Solving for cafe overcrowding and rethinking the aquarium experience

Prototype & Test
Hi-Fi Mockups
Looking Ahead

Cafe Aquaria is one of two dining options at the Georgia Aquarium, and serves as the aquarium's main dining experience providing a homestyle buffet, salad bar, and off-the-grill favorites.

The Challenge

Georgia Aquarium has had a steady influx of visitors over the years, with 2.5 million visitors in 2018 and record breaking numbers of visitors this summer. The aquarium has projected that numbers are only going to increase, anticipating added stress to their exhibition spaces and dining areas.

Our team was tasked to work the Georgia Aquarium and focus on the overcrowding issues present in Cafe Aquaria and create solutions to help control the traffic flow and improve the overall dining customer experience.

My Role

UX Researcher
Competitor Analysis, Cafe comment cards, Family Persona & Empathy Map,
Observations, Interviews, Usability Testing (expert review, customers)

UX Designer
Ideation, Interactive display design, Information architecture, Wireframe, prototype and hi-fi iterations,


3.5 months (Aug 2019 - Dec 2019)

Team Members

Victoria Green, Rhea Laroya, Whitney Li, Yining Liu

The Solution

Having a pre-ordering web app available allows customers to order at their convenience at any point in their aquarium visit while eliminating unnecessary overcrowding at the cafe and increasing throughput at the same time.


What is causing the overcrowding?

Before diving directly into creating solutions to overcrowding, we wanted to understand what was causing the overcrowding issues beyond a sheer volume of visitors, and get a closer look at the kinds of visitors at the aquarium.

The number of visitors fluctuates depending on the day and season, ranging from 2000 on a weekday to 20,000 visitors on weekends and holidays.

We wanted to understand:

  1. What were the main causes of overcrowding?
  2. What are the user profiles of the visitors?
  3. What does the user journey look like for customers at the cafe?
  4. What is the impact of staff both from the “back of the house” and “front of the house” on customer experience

Getting to know the visitors

The aquarium gets millions of visitors each year from all over the world, which includes locals, international tourists, students, elderly, and within each of these groups, there are different dynamics including families, couples, and friends. We had to make sure that our potential solution could serve all these user groups.

Personas + Empathy Maps + User Journey

To keep the users’ perspectives in mind throughout the entire course of our work, we created a set of personas and empathy maps for three main user groups (young couples, families, elderly) informed from our research that captures the majority of the visitors in the aquarium.

Persona for family user group
Understanding what it's like being in a crowded environment through empathy maps
Mapping out the steps for ordering food at Cafe Aquaria

"In the field" research

In addition to understanding users' initial needs and desires, we took multiple visits to Cafe Aquaria to gather data on customers behaviors within the context of the cafe and to get a closer look of what may be causing the overcrowding of the cafe than simply due to a high volume of visitors. To achieve our research goals, our team came up with a research plan and employed the following research methods:

Accessing quantitative data
We collected data from the aquarium's marketing platforms and cafe's comment cards, revealing perceptions about the cafe food, price, and experience
Observing behavior in context
We conducted observations in different parts of the cafe to understand the ins and outs of what a busy day looks like
Diving deeper with interviews
We recruited customers and had them take us through the cafe while we observe how they navigate the space, decide what to eat, and how they pay and find seating. We also interviewed cafe staff to get a closer look at the cafe operations and their POV on customer behavior
Analyzing other cafes
We also did a quick competitor analysis on dining services of top aquariums across the globe to get a feel for where Georgia Aquarium stands and how they stack up against other aquariums
Affinity Mapping

Through our findings and analysis, we found overcrowding and negative experiences of the cafe can be grouped into four main categories

Traffic Flow
Informational Needs
Multitasking Parents
Seating Needs


1. Spacing and layout of cafe results in poor traffic flow

The circular layout of the cafe and the placement of the food forces customers to traverse along the edges of the cafe and then are funneled through a set of dividers and then wait for an available cashier for payment. All customers must go through this path whether they are interested in the selection of foods or not. The most popular off-the-grill food is also at the end of the path. The cashier stands are also placed in a staggered formation leading to customers congregating to wait for the next available cashier one at a time.

Cafe layout and customer routes: The most popular items are placed at the very end, and there are dividers to direct customer foot path. Cashier stands are placed in a staggered formation.

Furthermore, the dolphin show is one of the aquarium's biggest attractions and as a result the cafe traffic and operations are planned around dolphin show times. Unfortunately, the dolphin show exit coincides with the entrance of the cafe causing congestion and confusion for incoming customers

Visitors exiting after a dolphin show and colliding with customers trying to enter cafe
2. Lack of or mismatch of informational needs causes confusion and downtime

The cafe tries to be as transparent as possible with their information as signs are placed throughout the cafe, which may work on a good day, but when chaos is present, the information gets blurred out to customers as they are just trying to get their food and sit down. This often leads to customers being surprised by the price of the food during checkout. Customers may even change their mind about their food leading to food waste. We found that it is not the amount of signs present that helps customers, but the context in which they need and see the information.

Numerous signs and labels placed throughout cafe

Customers also lack key information about the food available and their ingredients due to certain allergy or dietary restrictions. They repeatedly ask staff for help, slowing down service. We also learned that some staff's jobs (known as "runners") were specifically to provide information the customers need in addition to keeping everything stocked. After the customers pay, they still wonder about where seating, fountain drinks, and condiments are even though there are signs present.

Cashier (front) is providing additional information to customers. Cashier (back-left) is raising her hand to try and get customers to come to her station
3. Multitasking leads to heavy cognitive load and stress

One of the biggest user groups of the aquarium are families with small children, which means lots of strollers being pushed around. Unfortunately, there is no place to set the strollers aside, leading to parents either having to split up to get cafe food or simultaneously getting food while pushing the stroller through the cafe, which is already cramped. Adding to the stress of parents, many times their kids gets excited and run around to pick up different foods and the parents have to reel them back in.

Parents with strollers or holding kids while trying to navigate cafe and hold food
4. Seating is hard to find on crowded days and no seating leads customers stranded with food

After customers finally pay for their food, if they are not lucky enough to find a seat, then customers are stranded with their food having to awkwardly wait. We also found customers often don't know about additional seating on the second floor even though there are signs, further highlighting the ineffective use of signs.

Top: Customers going up and down trying to find seating (left), Customer is holding her tray of food waiting for a seat (right) Bottom: Signs throughout the cafe trying to tell customers about additional seating upstairs


Exploring potential solutions

With these insights uncovered from our research, our team began brainstorming various solutions to the overcrowding problem and improving the cafe experience overall for both the customers and staff. The goal during this phase is to narrow down a solution quickly in order to begin prototyping and testing it out with real customers to see how the solution works in context.

Because we had formed a very specific problem statement further informed by thorough research, ideation came quickly. We sketched and mocked out conceptual solutions, gathered feedback from our stakeholders and users, and analyzed the pros and cons of each.

1. Pre-ordering kiosk

Kiosks at fast-food services and other restaurant chains are getting more and more popular to ease the load of staff and create a self-service experience for customers. We explored this concept in the context of Cafe Aquaria.

  • Increase customer throughput: Increase sales throughput during peak times and offer another way guests can order and pay
  • Informative: People can see what items are on the menu beforehand
  • Customization: People could customize their orders to suit their tastes
  • Quicker checkout: Customers can pay for their food easily
  • Higher spending: Customers are more comfortable with ordering food
  • Long lines: Long lines could form at the kiosk, increasing wait times
  • Customers confusion: Customers may still need assistance with using the kiosk
  • Demands more space: Extra space would be needed to accommodate the kiosks

2. Pre-ordering mobile web app

With many food-delivery and pre-ordering apps such as GrubHub, UberEats, Doordash etc., people are becoming more accustomed to on-the-go ordering. We see this solution as having major potential in reducing overcrowding and streamlining the food ordering process to make the staff's lives easier and the customers happier.

However, use case for a pre-ordering food at the aquarium would be limited since visitors would only use it when they are at the aquarium and if they choose to eat here. This means that the barrier of entry has to be low as possible and is why we decided to go with a web-app where users could potentially scan a QR code to bring up the pre-ordering services instead of having customers download a standalone app. (However, it is important to note that Georgia Aquarium does have an existing mobile app for general information)

  • Convenient: People can order anywhere inside the aquarium and not bound to the boundaries of the cafe
  • Informative: People can check price and ingredient info without the stress of continuing to move forward in a line
  • Non-intrusive: Does not require big changes in physical layout or staff workflow
  • Encompassing: less stand-in-line waiting for customers means less crowdedness at cafe, and less stress for the cafe staff
  • Discoverability: How to ensure customers know about this app
  • Initial user effort: Users have to potentially connect to aquarium wi-fi, input web app, and may have to input their credit card information

3. Interactive digital display

During our observations, we had found multiple large digital displays around the cafe showing rotating slides of the cafe menu and special discounts and ads. However, users could not interact with the display and because the display screens were on a loop, the customers would have to wait through the ads to see the menu again.

Parents with strollers or holding kids while trying to navigate cafe and hold food

We wanted to see if we could leverage what the cafe already has and improve upon this display to solve for overcrowding issues and give customers more relevant information including an interactive layout of the cafe so customers can have a mental model of where all items are located before entering, as well as the food photos, ingredients, and prices of each item

  • Low cost: Does not involve kiosks or substantial app development, and relatively quick to implement compared to other two solutions
  • Informative: People can have an idea of where everything in the cafe is as well as in-depth food item details
  • QR code: People can scan a QR code and save a pdf version of the cafe layout and menu on their phone
  • Long lines: May not necessarily reduce overcrowding
  • Careful placement: Digital displays have to be strategically placed where customers can see it yet not be obstructive to traffic

Narrowing down on a solution

With three different potential solutions, we wanted to get feedback from both stakeholders and customers to better inform us of which concept we could develop further to best solve the cafe’s problems. We created feedback plans involving design and satisfaction questions in order to narrow down our solution from three to one single solution. From the feedback sessions, we chose the pre-ordering app for the following main reasons:

  • Remove the decision time of people going in
  • Employees can use the preorder system as a forecasting tool to understand how many orders will come in
  • People are comfortable with individual experiences, and being able to order on their own.
  • Research has shown that people order more (and spend more) with pre order experiences.
  • People can grab a seat in advance
Mobile web app for pre-ordering


Creating wireframes and getting feedback

After we chose our solution, we quickly mocked up wireframes to validate the interaction flows and features of the app in order to get feedback with users, hoping to narrow down the solution scope even further.

Lo-fidelity prototype and testing

Expert reviews and quick usability tests

We then had the cafe manager and customer services manager review the app. We had them go through a series of task-based usability app


1 facilitator + 1 notetaker

Cafe Manager, Georgia Aquarium Customer Services Manager

- Task-based usability test to uncover any usability and interaction issues
- Feedback on Menu items to validate information architecture
- Features survey for both consumer-facing and kitchen operations app to gauge feature priorities

Feature surveys


1. Need to balance customization of orders

2. Account for vouchers and combo meals

3. Nutrition and dietary restriction info should be clear and discoverable

4. Common practice to offer sides and beverage after creating an order

5. Display food availability

6. Prioritize map info for finding seat feature

Iterations and increasing fidelity

From the expert reviews, we quickly made iterations to address these issues while increasing the fidelity simultaneously.

Adding sides to a meal

We found customer expectations wanted to have side options included when choosing an entree found in common food ordering apps. We added on sides and toppings below each entree selection.

Revising Information Architecture

We had a poor completion rate during usability testing when asked to find seating info with the old prototype. We simplified the information architecture and labeled the menu categories more clearly.

Accounting for vouchers and coupon codes

When testing with the cafe manager, we were made aware of many customers having coupon and voucher codes for food. As a result, we included a coupon code input in the checkout section.

Prioritizing seating location map

In our original prototype, we had included a variety types of seating information including waiting time at the cafe, traffic overview based on foot traffic, and a map of seating area locations. During our testing, both experts believed the seating area map would be most helpful to visitors and the most realistic to implement. We prioritized the seating area map by putting it first and up front in the list.

More in-depth usability tests

As we iterated on our design, we began to testing it again with real cafe customers to further validate our design and features. To evaluate the overall usability of the prototype, we had customers think aloud and complete tasks such as ordering a burger and finding seating info. In the end of the testing session, we had participants fill out a SUS form.

Testing improved prototype with cafe customers
Prototype used for cafe customer testing
Usability Test Findings

Home Page - mostly positive
- Likes the simplicity of the design and easy to understand
- Glad to see kids' meal and combo info on the top

Ordering Food - some confusions
- Want to see a list of toppings and customize the burger
- Would be convenient to have the checkout button at the bottom of food item page
- Glad to see info on calories and allergy issues

Checkout - average, but clear
- "It's all normal info requested, so I can understand"
- "I'm happy that I can schedule a time to pick up my food"
- "How would I pay by cash?" Need more instructions here

Tracking your order - mostly positive
- "I have all the info I need and it's easy to understand"
- Concerns about directions to the counter and how to interact with staff

Finding seating info- confusing
- Over half of the participants tried to interact with the seating map
- Need more guide on directions of "real-time" information

System Usability Scale
- Average: 82.9
- Median: 83
- Highest: 94
- Lowest: 72



Next Steps

With multiple rounds of testing, we have validated the features and hashed out any major usability issues in the prototype. Our next steps would be to further iterate on the design based on our findings and test the prototype in the context of a crowded situation as well as explore ways of having visitors discover the app within the aquarium. Concurrently, we would also begin designing the staff-side application and see how it would communicate with the pre-ordering app in the cafe ecosystem. When the prototypes are developed enough we would begin measuring the success of our prototype through business metrics such as the total throughput and revenue the cafe with and without at the app. Ideally we would to do this as quick as possible to minimize risk and costs to the aquarium.

We want to thank the Georgia Aquarium and its staff for giving our team the opportunity to work with them on this problem and providing us their resources and guidance.

My Takeaways

Thorough research with clear and actionable findings leads to an efficient ideation process.
Our ideation process was not only quick but effective and this was mostly due to having set a clear problem statement further informed by deep research insights. That being said, good research takes time and effort and having a solid research plan with a timeline allows the team to stay focused on research goals and allows for any logistical pivots leading to the next point

The research process is often iterative as well.
We recruited some customers for quick initial interviews about their cafe experience. However, we were not quite satisfied with the findings as there were still some unanswered questions. Due to some time constraints, we could have moved on, but as a team we felt that we did not have all the information we needed, so we went back and talked to the aquarium to work out an incentives deal for the customers that allowed us to do cafe touring interviews, a method better than we had originally planned for and as a result obtained much deeper insight on how customers navigated through the cafe.

Going beyond the product itself, service design?
Although the scope of our project focused mainly on a digital product in the end to solve for overcrowding, there were many aspects of this product that were not digital and may not necessarily need to resort to a digital solution. There are many actors and stakeholders involved in the cafe ecosystem. The cafe vendor is a separate entity from the aquarium and different aquarium departments dealt with different business aspects of the cafe. We also had to consider the existing layout of the cafe and it's adjacent surroundings. In this day and age, its sometimes easy to "create an app" for everything, but there are multiple other routes that the aquarium can consider especially if they are "low hanging fruit"- physical space redesign, improved signage systems, and physical products (trays, tables, seating)

Having a great team dynamic
This last point is often brought up, but I want to thank my teammates for being awesome and collaborating from start to finish with the many team meetings and constant communication, and committing even when everyone was juggling many things at once.

An awesome team
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