Sunday, 26 February 2012

Ordering wine: the physical, the digital and the social

For a family birthday recently, we went to Inamo. This is not a restaurant review, but reflections on an interactive experience.

Instead of physical menus and a physical waiter, each of us had a personal interactive area on the tabletop that we used to send our individual order to the kitchen and do various other things. In some ways this was great fun (we could have "tablecloth wars" in which we kept changing the decor on the table, or play games such as Battleships across the table).

In other ways it was quite dysfunctional. For example, we had to explicitly negotiate about who was going to order bottles of water and wine because otherwise we'd have ended up with either none or 5 bottles. In most restaurants, you'd hear whether it's been ordered yet or not, so you know how to behave when it's your turn to order. But it's more subtle than that: whereas with physical menus people tend to hold them up so that they are still "in the space" with their party, with the tabletop menus people were heads-down and more engrossed in ordering from the menu than the company, and there was no external cue (the arrival of the waiter) to synchronise ordering. So the shift from the physical to the digital meant that some activities that used to be seamless have now become seamful and error-prone. The human-human coordination that is invisible (or seamless) in the physical world has to be made explicit and coordinated in the digital. Conversely, the digital design creates new possibilities that it would be difficult to replicate in the physical implementation.

There is a widespread belief that you can take a physical activity and implement a digital solution that is, in all respects, the same or better. Not so: there are almost always trade-offs.

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