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McDonalds isn’t the first fast food chain to consider giving customers more control over their orders using technology (though there’s a fair amount of debate about whether customization is really the best way forward for the struggling company). Many of its competitors have been experimenting with self-service apps and kiosks, finding that when customers use them, they tend to spend more money. Taco Bell recently announced that orders made via their new digital app are 20% pricier than those taken by human cashiers, largely because people select additional ingredients. Chili’s, after installing self-service tablets, reported a similar increase in dessert orders. Cinemark theater’s new self-service kiosks have “had concession spending per person climb for 32 straight quarters.”
HBR talked with Ryan Buell, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, who studies the intersection of operations and customer behavior. It turns out that self-service technologies can pretty dramatically change what people do and how they act – though the research is hardly clear-cut on it being the best option for all businesses. An edited version of our conversation is below.