Designing Menu Boards for Screens

EPISODE 105 | Guest: Jill Perardi, director of professional services for Visix

Menus can go digital and contain as much information as you like. But designing menu boards is not the same as creating paper menus, so you need to keep a few things in mind to have maximum effect and provide the best customer experience possible.

In this episode, Jill Perardi walks us through some best practices, and shares real-world successes and misfires you can learn from.

  • Understand the difference between printed and digital menus
  • Learn some design tips to make your menus easy to read
  • Hear how auto-updating content simplifies things
  • Discover how good menu board design affects revenues
  • Explore the possibilities of interactivity

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Get more design tips in our Masterclass 4: Digital Signage Design Guide


Transcript

Derek DeWitt: You know, we’ve done lots of episodes here about designing digital signage content, but each design situation has different contexts and some specifics. I’m thinking especially about designing for menu boards. To give us a rundown on best practices for that context and some handy design tips, I’m talking today with Jill Perardi, director of professional services for Visix. Hi, Jill!

Jill Perardi: Hey, Derek. Thanks for having me.

Derek DeWitt: Thanks for coming on. And of course, thanks everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to this podcast, and you can follow along with a full transcript of Jill and my’s conversation on the Visix website. Just go to visix.com/resources/podcasts. But you already knew that.

Okay, Jill, so why use digital menu boards instead of just, you know, table menus or posters or paper menus? I mean, does everything have to go digital? Honestly!

Jill Perardi: Definitely not. I mean, of course it depends on the restaurant. So, if you’re gonna be in your sit-down Italian restaurant, seafood restaurant, steakhouse, you know, you’re gonna go with your regular menus. During Covid, some of those may have been replaced with a QR code, but your sit-down restaurant isn’t likely going to be having big displays on the wall, and that is what you order off of. You’re still gonna have your regular menus.

Digital menu boards are typically used in quick-serve restaurants, corporate, higher ed dining halls, and schools for school menus. Of course, digital means you can change it more often, in just minutes, which is a lot easier for those types of quick-serve restaurants or dining halls on a college campus.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, sure. And I would also say a sit-down restaurant that has a lot of different kinds of food on different days… I’m thinking of a restaurant over by where I live, that they actually have a completely different menu every day because they’re all farm fresh. The woman who owns it gets up at five in the morning, she goes out to the first farmer’s market of the day, gets ingredients and then builds her menu. So, digital menu boards might be a good solution for someone doing that kind of a thing as well.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, it could be. And also, I want to go eat at that restaurant.

Derek DeWitt: Oh yeah, it’s good. It’s good. When you come visit, we’ll head over. It’s called Farm. That really should be no surprise right there, right?

Jill Perardi: Right.

Derek DeWitt: So, okay, I’ve got a roadside barbecue shack (ooh, now I want barbecue) or a fast food place or what have you, and I’m thinking of adding some screens. Now look, I’ve got a cousin who’s a good graphic designer and will probably do some work for me for pretty cheap. What do we need to keep in mind?

Jill Perardi: So, there’s several things that you need to think about when you’re designing your digital menu boards. First and foremost, of course, are your menu items. You need a database for your menu items. It could be a food service software solution that you’re using for meal planning and cost management. And most importantly, having the data included that can populate your menu board. For some that could be total overkill. If it’s your roadside barbecue shack, that could be total overkill. Maybe it just needs to be an Excel file or an XML file. But you need somewhere to list your items and other information that you may want to show, like pricing and nutritional information.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to go crazy with some, you know, international corporate-level digital signage deployment for, you know, Jack’s Chicken Shack.

Jill Perardi: Right. So in that case, your Excel file may work. If you’re a college campus, you’re likely using one of those software solutions, a food service solution, that’s working on cost management, meal planning, the recipes, the number of people that you could be serving. All of that can be done in a software system like that, but you don’t necessarily have to have that. But you do want some sort of database, like I said, even if it’s an Excel file, because you don’t want to be going into the menu board design and changing text files every time you need to make a change. You want to make that change somewhere else and have it automatically update on your displays.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Probably somewhere that you’re already updating it and then it just automatically feeds to the screens. Speaking of the displays, like are there best practices for where, in this kind of an environment, you should place displays?

Jill Perardi: Yeah, sure. So of course, on our website we have a lot of resources talking about display locations. But for this discussion, we’ll assume you kind of already have that up and running, and we’ll assume that they’re positioned correctly. And when you position your displays, make them front and center, either before someone reaches the counter or right above the counter, but you don’t want them so high that they can’t be read. You want to make sure that they are easy to see, that they’re easy for people to view and comprehend what’s going on. And so, placement’s really important for that.

Derek DeWitt: Right. It would be a disaster if you’ve got some digital menu boards and it actually confused customers, right? That would be a bad idea.

Jill Perardi: Right, right. Or it’s difficult. You have to design and think about placement for a variety of people that could be coming into your facility. And so, from young to old, height and font size and all that’s very important. And that is all determined based on where you mount your displays.

Derek DeWitt: You know, at places like restaurants and bars, we very often like to become sort of a regular, you know. Loyalty is very important within that particular business sector. When designing my menu boards, what do I need to really make a great customer experience, which will then translate into, you know, my business having more money?

Jill Perardi: Sure. And to do that, it is, as you said, all about the customer experience. You want to make it easy for people to understand what you have and how much those items cost. You don’t want to overcomplicate things. If you’re a quick-serve restaurant, you want people to decide what they want to eat and order quickly, so you can turn more business.

But you also want to make sure they enjoy the experience, and they don’t have long waits, or the menu is too challenging for them to understand. It’s just another component of your customer service, is to make the menu boards easy to understand and bring in that repeat business, which translates into more money, more revenues.

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So, let’s get into specific tips for designing menu boards on screens.

Jill Perardi: Keep it clean.

Derek DeWitt: Okay, okay. I will!

Jill Perardi: As I just mentioned, you want people to decide what to order and move on so you can keep moving people through the line, particularly in busy times of the day. So keep it clean.

I would make your menu board fullscreen. You probably don’t need to combine it with time and weather and tickers. You know, think about the goal of this, is for people to order and order quickly and find out what they need to know about what you’re serving. Do you really need to let someone know it’s 75 degrees and sunny outside? Probably not.

Derek DeWitt: Right. They just came in from out there; they know.

Jill Perardi: Exactly. You might want the time if you’re talking about hours that you’re open, but you might also have that on a display somewhere else in your facility, maybe as you’re walking in, it might be on another display there.

You really want to use the right orientation, landscape or portrait, horizontal or vertical. Sometimes this is dictated by where the screen is mounted, but optimally you’ll choose the orientation that presents the information.

So, most menu boards that we have designed for, with our clients, have been landscape. It’s more natural, I think, for people to see. And there’s more space left to right for you to be able to include your menu title and your price and maybe a photo or two of your menu items, maybe calorie count. It seems to be the best orientation for most of our menu board clients.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s very interesting that you say that because now that I think about it, if I see, you know, like a menu board or food information being presented, the portrait to me almost feels like a poster, like an ad, a promotion. Whereas when it’s landscape, horizontal, I feel like that’s, you know, maybe that’s because that’s what our computer screens look like and maybe that’s why that sort of comes across that way.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, for sure. I would also just caution you to not put too much on the screen at once. Too many choices are confusing. That’s gonna lengthen the line. Remember, your goal is to keep people moving through. Just kind of a bad customer experience to make it confusing and just have too many choices. And it sounds basic, but I would use rows and columns. If you try to get too cutesy, too really designy, it could just confuse the eye. “Designy”, yes, that’s a new word I just made up.

Derek DeWitt: Ha!

Jill Perardi: You know, it could confuse the eye. It could not bring you, or bring the eye, directly to what you want people to see.

Derek DeWitt: Right. So, form really does follow function, in this case especially.

Jill Perardi: It does, it does. And you know, we’ve all been to restaurants. When you’re looking at a menu, a paper menu, when you’re sitting at a table, typically the appetizers are together, soups and salads together, sandwiches together, entrees, dessert, sides. Group that on your digital menu boards as well. There’s no reason to change the concept of that. Group those items together on your menu boards.

Derek DeWitt: I would also say keep those groups pretty much in the order that we’re used to seeing them. It would be weird if you had main courses, desserts and then appetizers listed third. You know what I mean? Like, put them in the order that we’re used to seeing them.

Jill Perardi: Yeah. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel for menus. This is what works. We know it works. It’s what we’re all used to. You just need to present it digitally.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, for sure. Now you’ve mentioned legibility and readability. What can we do to make that easier?

Jill Perardi: Yeah, make it easy to read. If your menu boards are mounted pretty high or pretty far back, make sure you’re using a large font. Use sans serif fonts, so they’re easy to read at a distance. And what that means is basically a font that doesn’t have any flourishes to it. You know, if you’re looking at the letter T, for example, is it just a straight line on top of each other to form that letter T? Or are there little flourishes on the end of the t and the bottom of the t? Don’t use those. Use the very basic fonts, so they’re easy to read at a distance.

I would keep them all to about the same font unless you want to go with a bold or an italic in some places. I wouldn’t use different font types. Less is more. And use some sort of visual connector for item and price, whether that be shading, lines, dots. Just make it really easy to connect the dots, so people know that this item costs this price without having to really have to focus to find it. It should be right there in front of them.

Derek DeWitt: Uh, yeah, absolutely. That makes sense.

Jill Perardi: The other thing to consider are your colors. They need to make sense. In menu boards, consider either your brand or the décor. So, if we are thinking about a college dining hall – for people that maybe haven’t been to one of those in a while, go back in time and envision a mall food court in the 90s. Each station, each dining area, has its own brand or décor. And so, you want to bring that into your menu board design. You don’t want to have a Parisian café look for a hamburger joint. You know, you want that to look like you’re selling hamburgers.

Derek DeWitt: Unless it’s called Le Burger.

Jill Perardi: That is true, that is true. One of my favorite menu boards that we were involved in designing, it was a brick oven pizza place. And it had complimentary colors to match the tile in the background that surrounded their brick oven, and a little fire kind of moving on it to capture the eye. But it was really, really subtle. And the displays really blended in well with the environment, and it just made sense from a color and a design perspective.

And then most importantly, going back to the fonts, you want to make sure you have good contrast. You don’t want it to blend so much. You want to make sure that your menu items, your price, all of that stands out on the colors and the design that you’ve used.

Derek DeWitt: And much like how you said, don’t use, you know, five different fonts on one screen because it’s just, there’s no purpose to it. It just confuses the eye and you’re not being cute. Don’t use a ton of colors either. I think some color, one, maybe two colors, for accent is fine.

I’m thinking of, in the summer I went to Chicago, and we went to this wings place that was like kind of almost like Jamaican-Caribbean-style wings. And they had this just totally cool, funky design and everything was digital. They had all this digital signage up, advertising the stuff, the menus and so on. And they just had like, they had a lime green, they had a kind of almost an aggressive turquoise, and they had this kind of banana yellow. And these were their accent colors and the rest of it was all just black and white. And it really not only was easy to read and use, but it continued to reinforce both their brand and the feeling of being inside that space, all at the same time. It was a great deployment.

Jill Perardi: That sounds awesome. It sounds like they knew what they were doing when they designed for that.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, for sure. And the other clever thing, ’cause you always want to see, you know, we’re always curious about what’s the food look like, anyway? Especially in a place that maybe is like an African restaurant or something. Maybe I don’t know what fufu is. So, having good pictures is often a good idea.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely. Particularly if there’s a product that yes, someone may not know what it is, and you want to entice them to order it. Have a great-looking, enticing photo on the screen to promote whatever it is that you are trying to sell. You know, food photography is a specialization. It’s pretty interesting to watch shows on that. You know, what you think is ketchup on a burger is actually not at all, it’s some, you know, red paint or jelly or you know, it’s crazy what they do. But just some really professional, high-resolution photography that’s going to stimulate an appetite is exactly what you should use on your menu board.

Or if you don’t want to go that route, and like I was talking about the brick oven pizza place, you want something that kind of matches the brand, use that animation. Use it subtly. You don’t want it to make it difficult to figure out which pizza you want to order by having this animation on the screen. You don’t want it to distract your customers from ordering. But it’s a great way to maybe get people excited, to want to order and have that brick oven pizza when they see that flame on the screen.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, I mean that’s for sure. Especially, and I’ll say especially for me anyway, maybe just ’cause I’m a big fat pig, but I see a picture of bread and I go, ooh, I want bread. I see a really nice picture of, you know, a chicken wing, I can’t stop thinking about chicken wings. I see a nice pizza, especially, you know, with the strings of cheese coming off of it, and then I’m like, well now I want pizza. It’s one of those that we’re hardwired to…. We see good food and we go, oh I want to eat that now.

Jill Perardi: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And maybe your dining hall, your restaurant, you got a great price on buffalo mozzarella, and so you have a lot of it, and you want to turn it. Go ahead and get that picture of the pizza with the buffalo mozzarella on it up on the screen, so people like you, Derek, go, ooh, that’s not what I came in here for, but now that I see it, that’s what I want to order.

Derek DeWitt: Right. I can’t think of anything else!

Jill Perardi: Right, right!

Derek DeWitt: It’s interesting having little animations and stuff. Sometimes the screens may have, maybe there’s a lot of information. You might have multiple messages going up onto the menu boards. What kind of transitions? You don’t, again, don’t want them to be too busy, right, if you’re transitioning between one screen and another?

Jill Perardi: Yeah, you don’t want them to be too busy. But you also really don’t want your transitions to be subtle either. So, your digital signage provider that you’re using for your menu boards, test and go through the transitions. You want people to notice the change, because they need to see that there is new information on the screen. One, because they could be very confused if that, you know, sandwich they were just looking at is suddenly gone. I know it was just there, what happened? But two, there might be more items that you need them to see for all the reasons that we’ve already discussed in this podcast.

Derek DeWitt: I can totally see that. Like you see the picture on one message, and you go, okay, that’s the one I’m gonna get. And then the second one comes up and you go, oh no wait, wait, I think I’m gonna get that one.

Jill Perardi: Exactly. So, use transitions and go through and test them out. You don’t want it to be obnoxious to where it takes away from the menu items, and someone goes, whoa, what just happened? And then by the time they can focus, it’s gone again. But you also don’t want them to be so subtle that no one knows they changed.

Derek DeWitt: You know, like where I live, it’s normal on menus to have the weight. Here they, for some reason, put how many grams something weighs, and now it’s become standard to put the number codes for allergies and whether or not something is vegetarian or vegan and so on. In the United States I’ve noticed some places are starting to actually put up how many calories as well. How much of that information should we use? How do we get it on there?

Jill Perardi: I mean, please don’t tell me how many calories I’m about to consume, because I really want that fried heavy-carb item, and I really don’t want to know how many calories I’m about to consume. Just let me have it. But in some states, it is required by law to show calorie count and to show nutritional information. So, it’s great to be able to do that on your digital menu boards. That should also be part of your data.

You do want to show allergens and nutritional information, because if someone has a peanut allergy for example, you want to make sure they know that this item contains peanuts. You want to share something as vegetarian or vegan, contains dairy. All of that can be done as long as that information is in your data source.

When that food item, that main menu item, shows up on the screen, you can show a little icon to indicate that it’s vegan, vegetarian, whatever it might be. Or you can, like you mentioned a number code, you can have a little legend, or it can just have the word vegan or a V for vegan. So, all of that needs to be in your data source. But I think it’s really important to show that information. Again, some states require calories to be shown by law.

And then, the nutritional information, depending on what you want to show, it might depend on how many items are going to be on your menu boards. You might determine, I’m going to show the name of this sandwich and the price. In some dining hall situations, they don’t even show the price, ’cause it’s just part of a meal plan. But I want to show the name of my sandwich and maybe the price and the calorie count, and then I just want to show if it’s vegan or vegetarian. But I want people to know that they can look up the full nutritional information as well.

And so, you might want to have a QR code that can link to the full nutritional information. And a lot of the universities we work with on their menu boards, they actually have their nutritional information online for all of their menus, and they just want to show the basics on the menu board.

So, some of them will have a display at the entrance of the dining hall with the hours for each station, and they will put a QR code on that display, or they’ll put it directly on their menu boards if they’re low enough, where you can scan that with your phone. It launches their dining hall website, and you can view the full nutritional information online on your phone at that point.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And of course, when you have touchscreens, you can just embed as much of that information as you want in there. And if that’s interesting to customer A, then customer A has access to it and customer B’s like, I don’t care, then they don’t need to see it.

Jill Perardi: Yep, exactly. With touchscreens, I mean the sky’s the limit. You can touch that name of that sandwich and see, you know, everything that’s in it and the nutritional information if you wanted to. Of course, just keep in mind if there are a lot of people that are interested in that, you don’t want to form a line and prevent them from quickly ordering as well.

So again, that’s where that QR code might want to come in handy. Yeah, you can touch here if you happen to be standing in line and you’re near this touchscreen, or you can scan this with your phone and view this information as you’re waiting to get up to the counter.

Derek DeWitt: Right. Sure. Especially at lunch during the week ’cause you’re like, um, you know, I don’t have hours and hours and hours of lunchtime here.

Jill Perardi: And I’ll tell you I get hangry. So, if I’m standing behind someone and they’re holding up the line as they’re reading nutritional information on a touchscreen, may not be good for that person.

Derek DeWitt: What about interactivity that goes beyond just this?

Jill Perardi: Sure, there are quick-serve restaurants, especially, that are allowing people to order and pay at a kiosk and then just pick up their food at the counter. You know, I think McDonald’s is actually a great example of this. They are starting to put kiosks in the lobby, and they might still have people taking orders at the register. But if they’re short staffed, if they’re really busy, then you can order at the kiosk as well. I think Panera Bread is another one that’s doing that. Dining halls on college campuses might be doing the same thing. So, that is a possibility.

And if you go that route, just keep all the best practices in mind for interactive design. And we’ve done plenty of podcasts about interactive content and the design considerations for it; we have plenty of resources on our website. Of course, you can reach out to us with specific questions. But just keep in mind that this is a touchscreen, it’s interactive, so it needs to have a good user interface. And so just keep that in mind if you’re designing for that.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And you know, I know that, like you mentioned McDonald’s, McDonald’s uses that as an opportunity to sort of suggest menu combinations or add-ons. And I will say every once in a while, it’s useful. Like I go, oh, I ordered, you know, I put in this, this, this and this and it turns out I can literally get those exact same things bundled for less money than I would’ve paid. So that’s, yay, thank you for that. But I would caution not too much of that. I don’t want to have to have 15 steps between walking up to the screen and finishing my order.

Jill Perardi: Yes. And I will say, I have been in places before that have kiosk ordering, and people do tend to get frustrated. It’s just too many steps and too many things they have to go through.

So, one more thing to take into consideration when you’re designing, of course we’ve talked about your data source allows you to change your items quickly. That’s the beauty of digital; you don’t have to reprint like in a paper menu or a sign menu. When you change items, you want to update those items and the pricing but not the design.

So, changing where the drinks show up on the screen every time someone comes in – that’s a bad customer experience. Keep the design pretty much the same. Maybe you want to swap out the color of the background during, you know, different times of the day, that’s fine. But make sure your drinks are always in the same place, for example. You know, change out your, again, your menu items, your pricing, your calories, all of that. Keep it all in relatively the same place for the best customer experience, and it speeds up repeat visits that way. Again, we’ve said it a million times already (or I have), your point, your goal is to get people in and order and out.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. I came across something recently that suggested that, in this kind of a situation, you put sort of your high margin items on the right side of the screen. Is that right?

Jill Perardi: Yeah, you’re right. Most people tend to look at the right hand side of the menu first, and then they scan left and down and then back to right. I don’t know why that is, but it is something that has been published out there. So just keep that in mind when you’re designing.

Derek DeWitt: What about using multiple displays? You know, I kind of feel like, like McDonald’s kind of does this sometimes. They have an interactive screen for actually choosing and ordering your food, and then next to it is where they display the ads.

Jill Perardi: Or even if they are not interactive and there’re displays behind a counter, there’s a lot of scenarios in dining halls and quick-serve restaurants where they might have two or three displays behind the counter. And it might be the photos of your enticing food items are on the right-hand side, since that’s where people look first, and then the other displays are showing the actual menu items.

So, your one on the right hand side might be for your ads to promote those items that you want people to purchase. And then the two displays on the left, or one display on the left, is the actual menu itself. Really how many screens that you can allow or need really just determines on the size of your menu and the location where they’re being, where they’re being mounted.

Derek DeWitt: Obviously we’re always talking about you really need to always have a call to action, call to action. I mean the call to action is that they ordered the food, right?

Jill Perardi: Right. But some people want some additional calls to action, right? Join the rewards program. Download the app, that’s a huge one right now. Download our app, and we will text you and, and send you notifications for deals to come in and keep ordering. Buy a gift card, that sort of thing.

So, you can use screen takeovers to show short ads or videos. Like we have one client for example, they show their menu items, and then every so many minutes a quick advertisement for a soft drink company appears on the screen (because that soft drink company actually I believe helps pay for their menu displays, and so they run advertisements for them on the screen). And it’s just a short takeover of the menu board itself. It isn’t something that runs really long. It doesn’t crowd the menu if they’ve got multiple displays, ’cause this client does.

You know, in theory someone’s always scanning the menu and you don’t want to interrupt them, but it was just a quick little screen takeover, and it works well in that environment.

Derek DeWitt: How often should we update the overall design look of what we’re putting out there with our menu boards? Should we do it every month? That seems like a lot.

Jill Perardi: It does seem like a lot. As I mentioned a while ago, I would caution on changing the overall look too frequently. But if you are in a higher ed situation, maybe it changes once every fall. I probably wouldn’t even do it once every semester. Because just as people were getting used to using the dining hall at the end of the fall semester, they come back in the spring, you don’t want a completely different look, for example.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s true. Every new design does have a learning curve.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely it does. So, what you really want to do is just keep that, but then update your information and have it update automatically as we talked about in the very beginning, either using your food service software system or an Excel file, an XML file. So, you can just update the data there, and it will refresh on your screen. So, if a menu item changes, if a price changes, just do it in that place and it should update on the screen.

You know, you might want to, like I mentioned, change the look every now and then, but don’t change the placement of everything. Drinks shouldn’t suddenly be on the top instead of the bottom, the left instead of the right. Try to kind of keep it all in the same place. But you don’t want it to get boring.

So, maybe that Jamaican wing restaurant you mentioned is a great example. Maybe that aggressive turquoise was the main color at certain times of the year, and then it switches to the bright green color at another time of year. But everything is relatively the same otherwise. That is great for those repeat clients, so they don’t get bored. But as you mentioned, every time you change it, there is a bit of a learning curve.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, for sure. And of course, don’t forget special offers. This is always a great way to throw up a special offer and let people see limited time offers.

Jill Perardi: That’s right. And those should be changed often. They should be new to grab attention. And so, make sure that you’re keeping that information fresh and current, and you’re staying on top of that. You don’t want to have an old ad running that you can no longer deliver on and make one of your customers upset.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, really. That’s for sure. Okay, I want the popcorn shrimp. Oh no, we ran out of that a week ago.

Jill Perardi: Exactly.

Derek DeWitt: All right. So, when designing menu boards, there are a number of things that you have to keep in mind. I’d like to thank Jill Perardi, director of professional services for Visix, for talking to me about all this stuff and with some specific advice on designing for digital menu boards. I gotta say though, after this conversation, I’m hungry.

Jill Perardi: Me, too.

Derek DeWitt: So, I’m gonna go get something to eat, and I’d like to thank Jill again for talking to me today and I’d like to thank everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.