Menu Design For Fun and Profit. But Mostly Profit

Menu Design & Psychology
July 1, 2017

Okay, entirely profit. Menu design for profit.

So yesterday we talked a bit about menu engineering; that is, how to evaluate and categorize the performance of a given menu item during a set period of time, and what to do with that information. Today we’re going to continue to build off of that a bit by jumping into the topic of menu design.

Beyond the initial engineering stage, there are several aspects that factor into putting together a killer menu. There is, of course, the layout itself, but there is also menu pricing and menu writing. I might go into those topics more in-depth at a later date, but for now feel free to click through those links to whet your appetite (not an intentional pun, I swear!). Today—in part one of a multipart series—I’ll be going over how to turn human psychology to your advantage when crafting your menu.

Introductions aside, let’s talk about the serial position effect and what it can do for you.

So the gist of the serial position effect is that a person’s ability to accuracy in recalling items on a list is dependent on those items’ position on said list. This then splits off into two directions: the recency effect and the primacy effect.


Most people, when asked to recount items from a list, will start with the last ones first. This is the recency effect. These items are still fresh in their short-term memory, which makes them easier to recall.

This concept branches out into a lot of other related areas. For instance, in autobiographical memory, people recall more recent events well before they get to the remote stuff. And the recency effect can also affect peoples’ perception of an experience. For the most part, humans judge their experiences based on how they were at their peak (whether positive or negative) and how they were when they ended.


The primacy effect is the opposite of the recency effect, in that it says that people will remember the first few items on a list much better than subsequent items (at least until the recency effect kicks in). Note that this effect is diminished when items are presented quickly. The primacy effect works because at the outset, there is less information to process and thus it’s easier for the brain to file it away in long-term memory. By throwing information too quickly at the brain, it doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to keep up, and it will struggle to recall the first few items as well.


So the takeaway from this is (obviously) that on a list of menu items, the most important spots are the first few and the last few. Everything else has the potential to be lost in the shuffle. As such you want to put your most important (read: profitable) items in those positions. And, if possible, you might want to think about limiting the number of menu items on a given list in an effort to give the items in the middle a fair shake as well.

But! You can also apply recency and primacy to other things as well. Remember when I said that the primacy effect diminishes when someone is presented with information very quickly? That means that if you have verbal specials, make sure your waitstaff makes sure that each menu item has a chance to sink in before moving to the next one.

And remember that one time when I said that someone’s perception of an experience is primarily based on how it was at its peak (whether super awesome or totally terrible or just plain meh) and how it was at the end (aka peak-end)? That means from a customer service standpoint, you have an opportunity to mitigate a poor experience.


So you may have known about the top and bottom of your menu being sweet spots, but now you know the who, what, where, when, why and how of them being sweet spots. Okay, maybe not the where; I could make something up there but it would really be a stretch and I respect you too much to do that. Whatever. The fact is that you’re now ready to unleash the serial position effect on your business.

Stay tuned for more tips on how human psychology affects menu design.


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