The Design Problem in Online to Offline Services

Forget apps, why tech-enabled services should literally disappear.

Sometimes, it feels like technology is running us and not the other way around. We walk around on a beautiful day, heads buried in our smartphones. Friendly elevator chatter is replaced by tapping fingers, small talk at restaurants has made way for YouTube videos, and any free cognitive space we have is eaten by a relentless whir of notifications, pings and refreshed news feeds.

Illustration Credit: Liam Walsh

Our screens are becoming the lens by which we interpret the world and are heavily influencing the design of our offline, tech-enabled services.

Simply put, our tech fascinates us, but it takes away something from our offline, real world experiences.

A Design Problem in Online to Offline Services

As software has eaten the world and service value chains are transformed by technology the supposition is that we want to do more through our phones and less through person-to-person interaction.

While an engaging waiter is great while dining at New York’s finest restaurant, it also feels pretty convenient to order dinner through Postmates or Seamless to avoid talking to a human being altogether (never mind they are still powering the delivery).

Restaurants at JFK airport have responded to the ‘press a button for service’ trend by allowing travelers to interact with an iPad — and only an iPad — to order a pre-flight coffee. And to a busy traveler, one less conversation probably feels like a welcome relief.

But follow this design logic into the future and you come across automated checkouts, holographic concierges, arms-length Airbnb checkins, and driverless cars. We may soon be left wondering: Where did all the people go?

Technology’s central design principle has been to take humans out of the picture.

The problem with taking humans out of the equation is that it is fundamentally at odds with the concept of service hospitality, which is wholly concerned with how we can harness the power of human empathy and intuition.

In many ways we simply haven’t gotten around to building hospitality into our tech. Right now, our apps are focused on services as transactions and the ways to make them more efficient. However, real service is defined as a relationship, not a one-way transaction.

True service is a relationship, not a transaction. — Tweet this

So mimicking the current tech interface in service design sucks. It pulls our attention away from experiencing things richly in real life and eliminates an opportunity to have a more thoughtful, interactive relationship with the things we do and buy. In my opinion, most tech-enabled services today are punctuated by clumsy interruptions and flat interaction points. They fail to take your holistic experience into account. (And no, a cookie with my dry cleaning doesn’t fix it).

The Age of Hospitality Tech

If we fired our current services and demanded a more holistic hospitality experience a lot would change.

Hospitality-driven technology would likely take us to a place where the interface is the lack of one

A service experience is a series of informed and reinforcing interactions over time.

The future of technology in hospitality would still utilize powerful data, but place it in the hands of well-trained, empathetic people who could use it in context. Context is a powerful thing that turns facts from a CRM into clues a human or system can use to anticipate, be flexible, and help steward a cohesive experience.

Hospitality tech is coming, and it’s going to rock. It’s also not easy. Service companies have to deliver on consistent, high quality fulfillment before they earn trust — the basis of any relationship. In a world of moving parts this is much harder than it looks. As a founder of a services company, I know there is a lot to do. We need unit economics that work. We need a product people want and understand. We have to add value to all the players in the value chain. We have to build and grow. And all the while deal with the daily CX issues that happen in any service company. With all that going on, it’s easy to see why enduring, cohesive customer relationships become a nice to have.

Or is it? What if you started with trust? Hello Alfred, the company I started with Jessica Beck, is selling a relationship with a brand and a dedicated person you can trust to help you get things done.

We want to be the de facto operating system for your home life. We do that by aggregating on-demand and local services and then delivering them cohesively, past your door each week at the hands of dedicated ‘Alfred Client Managers’. We employ a blend of technology and human intuition.

So as the founder of a hospitality brand we think about it this way: we are striving to build an operating system that anticipates our clients’ needs and delivers against them at the highest level of service possible, evolving processes and logistics, accordingly. We start with the relationship.

We pride ourselves in having an interface that feels like you are communicating with an intuitive, warm human that cares about you — but that the execution of requests is aided through optimization and automation on our tech platform.

We are not the only service company that aims to revive hospitality. Companies like Pana, a virtual travel agent, aims to fix travel UX by bringing people, their nuanced opinions and expertise back into travel bookings. Then there is ALICE, a hospitality software company, which is creating communication and workflow management tools to improve hospitality in hotels for their guests. Or Olo, which has pioneered digital restaurant ordering, providing customers with better and faster personal service as an invisible interface that also improves operational efficiency.

A Preview of the Future

The most exciting part of a hospitality tech evolution is that every brand can participate in improving their customer experience in just a few brush strokes:

Step 1: Imagine a world where technology isn’t the lead character in our lives, but rather a fantastic supporting actor.

Step 2: Find new design inspirations.

Step 3: Remember customer NPS & retention are THE metrics.

One design inspiration my business partner and I look to are the Japanese ideals of Omotenashi, the balance between attentive care and unobtrusiveness. Omotenashi is a centuries old concept, but its place in a modern society hasn’t come to bear. How does technology stay hidden in the background, the so-called “invisible app,” while enabling better levels of empathy, anticipation and follow-through?

Think about your best hospitality experiences. The hotel that remembers you like a strong espresso and a crisp FT in the morning. Your favorite neighborhood restaurant that makes you and your guests feel warmly welcomed. Or the bartender that remembers the nuances of your drink from six months ago. Hospitality is about receiving people, anticipating them, and acting with the very human trait of empathy.

The role of services tech going forward could be hidden, and focused on inspiring more delightful moments with greater frequency. The anticipatory actions that differentiate a five-star resort from the rest could come to be in everyday occurrences. With the right interplay between data and a well-trained human, anticipatory interactions won’t be one-offs, but rather the new service standard.

There isn’t a formula for hospitality that can be automated. Kano Quality theory says that if you consistently delight clients their expectations will consistently increase. You jump on a treadmill of having to continually up your game. Inserting a sense of randomness, but systematic anticipation and recall, is a job that technology would accomplish very well.

Platforms like IBM Watson can aggregate every selection and preference you’ve ever made and become powerful context in the hands of a thoughtful, intuitive human agent who could select a perfectly timed experience.

Artificial intelligence, bots, machine learning and the “next wave” of apps and services that talk to you like a human are an exciting prospect, but without a human they will remain transactional. The value of human interaction and innate characteristics like warmth, empathy, and service have (and will continue to have) a very welcome and important place in our society. They should never go away.

The allure of high-tech making it’s way into the service industry is great, but I believe it will not be sleek UI and an invisible back end alone that will make an excellent experience, but people putting technology to its highest use. The future of consumer tech is putting humans back in the computing loop and connecting the offline and online worlds in ways we have never seen.

Marcela Sapone (@mssapone) is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hello Alfred, the home operating system. Alfred is behind the scenes making sure that when you get home, it’s the home you want. She was named one of Goldman Sachs most intriguing entrepreneurs, the callout for Consumer Tech in Forbes 30 under 30 and the 2014 winner of TechCrunch Disrupt SF.

A version of this story was published in PSFK on January 26th, 2016