Micro-moments: Are you designing for them?

by Muriel Garreta Domingo | | 16 min read

Today, we’ll start with the rants of a Manhattan restaurant to exemplify the relevance of what Google calls “micro-moments”. Why? Because with the pervasive culture that mobile devices have generated, as UX designers, we’re needed now more than ever! This is why we need to equip ourselves with methods and tools to research our users’ lives before moving to the solution space.

Author/Copyright holder: Pixabay. Copyright terms and licence: Free to Use

Mobile devices have changed our lives in many more ways than we can realize. They are just part of us now, and we have lost sight of how we behaved before. As user experience designers, we also have to play the part of anthropologists: well, a little. We need to understand our target users’ culture. In these fast-paced times, it can be hard to get time to stop, stand back, and look at what’s going on in the big picture. However, that’s the point: given that smartphones alone have changed life so much, it might take some effort to stop peering into their screens and see what’s happened to us as a species!

Do you really need a Cellphone to eat in a restaurant?

Author/Copyright holder: CoolKid1993 . Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain.

Not that long ago, a story appeared about a Midtown Manhattan restaurant and its rants on Craigslist about its customers’ smartphone use. The restaurant had complaints about the service being slow, so they decided to compare security recordings from ten years apart. From this “contextual inquiry” based on observing camera recordings, the restaurant discovered that an average mealtime in 2004 lasted 65 minutes. In 2014, just ten years later, it had increased to 115 minutes.

Who is to blame? The restaurant noticed that it is customers’ obsessive use of cellphones that lengthens mealtimes (the text on the table is a copy of the rant on Craigslist):


Customers walk in. They get seated and are given menus; out of 45 customers, 3 request to be seated elsewhere. Customers on average spend 8 minutes before closing the menu to show they are ready to order. Waiters show up almost instantly and take the order. Appetizers are served within 6 minutes; obviously, the more complex items take longer. Out of 45 customers, 2 send items back. Waiters keep an eye out for their tables so they can respond quickly if the customer needs something. After guests are done, the checks appear on the table, and within 5 minutes customers leave.

Average time from start to finish: 1:05


Customers walk in. They get seated and are given menus. Out of 45 customers, 18 request to be seated elsewhere. Before even opening the menu, they take their phones out; some are taking photos while others are simply doing something else on their phone (sorry, we have no clue what they are doing and do not monitor customer WIFI activity). Seven out of the 45 customers have waiters come over right away; they show them something on their phone and spend an average of 5 minutes of the waiter's time.

Given that this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this, and they explained that those customers had a problem connecting to the WIFI and demanded that the waiters try to help them. Finally, the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait awhile. Customers open the menus, place their hands holding their phones on top of them and continue doing whatever on their phones. The waiter returns to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customers ask for more time. Finally, they are ready to order....

Total average time from when a customer was seated until he/she placed an order — 21 minutes.

Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes; obviously, the more complex items take way longer. Out of 45 customers, 26 spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food. Of these 45 customers, 14 take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating it. This takes, on average, another 4 minutes as they must review and sometimes retake the photo. Out of 45 customers, 9 send their food back for reheating. (Obviously, if they hadn't paused to do whatever on their phone, the food wouldn't have gotten cold.) Out of 45 customers, 27 ask their waiter to take a group photo; 14 of those request the waiter to retake the photo as they are not pleased with the first photo.

On average, this entire process — between the chit-chatting and reviewing the photo taken — adds another five minutes and obviously causes the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving. Given that in most cases the customers are constantly busy on their phones, it takes an average of 20 minutes more from when they are done eating until they request a check. Furthermore, once the check appears before them, it takes 15 minutes longer than 10 years ago for them to pay and leave. Out of 45 customers, 8 bump into other customers, or in one case a waiter as they are either walking in or out of the restaurant, texting.

Average time from start to finish: 1:55

Does this sound like a familiar experience? Think about the last time you went out to a bar or a restaurant with some friends. Was it similar to the recounting you just read? Or, even better, the next time you go out, put your anthropologist glasses on, and check out what other people are doing. Where is their focus? In what is in front of them? Or, is it on the other side of the screens in their palms?

Although this post will soon be an urban legend (or perhaps it was from the onset!), the constant use of cellphones obviously affects our everyday lives.

Chopping reality into micro-moments?

Early in 2015, Google released a set of articles on what they call “micro-moments”. The restaurant story is full of micro-moments during which the users get hold of their phones to accomplish a specific task. Most of these can be categorized under the “I-want-to-share” title that currently takes up so much of our everyday lives. Let’s see the categories defined by Google, even if (like we have just seen), as a product or service designer, we’re sure that you’ll probably be able to add new types.

I-want-to-know moments

You’re at home with a nice free evening. What shall you do now? Ah! You feel like watching something. So, you want to get to the position where you can choose which movie to watch. You want to know the answer more than anything! So, you’ve just gone online to see. Here, you’re thinking with “the Google initiative”—that is, you’re searching or browsing to find out what’s hot, perhaps seeing what’s not-so-hot as you go down the reviews. You want to know which movie would be the best fit tonight.

I-want-to-go moments

You’ve decided on seeing the latest action blockbuster movie, but where? This is when you want to see what’s “Near me”.

I-want-to-do moments

You may want to learn about a process, service, or product. If you’ve ever gone on YouTube to see what others say about products, or just wanted to see how to do a job (e.g., DIY); that is where to learn. If your motorcycle won’t start and you “sort of” know what’s wrong, YouTube can show what you need. We’ll worry about which company’s motorcycle part in the next micro-moment!

I-want-to-buy moments

Your “final micro-moment” might have you start by watching any of over 1 million YouTube videos as you zero-in on which motorcycle part is the most reliable/best value before making the buy. If we’ve gone to the movie theater, maybe a friend shows us the trailer of another movie. Finding it better, you’re “sold” on seeing that instead. Congratulations, you’ve completed the process

On a similar note, Josh Clark, the author of Tapworthy - Designing Great iPhone Apps, offers three categories for mobile web access:

  1. Microtasking: When users interact with their devices for brief but frenzied periods of activity. For example, an author gets hit by a lightning bolt of creativity while standing up on a train… Quick! He needs to get his idea down. He looks at his smartphone: it’s too noisy to dictate on the voice recorder, but he can jot down some notes in his sub-folder marked “Eureka”, save them, and keep the app open for the next idea that he can already feel coming.
  2. Local: When the users want to know what’s going on around them. A smartphone is a very smart radar. It knows your likes and needs. If you’re hungry but you’re not a hamburger person, your apps will nicely narrow down the options as to what’s nearby where you can grab a bite.
  3. Bored: When the user has nothing better to do and is looking to be entertained or otherwise diverted. For instance, Mike’s wife has just gone into the changing room of the department store; he sits down and knows that it will take a long time. Out comes the smartphone, and he starts exercising his thumb as the game begins. Ten minutes later, he’s become bored, so he checks out the latest piece of strange news from a bizarre news resource on a social media site.

There is a nice overlap with both classifications, even if Google focuses more on the intent of the task and Josh Clark on the context.

When UX becomes even more relevant

As UX designers we try to bridge several worlds, connecting those of the target users with the business goals and all this mediated by technology. Therefore, we need to be able to look at both sides of the screen: what users are doing and what the company wants to offer them. With the idea of micro-moments, we have new touchpoints to consider, understand and design for during the customer journey map.

Author/Copyright holder: Ahihler. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

Most often, the journey starts at the moment the user starts to consider a category or a product. This earliest stage determines what the user wants or needs. Perhaps he’s hungry and asks himself if it’s a pizza night. Perhaps she’s heard about a sale and wonders if it includes luxury scent plug-ins. Then, the journey takes the users to where they’re evaluating and making comparisons among available options. The third stage is when users actually buy something. Last comes the after-purchase period; which some call the: the Ultimate Moment Of Truth. This moment can then be defined as the instant when a customer creates content based on an experience with a product or service and publishes it in their community for others to find.

Throughout this journey, there are lots of touchpoints that we can translate as micro-moments. If we – as designers – can identify them, we will be catering for the particular types of needs of our users. It's about creating the content or tools to enable people to accomplish whatever they want in that particular moment. To do so, Google suggests the following activities:

  1. Make a moments map.
  2. Understand customer needs in-the-moment.
  3. Use context to deliver the right experience.
  4. Optimize across the journey.
  5. Measure every moment that matters.

What do these suggestions recall for you? As always, it’s about placing user experience approaches up-front in the business strategy. It’s about starting with the users’ needs and contexts and moving from there, iteratively and always with “reality checks”.

The Take Away

In the last decade, the ever-increasing influence of handheld electronic devices has dramatically changed the way many of us live our lives. Smartphones have especially attached themselves to many aspects of the human condition, so much so that millions of folks have separation anxiety with their phones. Much of the world around us “happens” in an electronic rectangle smaller than our hands. Smartphone use has partially changed how we process reality. Where before, the stream of conscious living may have flowed in longer sections, many of us now break up our interpretation of reality into micro-moments, or fast, task-oriented engagements with reality.

Google identified the concept of micro-moments early in 2015, pinpointing that, smartphones are most often the “first-screen-at-hand” that users turn to. Specifically, Google defined four micro-moments:

As UX designers, we have plenty of touchpoints on the road where the user considers a product/service, evaluates and compares like items, chooses and buys one, and then uses it happily ever after. Under these phases, we need to consider how micro-moments play a role in the user experiences. To achieve this, use customer journey maps to understand your users, their needs in-the-moment, and use context to deliver the right experience, make every part of their journey as best as it can be, and measure every important moment.

The sociological impact of handheld electronic devices is far-reaching. In some cases, it can be perilous (people bumping into things), in others comical (many companies may have to rethink how much time they allow for lunch breaks at this rate!). However, one thing is certain. The new reality is one we can divide into these all-important snippets of time, where a need or desire is pressing enough to spur a user to stop what he or she is doing and engage with a palm-sized screen. As long as we design for that and work out what users want in exactitude, we’ll be able to make sure that we provide them with what they’re looking for.

Where to Learn More


Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Marc Muller. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

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