less concerned with finding nutritious options for their kids than they normally would be. For the families we talked to, going out for fast food was seen as a special treat — and as a result, kids tended to be in the driver’s seat, with parents feeling more pressure to order items in line with their children’s preferences.

Insights like these helped us understand the behavioral variables on the demand side that led parents to relatively unhealthy options. But the really meaty insights (haha) came from our conversations with the folks on the other side of the counter: the restaurant crew. We sat down with dozens of crew members from different locations across the U.S. for in-depth interviews, including a few in Spanish. 

Our interviews shone a light on some major reasons why so many customers bypassed the healthier options available to them. One was the design of the restaurant’s point-of-sale (POS) system. Even though, by default, the chain’s kiddie meal was supposed to come with a healthy side of fruit, the POS was set up to always prompt crew members to select either fries or fruit. This forced crew members to prompt customers to pick one option, which tended to result in customers opting for fries. (Who wouldn’t? They’re just tastier.) In effect, the crew was nudging people towards the less healthy option.

I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that it would have never crossed my mind to collect data from the crew to answer a question on consumer choice, but I think that wound up being far and away the most valuable insight.


— Director of Consumer Insights, client organization

The user interface (UI) issue on the POS also created additional confusion among crew members. Many crew members we spoke to didn’t realize that it was official policy to go for fruit unless the customer specified otherwise. 

Up to 40% more healthy orders when our recommendations were implemented

Better nutrition at the push of a button

With the research phase of our work complete, we had zeroed in on some key behavioral barriers and drivers of healthy ordering at fast-food restaurants. Now the question was, how could we translate this knowledge into concrete behavioral interventions? 

Some of our ultimate recommendations were adjustments to sales systems and internal policies. For example, a simple change to the POS design and a minor modification to staff training protocols would eliminate one of the biggest barriers to ordering healthier kids’ meals, while also making ordering faster and more efficient. We also recommended some UI updates on customer-facing sales kiosks, redesigning particular screens where we found customers were likely being nudged towards less healthy options. When we tested these systems with our design updates, we found that they boosted healthy ordering by up to 40%.

kid eating waffles

For other recommendations, we had to get a little more creative. Our research had made it clear that kids were an important influence in parents’ food choices at fast-food restaurants. In other words, an effective behavior change program needed to appeal to them, not just the grown-ups of the family. So, we tapped into our inner children and asked ourselves: how can we make ordering healthy food more exciting? 

One of our answers to this question was the big red button. It’s wildly simple: if kids pick a healthy menu item, they get to hit a big red button, which then plays a congratulatory message.  When we tested this intervention, 20% more consumers opted for the healthier meal. And on top of that, it’s just fun. 

Have your burger and eat it, too

The big red button and other interventions included in our final book of recommendations are now set to be piloted across the U.S., at a chain that serves millions of American families every single day. At this scale, subtle design choices like the ones we came up with could amount to hundreds of thousands of kids eating a more balanced meal each day. 

Balance doesn’t have to mean entirely forgoing family trips to the local burger joint. Small, low-cost, easily implemented nudges and UX modifications could go a long way in improving childhood nutrition at scale, while still creating an experience that sparks delight and joy in kids and their parents. 

References

  1. Growing Up Healthy: The Importance of Starting Good Nutrition Early. (2020, June 16). Familydoctor.Org. https://familydoctor.org/growing-healthy-importance-starting-good-nutrition-early/
  2. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Childhood Obesity Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html 
  3. Fryar, C. D., Hughes, J. P., Herrick, K. A., & Ahluwalia, N. (2018, October). Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016 (No. 322). https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db322.htm#section_4

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