McDonald's Happy Table Isn't Something Real IT Has A Use For, Or Is It?

Of all the technology experiments that McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) has tried around the world, the one that seems the least like "real IT" is something called the Happy Table. The idea was that in Singapore there's no room for children's play areas in the restaurant, because real estate is just too expensive there. The solution: Stick a few NFC tags to the underside of tables, write an app for NFC-equipped Android phones to detect position from them, and let the kids drive virtual go-karts through a tabletop version of McDonaldLand. Just an ordinary day in the data center, right?

Of course, in the best tradition of cheap, hacked-together projects, the Happy Table actually works very well. It is cheap on the hardware side—all that's required for the restaurant is a few dollars' worth of NFC tags that don't contain any proprietary information. On the software side, there's an app to write that can detect those tags and also entertain the kids, and that can't look cheap or hacked together. But once it's written, the cost of rolling it out widely is very low. That's what McDonald's plans to do next, all over Asia. And McDonald's IT? It should be working fast to leverage everything it can get from the Happy Table.

Understand, that's not officially the job of McDonald's IT operation. The Happy Table is a marketing project, and the go-kart game is already offering kids who get the fastest time through the racing game the chance for food prizes. What would be more appropriate for IT would be, say, an app that used the Happy Table to let customers order. Or to offer otherwise-hidden menu items—remember, McDonald's currently has 145 menu items, which makes navigating the complete menu a game in itself.

Hold that thought, and consider a problem that McDonald's marketing department would love for IT to solve: figuring out which of those 145 items should be removed to pare down that menu. Right now the best marketing can do is to use focus groups. What marketing would really like would be a way to present the full menu to lots of customers, then watch over their shoulder to see what they look at and reject, what they come back to after perusing more of the menu, what they zero in on immediately.

That would make it possible to get real customer-in-restaurant feedback on which menu items to keep and which to drop. The only catch: Anyone in IT who proposed spending thousands of dollars per store on digital signage with eye-tracking cameras and a massive software project to tie it all together would soon find himself on fry duty at the McDonald's in Podunk.

Now let's come back to the Happy Table. It's not thousands of dollars' worth of new hardware with potentially privacy-invading cameras that customers would have to get up to examine. It's just a handful of generic NFC stickers on the underside of an ordinary McDonald's table.

But add an app that lets a customer's phone or tablet know its position on that table, and it could become a virtual buffet that lets that customer zoom in on every item on that oversized menu.

Yes, of course it's ridiculous as a way of ordering. But as a heavily instrumented marketing testbed—remember, that app can easily detect exactly what the customer is looking at through the virtual viewport of the phone's or tablet's screen—it's close to perfect. And the incremental hardware cost? Close to zero.

What else could that virtual menu include? How about all the nutrition and ingredient information that health critics currently complain is hard to find anywhere in a typical McDonald's? Tying an interest in that kind of information to specific customers is potentially CRM gold. And that ridiculously inexpensive Happy Table makes it dirt-cheap to dig out.

The possibilities aren't endless, but there are a lot more of them than it seems like the project cost should make possible. For example, panning and zooming to see something large is a pain, even with a big tablet, because it requires a lot of scrolling on the screen. But on a table, where NFC tags deliver position information? Just move the tablet around.

Think you can find a way to use that for conventional e-commerce, in-store IT or digital signage initiatives? If you can't, try pretending that it will require those thousands of dollars in special hardware that it actually won't.

See? It feels more like "real IT" right away.