“You can’t scale a tech business that relies so much on people.”
That’s what my co-founder, Jessica Beck, and I heard repeatedly from investors four years ago when we launched Hello Alfred, a service platform that provides weekly personal assistance inside urban homes to help people save time. The idea of building a tech platform that enables people to ask for and receive help from other people just wasn’t an appealing proposition for VCs looking for companies to scale quickly with algorithms and automation.
Eventually, we found investors who saw the value of what we were building, and we’ve proven it’s possible to grow as a people-focused tech company by creating economies of scale and expanding at a sustainable pace. With more than one million visits to more than 40,000 homes in eight cities across the country, including New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, we’ve recently closed a Series B round of investment to expand our footprint. But that initial skepticism we faced is still the prevailing attitude in tech.
Automation is amazing and fun, and we should continue automating repetitive menial tasks. But somewhere along the way, tech companies got too excited about the possibilities of overwriting the human source code and automating people out of the computing loop altogether.
And the costs are clear. Many of us have long resented the idea of being the product for social media networks and device-makers intent on monetizing our time, attention and data. We’ve been tired of sameness, convenience and soulless commerce crowding everything else out of the marketplace — tired of being fed a steady diet of pabulum while staring at our phones for the past decade. That’s why so many of us are investing in experiences over material things or seeking out unique, handcrafted alternatives to mass-produced commodities.
Tech companies need to pay attention to this consumer demand for more, not less, humanity in their everyday lives — and recognize they have the opportunity to create tech that’s every bit as unique and personal as people are.
Design for Empathy
That starts with carefully considering the implications of designing products to capture time and attention. We’re already seeing that happen with product designers from Google, Facebook and Apple publicly expressing regret for the addictive and exploitative features they designed into their apps, interfaces and operating systems.
Instead of building apps or devices meant to maximize the time spent using those products, designers need to empathize with — and imagine the real-world outcomes they want for — the people who use them. They need to ask themselves: How will this software save users’ time so they can spend it with friends and family? How will this app make users more creative so they can enrich their lives?
This is, after all, the goal of technology, isn’t it? To make us even more human, to give us the ability to retain more information, ask more questions, see more of the world, connect with more people?
Design for Trust
Just as product designers need to empathize with end users, they also need to consider the people in between. The convenience we enjoy when we use ride-hailing and delivery apps comes too often at the expense of the people providing the actual service. That’s a function of service and on-demand platforms that rely on freelance gig workers with no benefits or job security.
It’s possible to engineer for greater empathy in those tech-mediated interactions between people. But it requires doing something anathema to most tech startups: going slower.
Online service platforms are typically designed to reduce the friction of offline transactions. But sometimes it’s necessary to increase friction for the sake of building trust.
The car-sharing company Turo (formerly RelayRides) demonstrated this principle when it changed its transactional policy. After initially enabling users to lend and borrow privately-owned cars short-term through a mobile app and remote electronic access, the company began to experiment with longer-term shares that required borrowers and owners to meet in-person in order to exchange the keys. Andre Haddad, the CEO, told Fast Company “how much more satisfied our owners and renters were when they actually met in person instead of going through the anonymous exchange enabled by the hardware.”
We faced a similar challenge early on at Hello Alfred while designing the customer onboarding interface of our app. We set out to simplify the process and minimize the number of steps before new clients gave us access to begin in-home services. We were so focused on efficiency that we didn’t take into account that a customer might feel rushed and get spooked by the idea of handing over keys to a stranger. And we also neglected to consider the awkward position we were putting our Alfred Home Managers in by dispatching them to clients’ homes without proper introductions.
We fixed the problem by adding more, not less friction to the onboarding process by slowing it down with more steps to gradually bring new members and their Alfreds to an in-person meeting.
Any company, no matter the business it’s in, needs to earn trust — not only from its customers but from its employees. By putting people at the center of the computing loop, tech companies can begin to earn that trust — and regain their own humanity in the process.
This piece was originally published on Forbes.com.