Menu reading dispute

By Martin Zibauer »Martin Zibauer

Researchers follow the bouncing eyeball

February 8th, 2012


Photo by Ashley

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A new study of eye movement coming out of San Francisco State University suggests people read menus like books—left to right, down one page and then the other. This counters an earlier study that claimed readers bop around, with a lot of eyeball attention on the menu “sweet spot.” That’s a position on the right page about 1/3 down, not unlike the “above the fold” position where newspapers position their grabbiest headlines. The sweet spot notion is very influential; you can see it reflected in this New York magazine dissection of fancy-restaurant menu manipulations, along with other menu tricks such as stars, puzzles, plowhorses and missing dollar signs.

I skimmed the draft version of the study. It left me wondering exactly how closely the restaurant experience was replicated in the lab. My own impression of how I read a menu (I know, I know–that’s unscientific anecdotal self-reporting) is that it’s affected by the restaurant environment. With any luck, my reading is interrupted a lot: There’s distracting conversation, plus water poured, drinks served, specials described, and more. I usually change my mind several times or forget what I picked. I think what I do is skim the appetizers, then concentrate on the mains. Once I’ve decided on a main course, if I need an appetizer, I’ll go back to pick something. With each interruption, I might try to go back and pick up where I left off, but it’s more likely something else will catch my eye.

If the lab used for the reading study is anything like the psychology labs I remember from university, it’s definitely not a restaurant-like environment. Could that be why the test subjects were able to read the menus in such a methodical way?

How do you read menus? Do you zigzag around, through sweet spots and plowhorses, or do you read it like a novel? Where does your eye go first?

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Martin Zibauer