Eye Movement Patterns, Scanpaths and the Almighty Sweet Spot

Fun fact for the day: supermarkets that have their shopping paths running counter-clockwise around the store have a $2 per cart higher average than supermarkets that have clockwise paths. I have no idea why, I just read that a little while ago and thought I’d share. Prepare to impress everyone you meet at the next party you attend!

Today we’re going to be talking a bit about menu layouts. Specifically, as the title says, we’re going to be talking about using eye movement patterns and scanpaths to determine your menu’s sweet spots. Also: I’m eating pizza bread as I type this, and it’s delicious.

What can I say? It’s a sharing kind of day. Note: that was an unintentional rhyme.

What is this stuff?

I’m glad I pretended that you asked. I’ll save you the flippant response for eye movement patterns; that’s pretty self-explanatory. And sweet spots are obviously spots that are sweet. This is the prime real estate on your menu that you want to position your most profitable items (which we learned how to deduce during our menu engineering discussion) in.

What about scanpaths, then?

A scanpath is a series of eye fixations when looking at some sort of visual scene. In this case, the scene is your menu and the fixations are the different areas of your menu. In other words, a scanpath is the order in which a customer reads through your menu.

Let’s take a closer look at some sample paths.

Industry Convention

Today we’re going to be talk about that perennial workhorse of menu design, the single fold, two-panel menu.

Industry convention states that people are initially drawn to the upper-right of a menu, and then go to the upper-left. Opinion is split as to whether or not it then goes around in a counter-clockwise pattern or if it zigzags. Here’s a picture, courtesy of the awesomely-named and insanely helpful Vaneepedia:

Eye Diagram
Industry convention: two-panel menu scanpath #1

Based on recency and primacy, your sweet spots here would be 1, 2 and 4. Now let’s look at another example:

eye movement
Industry convention: two-panel menu scanpath #2

Here your sweetest spots would be 1, 2 and 7, while 4 is a barren wasteland. Again, that’s basing it on recency and primacy.

This is all based on work done by one William Doerfler in the 1970s. Doerfler was a graphic designer-turned-menu consultant who, through the course of his work, determined that people are instinctively drawn to the upper-right corner while reading a two-panel menu. Also, and perhaps relatedly: “Doerfler” is an awesome last name. Anyway, his model looked like this:

Doerfler menu model

As you can see, he felt that the best spot on a menu was on the right side, just above  the middle. After that, basically everything in the upper right half was golden, everything on the lower left half was a pit that you’d cast your menu dogs into, never to be heard from again. And this is what the last thirty years of menu design have been based on: putting your high profit items in your sweet spots and burying your lower-profit items.


Not everyone takes this particular model of eye movement patterns as gospel, however. A criticism of the Doerfler model is that it hasn’t really been subjected to the rigors of empirical testing. For instance, in 1987 the National Restaurant Association commissioned Gallup to do an eye movement study (titled “Through the Eyes of the Consumer”), and Gallup found that people read menus the way that you’d think they read menus: like a book. They start at the top left, go down the first page and continue on to the second.

Recently, another study was undertaken by Sybil Yang (who we’ve cited before while discussing price presentation) at Cornell University. Titled “Eye Movements on Restaurant Menus: A Revisitation on Gaze Motion and Consumer Scanpaths” (and also the source of some of the graphics used in this post), its findings mirror that of Gallup twenty years earlier. This one used a fancy-pants infrared pupil/corneal reflection eye tracking system to determine the test participants’ scanpaths of the menu. This test found that most people did a cursory examination of the menu like a book, then focused their attention on the entrees. Once an entree was selected, the rest of the meal was built around that.

Total conjecture time: since most menus tend to start with appetizers and then work their way to entrees, it’s possible that people are spending more time in the upper right of a menu because that’s where the beginning of their decision-making process (the entrees) often lies. Again, that’s pure conjecture on my part and I’m no scientist, so take it with a grain of salt.

In yet another study (this one done in Korea) titled “An Experiment on Psychological Gaze Motion: A Re-Examination of Item Selection Behavior of Restaurant Customers” (Choi, et al) they find that a solid third of the participants in the study are likely to order an item to which their attention is initially drawn. That’s nothing to sneeze at, though it runs counter to other studies on the subject (including “Eye Movements on Restaurant Menus,” cited above, along with “Understanding Menu Psychology: An Empirical Investigation of Menu Design and Customer Response” by Sarah Daniels, which basically says we’re all doomed and are totally wasting our time with this stuff).

Note that I’m not trying to confuse anyone by bringing up conflicting research on the subject, I just want to make sure that you’re able to make informed decisions.


I just wanted to mention that in yesterday’s post about choosing a font for your menu, my wife wanted me to mention that you should never, ever use Papyrus. The font, that is. Not the paper the Egyptians made from the papyrus plant. I suppose that’s fair game and might make for an interesting conversation-starter. So don’t use Papyrus the font, but do use papyrus the paper.

And… I guess that’s it for today. We’ll be expanding on this in the near future (maybe tomorrow!) when we talk about using eye magnets to draw attention to sweet spots.

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Olivia Jacobs

Olivia worked for years running a restaurant with her husband. Now she is building a consulting business from zero. As a side project she is now writing for Its My Ingredient sharing experiences from the past and what she is doing or learning on the present.

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