My family recently trekked into downtown Minneapolis to visit one of the hottest restaurants in the Twin Cities. We let my daughter choose, and she made the reservation without warning us that every one of the four million residents of the metro area would be packing onto Hennepin Avenue at the same time that Friday evening. It was gentrification ground zero, and at one point it took us about 20 minutes to drive a block and a half. It was like a scene from Blade Runner without all the rain and flying cars (however, it’s worth noting that I would have gladly taken a flying car if one had been available).
The restaurant was only slightly less packed than the street, and our food was good, but not revolutionary. That is until we got to the dessert menu. All four of us like to try new things, so the idea of “savory apple cake” got our attention right away. We ordered it, and the waitress (who was, by the way, outstanding) leaned in and offered a warning. “Just so you know,” she said quietly, “the mustard-flavored ice cream takes some getting used to.” But it was too late to turn back. Swept up in the adventure of a prohibitively expensive dessert featuring a condiment traditionally reserved for hot dogs and bologna sandwiches, we went all in.
If you ever watched any of the iterations of Iron Chef, you know that part of the joy of watching world-famous cooks being forced to create culinary masterpieces with weird ingredients like sea urchin or beef heart is seeing them struggle to work them into a dessert. Inevitably, somebody would resort to the good old ice cream maker, and you would end up with a liver-flavored dairy disaster that the judges would compliment for being “outside the box” as they were anxiously waiting for the camera to pan away so they could spit it into their napkin, desperately trying to look sophisticated and wipe the flavor off their tastebuds at the same time.
Having seen our fair share of those programs, we were excited for our own chance to try this revolutionary culinary technique. The apple cake arrived and looked fantastic. The mustard ice cream was white (I must admit I was a little disappointed – I think we were secretly expecting it to be school bus yellow) but didn’t let us down. Every bite started like normal ice cream: “Oh, that’s cold and sweet,” your brain says as it touches your tongue. Then your senses detect something – and there’s no better word to describe this – wrong. “What the hell is that?” your taste buds cry as you get the distinct sensation that someone has squirted an ice cold shot of Grey Poupon into your mouth. I tried several bites, somehow hoping that I would eventually “get it,” but I never did. It was awful, and all four of us agreed that we would never need to eat it again (unless, I suppose, it was served with bologna-flavored cake).
Now, I am sure you are asking yourself, “What is the point of all this?” It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the digital world or business communication.
Or does it?
The lesson we can take away from the worst dessert ever invented in history is that it is almost always a mistake to be provocative for the sake of being provocative. Richard Pryor was provocative to make a point. Sam Kinison was provocative because he wasn’t funny. Here’s a tech example: Apple’s recent decision to remove the headphone jack on their new iPhones seemed more like a headline for their press conference than a move that actually improved their product. It was a distraction to keep all of us from noticing that they were releasing the exact same phone that they’ve been selling for three years.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t embrace new technologies with your online properties. I’m saying that it is important to try those technologies out in the development process so you can determine what actually benefits users and what should be left on the cutting room floor. Rather than casting your gaze around the kitchen looking for something “cutting edge” to squirt into your ice cream (Mustard? I’m a genius!), look into each new addition and ask yourself “how will this make the website better?”
Do I regret eating mustard-flavored ice cream? Nope. The four of us laughed and laughed as we challenged one another to take another bite. But I won’t go back to it, and on the world wide web that’s an unacceptable result. We need users to seek us out, then return because they find value in what we offer.
Instead of working exclusively on giving visitors something unexpected, focus your resources on giving them more than they expected. That’s something that tastes great to everyone.