Starbucks has grown to be a world-wide brand with over 15,000 locations. Its extra-ordinary success is often attributed to providing a high-quality customer experience.
An important aspect of the Starbucks experience is customizing drink orders. In order to support a high degree of customization, Starbucks has created a deep and flexible framework, and a language for describing the framework and progressively introducing it to customers.
This article examines the Starbucks drink framework and the language that describes it.
Starbucks has carefully planned its customer journey. Its menu offers a first-time visitor a relatively small set of options, which means ordering for the first-time can be very simple.
But customers familiar with the drink framework, can specify drinks not explicitly on the menu, creating literally millions of options.
The Starbucks’ menu options are built on a complex framework, offering 14 dimensions along which customers can make choices to “design” their own drink.
Beginners see little of the framework, but Starbucks has set up a process for teaching it— and having customers teach each other.
The Starbucks drink framework invites participation and exploration. Learning the language creates a sense of empowerment and belonging. It helps customers feel they are part of Starbucks.
Here’s how the Starbucks drink framework is organized.
Starbucks drink framework
Starbucks drink offerings can be divided into four categories: Espresso drinks, Drip coffee, Frappuccinos, and Tea drinks. Espresso drinks use shots of espresso as a base to build upon. Drip coffee is common coffee, hot water percolated through ground coffee beans. Frappuccino is a proprietary word for Starbucks’ blended, dessert-like coffee drinks, and tea drinks range from traditional tea bags in hot water to iced tea mixed with lemonade and other fruit juices.
Espresso drinks can be divided further into four sub-categories: Espresso, Latte, Cappuccino, and Americano. Espresso shots served alone comprise the first subcategory. The Latte is a drink composed of a number of espresso shots mixed with steamed milk, topped with frothed milk foam. The Cappuccino is like a Latte, but with less milk and more foam. The Americano is composed of espresso shots and hot water rather than milk.
The Latte is the basis of most drinks on Starbucks’ menu. The main difference between most Latte drinks is simply the choice of flavored syrup. Others differ by being served over ice rather than warm.
One exception is the Caramel Macchiato, which varies from the standard latte by three parameters. The Caramel Macchiato is made with vanilla flavored syrup and is topped with caramel butter—an ingredient unique to the drink. The third parameter is an advanced one—build order. The Caramel Macchiato is built upside down. “Macchiato” is Italian for “marked.” In traditional coffee jargon, it refers to an espresso shot marked with foam on top. In Starbucks’ Barista-speak, it means foam marked by pouring espresso through it. The Caramel Macchiato is built upside down—the espresso is poured in last, through the foam.
Using the ordering language
Despite the depth and complexity of the drink framework, ordering a drink requires the customer make only two choices—the name and size of a drink. Drinks come in four sizes; 8oz Short (available, but not on the menu), 12oz Tall, 16oz Grande (Italian for large), and 20oz Venti (Italian for 20, a Starbucks trademark). The name of a drink (e.g. Latte or Mocha) represents a set of instructions for its creation (a mocha, for example, is a latte with chocolate syrup).
A customer need not even remember the two options required for ordering. If unsure of the name of a drink, a customer can get help from the barista taking the order. The barista will also prompt for size, if not specified.
Options unspecified in the order are implied. For example, a Mocha comes with caffeinated espresso and whipped cream by default. The minimum drink order, e.g., “Tall Mocha,” specifies 2 criteria (the drinks size and name) but implies at least 6 more.
The drink comes warm (rather than iced) and regular (rather than decaffeinated) unless otherwise specified. The amount of espresso in the drink corresponds to its size—a Tall comes with one shot. The drink will be made with 2% milk—the standard at Starbucks as of last year. The drink’s name “Mocha” implies the last two criteria: the inclusion of chocolate syrup and whipped cream topping.
Customers order more complex drinks by specifying alternatives to default criteria. “Tall Non-fat Mocha” specifies a different type of milk. “Iced Tall Mocha” comes over ice in a slightly larger cup (to compensate for the volume displaced by the iced). A “Tall Peppermint Mocha” specifies a second flavored syrup. Users may specify several custom criteria at once. A very complex drink order such as “Iced Half-caf Double Tall Non-fat Peppermint Mocha Without Whip” specifies all 8 of the following basic criteria:
- Drink type: Mocha, Latte, or Caramel Macchiato
- Drink size: Short, Tall, Grande, Venti
- Drink style: Iced or Warm
- Caffeination of espresso: Regular, Decaf., or Half-caf (a blend of regular and decaf.)
- Amount of espresso: number of espresso shots (by default Short and Tall come with 1 shot, Grade come with 2, and Venti come with 3, but customers may order any number)
- Milk type: Non-fat, 2%, Whole, Half and half, and Soy
- Syrup type: any of a range of approximately 15 flavors
- Whipped cream: With-whip or No-whip
Very savvy customers may customize drinks in more obscure ways:
- Other cup types: In addition to regular and iced cups, customers may request a ceramic “for here” cup, or take a drink “to-go” in their own travel mug.
- Tempurature: The drink’s temperature may be requested “cooler” or “extra-hot” or even to a specific degree (e.g., 167°F).
- Build order: The order in which the drink is built may be customized—have it upside down like a Caramel Macchiato.
- Ristretto shots: Baristas make espresso shots by “pulling” hot water through coffee grounds. Older, less automated espresso machines allow the barista to make “short pull” or “ristretto” shots. These abbreviated shots are slightly sweeter, and less bitter.
- Espresso alternatives: Not all drinks in the Latte framework contain espresso. Chai Tea and Green Tea Lattes substitute concentrated tea for espresso.
- Amount of foam: A “dry” drink has more foam and less milk, a “wet” drink contains less foam.
- Amount of syrup: The amount of syrup measured in half-ounce pumps may also be specified.
- Additional syrups: The Mocha comes with chocolate syrup, but customers may choose from around 15 flavored syrups and may also combine syrups, e.g. Peppermint Mocha. Many types of syrup are available consistently; others (such as pumpkin or gingerbread) are available only in a particular season; still others are available as temporarily promotions.
Learning the language
With so many options, how many variations are possible? With only one syrup the Starbucks latte framework offers almost 200 million variations. Add a second syrup and there are over 1.3 billion—enough for each Chinese citizen to have his or her own personal drink.
How do customers cope with so many options? Consider this story: A new customer enters a Starbucks store. She stands in line behind another customer and hears him order: “I’ll have a Grande Non-fat Latte.” The barista taking his order repeats the order “Grande Non-fat Latte.” When the drink is ready another barista calls out the drink again “Grande Non-fat Latte.”
The new customer has heard the language—Barista-speak. She may realize from hearing the other customer that the size of the drink comes first in the order and that she can ask for “non-fat” as an option. When it is her turn to order, she can call on prior knowledge of coffee drinks, ask the barista to help her decide, or look to the menu for some ideas. When she orders, the barista will clarify the order and repeat it back. When the order is ready another barista will call out the order again.
Each order is repeated three times. Repetition supports the learning process. Over time, the customer learns new options from the baristas, from other customers, and from her friends. She may learn Barista-speak and the underlying framework for designing drinks, but not all at once.
Customers learn at the pace they set. The drink framework and language offer an easy way for those unaccustomed or unaware of the system to order without difficulty. The system’s full complexity waits for customers to discover it.
The process of learning Barista-speak is a carefully designed journey. New customers may have no concept of the drink framework or ordering language but that does not prevent them from ordering. They can order from the menu or get guidance form the barista.
Customers may begin to customize drink orders after learning new options through promotions, by hearing other customers, and by sharing drink preferences with friends. Upon recognizing the language, customers may begin to seek out new options and experiment with new variations. Experienced customers may suggest new variations to friends and teach the language to beginners.
Why does it matter?
Learning the language gives the customer more control—the power to order a drink precisely to preference. It also creates a sense of belonging—of having insider knowledge and status. Empowerment and belonging make customers feel that they are a part of Starbucks. They encourage repeated visits and build loyalty.
Frameworks are important tools for systems design. Starbucks provides a sophisticated example of framework design. The Starbucks example also provides important lessons on product language design and shows how progressive disclosure and unfolding complexity can support co-creation of products and services. These lessons can be applied to many other interaction design and service design problems.