This post has to start with an admission: I work at a Chipotle. It’s something I’m reluctant to tell people as it feels embarrassing to follow up “Yes, I have my Master’s in Journalism” with “and I make burritos at a fast food place.” I am thankful the managers were willing to give me a chance when most other places I applied for part-time jobs scoffed at my advanced education. Chipotle is good, honest work and the my fellow crew members are bright and enjoyable to work with, but it wasn’t the goal I set for myself so it’s hard not to get down on myself at times.

I still have those larger goals, but I had to set my pride aside and do what I needed to help support my career search and my family. Every day in middle school, my principal would end announcements with “You can make it a great day or not. The choice is yours.” I do my best to make each day great in spite of my circumstances. I may make burritos, but at least I make burritos for a company from my home state, Colorado, that has great values.

One way I try to stay engaged is by observing interactions between customers and myself and the rest of the Chipotle staff. I look for patterns and see if I can predict how certain interactions will go. I’ve noticed that some of the ideas I researched in my thesis – the causes of choice overload and the benefits of transparency – apply not only in human-computer interaction (HCI), but also in these human-Chipotle interactions (HChI). (Note: The following anecdotes are purely observational and are limited to interactions in the Spartanburg West location of Chipotle.)

At least twice a shift, I run into a customer clearly suffering from choice overload. In my thesis, I tried to invoke choice overload by providing a large number of options – 25 – but the mental overload occuring at Chiptole seems to be invoked by several choices in quick successtion – What item do you want? Which type of rice do you want? What kind of beans? Meat choice? One woman was so overwhelmed she threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Too many choices! I don’t know. What do you like?”

“What do you like?” or “Put what you would on it” are common responses people use to mitigate choice overload. If I could hear their thoughts, I think I might hear, “I already made the decision to eat Mexican food. I don’t want to make many more.” Of course, few customers rarely follow through and allow me to make a burrito for them to my preferences. I’ll put a few items on and then they’ll jump in and tell me to throw some beans or something else on it. It seems people are willing fight through choice overload to get what they want.

This is when I began to connect it to my thesis further. People want to make as few decisions as possible, but still get what they want. The best tool to accomplish this is customization. Take Pandora, for instance. The only decision people have to make is “I want to listen to music that sounds like this.”

How can I use this information to the customer’s benefit at Chipotle? The simpliest way is to adjust the questions I ask to new customers. Instead of asking this or that questions, I can ask about the qualities they like in their food, i.e. “How spicy do you like your food?” or “Do you want a lot of food?” Answering these questions will help push them towards one choice or another.

For the fun of it, I thought about how Chipotle could eliminate the amount of choices customers have to make on the spot through technology. Imagine if the front of the line had an NFC sensor and people could open up their Chipotle smartphone app – with their favorite order pre-set – and scan it. The crew member working that spot could see the info on a screen and get started on the order right away. Instead of asking the questions needed to make a burrito, he or she could interact with the customer in a more natural way – “How are you doing today?”, “How about that Clemson game?”, “I’m a Carolina fan, too! Wait, you meant the Gamecocks? Nevermind. Go Tar Heels!”

Maybe the app could include a customization engine. The customer could put their preferences – spice level, juciness, etc. – when they first download the app and then every time they scanned in, it would order a random, customized item. People could still get some variety without having to make an excessive amount of choices.

Those are imaginitive solutions, but Chipotle already does something very simple that helps ease choice overload: they allow the customer to see everything. All of the options are right in front of them. In the afternoon, they can even see me frying chips and seasoning them. The customers can hear the sizzle and smell the delicious odors.

When people are having trouble deciding, often the first thing I observe them doing is leaning in closer for a good look. “That looks good. What’s in it?” Every Chipotle employee is able to answer that question because we’re the ones that make it each morning and each customer clearly appreciates that information being available to them.

This set up is particularly helpful when we get caught without an item. When I can say, “We have more chicken on the way,” and the customer can see the chicken grilling behind me, they’re more patient.

I compare it to the idea of informative feedback in HCI. When people see a loading bar, it gives them a sense that something is happening and that the computer hasn’t just frozen. It’s especially important for people who don’t know how computers work. The more feedback they can get from the system, the happier they will be.

In HChI, it’s similar except that nearly everybody that comes into Chipotle hasn’t worked there so it’s even more important that we be transparent and give the customers as much feedback as we can.

These observations didn’t suprise me. In fact, I expected as much, but as a quantitative researcher primarily, it’s been fun to be out in the field and seeing these things in person. I just didn’t expect to be making these observations while behing a sneeze guard. I won’t be making burritos forever, but I won’t be embarrassed about it anymore, either. There are opportunities to learn and to applied what I’ve learned in even the most unexpected places.