What summer closures in Paris can teach us about UX design

Slightly mixed messages. Left sign: Reopening at the end of August [no date specified] Have a good summer + see you later. Right sign: Open Tuesday—Saturday 2pm-7pm. 

Come to Paris any time of year and it’s a game of opening days and opening hours. Anything but a 24/7 culture. Museums tend to be closed Mondays or Tuesdays, restaurants may be closed Mondays or Tuesdays (or in other cases weekends), and shops will play by their own set of rules. Of course holidays will affect openings as well. A month like May when there are 3-4 holidays definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat. But nothing beats the month of August when Parisians are famous for skipping town and taking advantage of a large portion of their 5-9 weeks of vacation a year.

It’s one thing to be on the side where you leave town. It’s a whole other ballgame to be in Paris and trying to figure out where you can go and what you can do during this month where anything goes. My own love/hate relationship with the month awakened my inner educator, and I couldn’t help but turn this post into a lesson in UX (user experience) design and look at the experience through the lens of the customer.

UX tends to be the side of the experience that isn’t always overtly visible, so I thought I’d bring it to the forefront. There’s a huge opportunity for businesses, even if they do leave on holiday. Who knows, this whole idea of breaking down lived experiences from a design perspective may become a whole series. If it does I’m tentatively calling it #missedopportunities.

The business perspective

When a restaurant or shop in Paris closes for a few weeks for summer holidays, their mindset is something like, “I’m so ready for vacation, I can’t wait to get out of here!” They’ve had the dates on the calendar for half a year and they are beyond ready for a break. They know everything they need to take care of before they go to close everything up and be able to completely unplug and disconnect. Lowest—or at least last—on the list is the most public facing component: communicating closures to others.

The typical final step owners take is to lock up and post a sign on the door or closed grate noting when they’ll be back. It’s probably a quickly written or typed sign on A4 paper and posted with clear tape. They may or may not have had the foresight to update their social media, website, and opening hours on Google.

The mentality around communicating August closures is not so much that they don’t care about their business so much as “out of sight, out of mind.” Running a business is hard work, burnout is real, and they’re ready for a well earned break too. They won’t be around to deal with customers and the business will be closed anyway, so anything customer facing is an afterthought and a minor detail in the grand scheme of what needs to do to leave on holiday. There are a significant amount of odds and ends that need to take place in order to take a well deserved break.

Now let’s flip the script and think of this scenario from the customer perspective.

A rare sight of too much communication. All very helpful and something for everyone! Including where to find them online. Perhaps the July hours could have been erased as they’re no longer relevant.

The customer perspective.

I’m in Paris. I love when Paris is quiet. That doesn’t mean I want to stay in my apartment all day everyday. I completely understand the need to take a break and go on holiday. There’s no judgement there. I still can want to support local businesses and have interactions with other humans.

I also know in August I can’t just do/go whatever/wherever my heart desires in Paris. It takes a bit more planning, thought, and research. I’m not a big planner, but if I know you’re going to be open in August I get super excited and I’ll be there all the time. I’ll become a new regular.

If I have a visitor in town it’s extremely helpful to know what will be open, particularly when it comes to restaurants. With visitors, I usually have advanced notice of when they’ll be in town, and it’s something to look forward to. Vacations and closures actually start the last couple weeks in July, but there’s still no forethought into communicating to customers about openings or closures. I find myself figuring out where we can go as it happens.

I love being a regular, but August shakes up my routine. For some of my favorite places I frequent I’ll take to asking them about their summer plans. The reality is that it’s exhausting to ask everywhere you want to go whether and when they’ll be open, and you really need a spreadsheet to keep track of everything because every business plays by their own rules in summer. It also can change from one summer to the next. They keep you on your toes!

The thing that kills me is that signs go up at the last second. They’ve essentially closed their doors and then think to communicate it. If it were up to me, I’d have a sign up a couple weeks before I was set to close to let people know what to expect.

I was so bummed when my favorite chicken place closed extra early this summer for renovations. Had I known they were closing I would have had one last run to get my fix. Instead, this year they closed for nearly a month and a half. A similar thing happened with a favorite coffee shop. While they typically close in August, I had no reason to believe they’d close even earlier—and longer—starting in July this year. I would have gone out of my way to get that last cup of satisfaction to tide me over for the summer. As a customer I WANT to give you my money, but sometimes businesses in France make it hard.

Then there’s a whole other type of businesses who just don’t communicate ANYTHING. I love supporting small, independent, and local businesses, but sometimes they make an already frustrating time even more aggravating. Take a couple weeks ago, I was really excited to go to a restaurant in my neighborhood that works with local producers. I tended to walk by during off hours so I never saw it open. There was no sign on the door, so I had no reason to believe they were closed. I know in Paris that’s not enough to go off of, so before heading there for dinner I checked their website and social media. Still nothing. I knew their sister restaurant another neighborhood over was still open, so it didn’t make sense the one near me would be closed, but you never know. So I decided to call. It was when they should be open but the phone rang and rang and rang. Were they busy or closed? I didn’t know. It was close enough I decided it was best just to walk by and see what the scene was. Of course it was closed. What made this so frustrating was all the different points where something could have been communicated. Instead it makes me as a client feel stupid and annoyed. That’s not great for business.

Another thing that happens in summer is businesses may change their opening days, times, as well as their offers. Perhaps summer hours are different, or you’re opening your terrace in the evening. Yes, it’s great for the person strolling by who discovers it just when they needed something to eat or drink. But what about the rest of us who don’t even know that we should come back because nothing is communicated that you have this offering later in the day? #missedopportunity

I often joke that the French don’t like to volunteer information. That’s a lot of pressure on me as the customer to think to inquire, and also figure out which question(s) I should ask to uncover this gem of information I really would have liked to know. If you’re a business owner and sales are down, trust me there are some super simple tweaks you can make to get the word out and communicate your offers. Depsite what society may make us believe, social media isn’t always the answer either. Word of mouth still is the one of the best ways to get word out, but the “spreaders” need to know what’s going on in order to pass along a good word.

Lately I’ve also noticed that restaurants will have menus listed in a few different places—perhaps written on the window, posted on the wall, and there’s more still in the display case. I grew up looking at one menu, so my mental model doesn’t tell me to look in multiple places to find information. On more than one occasion I’ve placed my order only to realize there was something I wanted more, I didn’t know it existed.

Just like with the opening hours, I’m having to work way too hard as someone who is a customer who literally wants to give you my money. I’d probably spend even more money if I knew some of these other products and offers existed. (And if certain items are only offered during certain windows of time, please don’t hide that information.)

Sure, signs outside your business are great to communicate summer closures, but businesses have to remember that all of their customers don’t necessarily live in the neighborhood. It’s incredibly frustrating to travel across town to find out a place is closed. Even before social media was as big as it is today, businesses weren’t great at updating their websites with opening hours. You were more likely to find updates on Facebook pages than official websites. (The challenge of finding the simplest information like opening hours on websites in France any time of the year is a whole other challenge for another post.) My goal as the customer is to find the information at a glance. Not have to go digging for it.

Google is quite smart, but still can’t read minds when it comes to holidays. Some businesses do update their summer hours on Google (that feeds into the maps feature), but some don’t. Will you be on the lucky side or not?? One business may respond, “but we updated Google,” but the baggage of the five others who didn’t is real in the customer journey.

I try not to use social media to complain about businesses, but I sometimes do when it comes to communicating openings. They may respond, “but we did share it…on Stories!” Stories are the Instagram feature that disappear after 24 hours. Other times they may share it in an Instagram post, but I have no control over what the algorithm tells me. And it takes some time and effort to have to look for said post. Why not just share it on your profile?(It’d be great if you shared your address with Paris zipcode while I’m at it!).

The goal should be for the potential customer to find the information fast, and it should be where they expect it. People should not have to go digging or hunt for it. Remember, UX is from the USER perspective. It’s necessary to get inside the brains of users and customers. While we can’t mind read, but we can gain empathy for their perspective. (Hence, I wrote this post ;) ).

UX is often something no one thinks about because when design is done right it’s seamless and easy. We’re more likely to notice—and complain—if air conditioning isn’t working, it’s too hot, or too cold. We totally ignore how it’s working until it goes awry. It’s the when things don’t go as planned that the true opportunities too. Let’s dig into some opportunities when it comes to summer closures in Paris.

My favorite sign I’ve seen this summer which an Instagram follower shared with me. (Sorry, it didn’t save your name, I’m happy to update with credit!)

Frustrations = opportunities

When it comes to UX, designers look to frustrations and pain points to find the biggest opportunities. By empathizing with the user or customer, we can learn a lot about a context or situation. Sometimes it’s the smallest changes and shifts in mindset that can have a big impact.

Every summer I encounter the same frustrations, but these are the easy fixes I’d suggest.

Post an awesome sign. If you do I’ll probably share it. So consider that free publicity. It also may grab the attention of some locals who may never have otherwise have noticed your shop or restaurant. It’s practical for the short term, but also can build buzz for long term business. Stand out and make people look. (Several years ago I put together posts here and here with a collection of my favorite signs—here and here—they still leave a lot to be desired.)

To be clear awesome doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or be time consuming. Have a little personality. Everyone loves having a smile on their face. You can even take a photo of your awesome sign and share it on your social media. Simple and effective content.

Pay attention to where you hang the sign. When you do post the sign, make it easy to find. As a customer my habits make me want to head to the door to look for information. The tiny sign on the side window around the corner is not the obvious place where I’d think to look. (Yes, I recently encountered this. It was at least a rare fun sign.)

Communicate closures—or openings—in advance. A few weeks before holidays you can post a sign of when you will be closed (or celebrate the fact that you’ll be open, because we customers need to know that too! August 15th is a public holiday, so that day brings everything into question again). This can be a small sign near check out.

Communicating in advance is also important as often social media algorithms have a day or two delay to have information appear in the feed. Businesses can also communicate the information more than once, because customers need to hear it for it to sink in. It’s about a respect for time.

Communicate in multiple locations. Make it easy to find.
Update your website, social media profiles, and create a post. Also, be explicit (day, month, date—say it in all the ways. We’re going for clarity and clear, direct messaging here). “See you next week” in an Instagram caption isn’t very useful when the interface doesn’t clearly state the date. UX is about not making the user have to think to get what they need. Volunteer information before the customer has to ask or makes false assumptions.

Don’t make assumptions. I fear it’s assumed that locals “will know” opening hours so there’s no need to communicate. You can tell me something but that doesn’t mean it sinks in. Trust me when I say that it’s very different knowing your own travel dates than keeping track of all your friends as well as businesses. It’s a giant swirling mess. Then it’s quite a bit of effort to see if a place is open. Keep in mind that even the most regular or regulars can’t keep track of it all!

Check in regularly to make sure the hours and information on your profiles is still relevant. We all get so in the groove we forget to make sure the basic information is still correct. Schedule these regular check ins.

Of course all of this is wishful thinking. I was looking forward to supporting a local coffee joint I love on their first day back. Of course they extended their closure until September 3rd. It wouldn’t be the authentic Paris experience without these twist and turns! Ha! (And it’s not even owned by Frenchies. It’s just in the air here.)

These are my thoughts. Can you relate? I spend so much time pondering why no businesses have ever thought about this from “my” perspective. Am I crazy to see all this all as a missed opportunity?? Does it drive anyone else insane? How else would you redesign the experience of summer closures? Share in the comments.

In general I love August in Paris. You can listen to me chat about August on Earful Tower last summer. As for UX, you can learn more about the field through my OpenClassrooms courses + in this Biz Blog post with my favorite UX books and resources.


P.S. I’ll be announcing my next round of creative workshops soon! Sign up for my Connect the Dots newsletter + follow me @pretavoyager on Instagram for the latest.

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