Archives for category: Thesis

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.


The South has a way of lulling me into thinking summer is going to last forever. If it weren’t for sudden appearance of college football car flags, I don’t think I would know when September begins. October is much different. It comes with chills, some created by the weather and another by the realization that yes, the season has changed.

For me this October is one year from when my thesis began to dominate my life. It’s been over two months since I finished it. Well, I shouldn’t say finished – research is never really done – so I’ll say turned in. Like many of my classmates, after I turned my thesis in I quarantined all parts of my brain relating to it. A mental vacation was needed.

When the calendar flipped to October, I couldn’t help but mark the anniversary. However, what came to mind wasn’t thoughts on my failures or successes in my analysis, methodology or lit review or what it taught me about human-computer interaction and media effects. What came to mind was what I learned about myself and about living life and being human.

I get by with a lot of help from my friends

About halfway into my first semester of grad school, I had a professor pull me aside and ask how I was doing.

“Fine,” I said, “I think I’m getting along well.”

“Okay. You’re an easy student and I just want to make sure you’re getting any help you need.”

You’re an easy student. Those words – and they way they were said to me in this instance – have stuck with me. I’ve always prided myself on being able to take care of myself academically. The way I saw things growing up, asking for help was a weakness. It was much better to learn what I could from lectures and readings, do my best on an assignment or test, and then learn from my mistakes. I was more impressive if I didn’t bother the teacher.

Yet here was something I hadn’t encountered before, a professor that didn’t equate easy students with impressive students. Seeking help wasn’t a sign of weakness. Over the next two years, I slowly began realize why I was wrong.

My thesis really hammered this lesson home. Without help from everyone around me, I wouldn’t have been able to turn it in.

I languished for months trying to build a web page that would be my stimulus material. I thought my HTML skills from 2007 would be enough of a foundation to teach myself what I needed to know. With every Google search, I thought progress was being made, but I was running in circles. I didn’t know enough to know I didn’t know enough.

I remember the moment I asked some old work acquaintances to help me build an application because the relief I felt afterwards was buoyant. No longer would I wade aimlessly; now I had a raft.

After that, my project moved along at the pace I thought it would originally. With the coding out of my hands, I could focus on making my experimental design better. I saw that asking for help on one part of my project didn’t just improve that part. It freed me up to improve every other section of my thesis.

There were many other instances where I got by with help from my friends – the one week I had to build all my custom stimuli, the editing process, defense prep, grad school formatting – but I’m not sure I would’ve asked for it if I hadn’t learned to that admitting my limits was not a weakness.

When people ask about my thesis and what I learned, this won’t be the first story I tell them. They’ll want to know the myriad of information I learned about custom radio, choice and experimental design. While those things will be important to me as a researcher, none of them affect me as a human as much as learning to ask for help.

Next in this series: Finding my limits.