Is Unexcelled Food a Good Thing?

Christine Perfetti

January 4th, 2006

I’m curious how many people are interested in eating at a restaurant that serves unexcelled food? Last weekend, I drove by the Century House Restaurant in Peabody, Massachusetts. What struck me was the sign displayed prominently in front of the restaurant: The Century House: Unexcelled Food.

Century House's Unexcelled Food

I’ll admit I’ve never eaten at the Century House before. But now that I’ve seen how they choose to describe their food, I’m not all that eager to try out the restaurant anytime soon. Even when I visited the Century House web site, the designers chose to display the ‘Unexcelled Food’ description prominently on the home page.

If the designers of the Century House’s site had tested the copy, would users have found the description persuasive? So far, I’ve asked more than a dozen people what their impressions are and many assumed unexcelled was a negative term meaning that the restaurant’s food was poor or ‘not excelling’. Actually, the term has a very positive meaning: not capable of being improved on.

While the copywriters intended to persuade users to dine at the Century House, the words didn’t seem all that persuasive to the people I surveyed. This is why it’s so important for design teams to test out the effectiveness of the site’s copy with their users. By testing your own site, it really brings home the huge importance of words on the web.

17 Responses to “Is Unexcelled Food a Good Thing?”

  1. Steve Portigal Says:

    It reads like a typo for “unexpelled food” to me.

  2. David Mantripp Says:

    Sounds relatively obvious to me. And unusual, hence noticeable and memorable. Does good usability now mean that vocabularies should be reduced down to illiteracy levels ? Words are important everywhere, not just on the web, and what may seem like a service to persuasiveness might be a disservice to language and culture. “Eat at Joe’s” is doubtless clearer. But I rather like the sheer guts of an advertiser who stretches the use of language a bit.

    So what is the food like ? :-)

  3. Christine Perfetti Says:

    I still haven’t eaten at the Century House. I might check it out soon just out of curiosity.

    I don’t doubt the term “unexcelled” is obvious to many users. My question is: would this description persuade the Century House’s users to eat at the restaurant?

    I don’t know whether the Century House has tested their copy. But I am curious whether this description is successful for them. Having a usable site doesn’t mean that teams must write copy designed to satisfy illiterate users. Instead, site designers need to design for their specific users with language that their site’s audience will understand.

    It sounds like the Century House has persuaded you David. So far, with my informal polling of friends and colleagues (who I consider literate), the copy hasn’t been all that persuasive to them.

  4. Stacy Westbrook Says:

    I sent this to some of the writers in my office, and they all had the same reaction. “Ewwwww!” Something tells me this isn’t the reaction the Century House is hoping for.

  5. Tim Says:

    I drive by the Century House all the time…but have never eaten there (but I have noted the weird use of the odd term “unexcelled”). My guess is they have been using the term “Unexcelled Food” for decades – probably fifty years, i’d bet (based on their history, it looks like they’ve been around for a long long time in various permutations). Maybe the phrase just stuck with the owners and the regulars…from a time when the term “unexcelled” was used more often (and perhaps could not be improved on).

    Not that it particularly resonates with me…but hey.

  6. Eric Meyer Says:

    See, I instinctively got their intended meaning. This is exactly why they ought to test it, though: odds are that when they came up with the slogan, whenever that was, they tried it out on people who “got it”. With a larger sample, they’d have found people who had your reaction, and thus discovered their problem.

    Then again, maybe they’re an elitist sort of establishment, and only want to serve patrons literate enough to immediately understand their slogan. (He said snobbishly.)

  7. Christine Perfetti Says:

    Perhaps I (and some of the other folks at UIE) didn’t excel on the verbal SAT. :)

    One reader did comment to me privately that it’s interesting how much I’ve been talking about the Century House – and publicizing it – because of this so-called bad slogan. Has Century House been generating word-of-mouth with this slogan? Possibly.

  8. David Underwood Says:

    At first glance this seemed to be a slogan that made the food at Century House sound very – well – bad. However the usage of terminology made me curious. As such I gathered the exact definition:

    Unexcelled
    adj : not capable of being improved on [syn: unexceeded, unsurpassed]

    By definition this would describe high quality food improved over the years to a point of perfection. I still think most people in our current time would have no idea what it meant and could turn them away however if it has been used over their history I can understand keeping it.

  9. BIG SWINGING Says:

    The Century House seemingly has won half the battle in terms of grabbing attention and providing the fodder for a conversation to get started…

  10. Jared Spool Says:

    Big Swinging wrote:

    The Century House seemingly has won half the battle in terms of grabbing attention and providing the fodder for a conversation to get started…

    Absolutely! And who of us is going there? So, what have they actually won?

  11. Daniel Drop Says:

    Jared Spool wrote: “So, what have they actually won? ”

    According to their website, “Today, Century House is the 10th Largest Independent Restaurant in Massachusetts.”

    Something is working for them.

    For those who don’t understand the word “uncontrolled”, perhaps the incongruence between the statement and the appearance of the building (which looks inviting from the pictures on the internet) could cause curiosity. That’s how I would probably respond. Although, since Jared would not want to eat there on first glance, that’s not everyone’s reaction. Who’s in the majority? Does it matter if Century House is meeting their criteria for success?

    Putting the sign in this article without the surrounding locale does not fully give enough context for us to analyze the situation. Next time I’m in Peabody, MA, I want to take a visit to Century House.

  12. Daniel Drop Says:

    Oops, made a wrong reference in my comment above. It was Christine who wasn’t persuaded to eat at Century House, not Jared. Got to read those bylines.

  13. Brian Says:

    I originally articulated a great comment, concluding with my rule of thumb for writing for the web, “Be simple, not intelligible”.

    However, when I posted my comment I received a nasty error message on the following screen that I hadn’t filled out the required “email” field. Upon hitting the “Back” button, the comment field was empty and thus my carefully crafted comment lost.

    Another rule of thumb, users don’t read directions (as in “will not be published” above). Much less that the field labels are located after the inputs, so there is no reason to read beyong what is required. “Mail”…what’s this?….not necessary.

    Perhaps the “(will no be published)” should be dropped. “Mail” changed to “email address”, and the form labels moved before the inputs. Just a suggestion from this UI junkie.

    Great blog content though!!!!

  14. David Mantripp Says:

    Personally I have the work assumption that no restaurant is going to qualify their food with a negative adjective, and I would imagine that the majority of people instinctively agree with that (you can’t beat one man’s opinion over controlled, fully qualified user surveys :-p). So, even if I don’t know what “unexcelled” means, I assume it must be good, and it makes me curious. Therefore, my initial point that using an unusual word (unusual in 2006, anyway) is memorable surely can, on the whole, generate only positive outcomes ? It sort of sticks in subconscious to the level that you say “hey, I’ve got to try this Century House to finally find out what this unexcelled stuff is!”. Ironically, this ends up sounding like very clever marketing, but probably when it was originally formulated it was just plain obvious.

    One can only wonder what the Magna Carta or US Constitution would read like if us usuability people had been around in those days….(do we have a “very tongue in cheek” smiley ??)

  15. David Mantripp Says:

    oops. Substitute “working assumption” for “work assumption”

  16. Alex Says:

    Usable or not, the copy is probably incorrect. It is the Chef or, if we stretch the context a bit, the cooking that is unexcelled, not the food. Unless, of course, it walks, jumps or swims. Some menu items do.

  17. mary antoniello Says:

    when I was in the third grade, my father and I passed by the sign for century house and I asked my father why do they say they have unexcellent food and my father responded that unexcelled meant not to be surpassed. that was almost 50 years ago and the sign has been there all this time. Maybe somebody’s vocab skills need to be improved. And if you dine at the century house, you will see that unexcelled is an accurate description of everything they serve. You will see why their parking lot is always full and why it has been a favorite for a lot of people. Also their Epicurean Shoppe next door sells many of the same items as on their menu.

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