How do you kindly tell a customer they have stayed too long?
It would be especially difficult at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a restaurant located on Broadway in Manhattan, where the servers sing and perform throughout the day.
People don’t come to Ellen’s for the food. They come for an experience where Broadway-hopefuls sing show tunes while pouring your glass of water. The servers are phenomenally talented and there are countless alum performing in Broadway shows.
On a typical day, there will be a line of tourists outside the door eager to pay too much money for brunch in exchange for seeing great performers. Since the entertainment quality is so high, people want to stay and watch as much as they can. But when you’re running a diner you need to get new customers in and out the door quickly. You can’t afford to have a group linger for 2 hours. This is where unpleasant design comes into play.
I would characterize unpleasant design the act of discouraging behavior by design, rather than by rules. The classic example of unpleasant design is a bench that has an arm rest in the middle of it, thus making it impossible to sleep on. We can argue about the merits of this decision, but it is objectively more effective at preventing sleeping that putting up signs that say “no sleeping on benches.”
Ellen’s could make a rule “you may only stay for 60 minutes.” Their servers would have to keep track of this, and politely tell people to leave. This might work, but from an experience perspective, no one would enjoy being ushered out of the restaurant. It’s not a great note to end on.
Instead of making a rule, Ellen’s has incorporated two recurring segments each hour. One segment is a “happy birthday” to whichever tourists are there to celebrate the special occasion. The second segment is an ask to donate to the Broadway-hopefuls so they can get the singing, acting and dancing lessons needed level up.
The first time you hear each of these asks, it feels authentic and appropriate. You play along and enjoy your meal. Then something strange happens when you’re about to pay the bill, you hear them start the birthday pitch again. And to your surprise, it’s word-for-word the exact same pitch as before. There’s something that makes you cringe about hearing it a second time. It’s a clear indicator that you have stayed too long. You quickly gather your things and head out the door.
While this decision must be intentional from a design perspective, as a guest it doesn’t feel rude. It doesn’t feel like anyone has called you out and pushed you on your way. It feels like leaving is your decision. You saw the show, and now it’s time to go. And for the diner, now that table can be filled by another customer. The tables turn quickly without any rules, or any pushy people souring your day.
It’s a brilliant and subtle piece of unpleasant design.
Footnote: To be clear, I’ve enjoyed both my trips to Ellen’s Stardust Diner and do not think the experience itself is unpleasant. I think what they do is smart and a brilliant solution to a tough design problem.