How the Rules of Hospitality Can Inspire Better Design

by Jon Snydal and Jordan Presnick | December 20, 2016 | More Articles

Illustration by Nicolas Perez Cervantes

This is an exciting time for our industry. Both clients and their customers are seeking a higher quality experience from their brands beyond mere transactions. Businesses are recognizing the need to reevaluate their internal practices and better understand how the outside world sees them. Meanwhile, technology is enabling greater knowledge of customers, their preferences and interests. This presents both great opportunities, but also requires a high degree of sophistication and responsibility to apply wisely.

So how does one become an experience-driven organization? A good start is to think about your audience not as users, or shoppers, but as personal guests. What fundamentally makes a guest feel welcome, cared for, and comfortable? What makes them want to return and re-engage with a service? Drawing on our work in the hospitality industry, as well as our own experiences at being hosts (and guests) to friends and family, we discovered that many of the basic principles of good hospitality are universal, and translate well to our work as designers.

1. Make guests feel at home.

As hosts, we go to great lengths to make guests feel welcome and comfortable in our home: greet them with a smile, fill the refrigerator with foods they like, provide maps and tips on things to see and do. We help our guests get familiar with their surroundings, so they feel as comfortable in our house as they do in their own. We try to give them the creature comforts they are used to and we also give them space, privacy and freedom to do what they are used to doing.

As designers, making people feel comfortable can be challenging when an environment is unfamiliar or when users are under emotional duress. In healthcare settings, we are seeing many interesting design interventions aimed at making people feel more at home. The most famous recent example is children’s MRI clinics, which are increasingly designed to resemble playrooms where children can go on deep-sea submarine trips or climb into a rocket to explore distant galaxies. Mammogram clinics are following suit, adopting interior design cues from high-end spas.

The whimsical design of an MRI clinic can help children feel at ease

When it comes to digital experiences, making people feel at home mostly means not making people change their habits and behavior. On a recent healthcare project we thought it would be great to offer patients a way to manage appointments via an app, and integrate a ride-sharing service into the app so they could get around after their surgery. In talking with patients, we discovered that most preferred to use their kitchen calendar for appointment reminders, and would just make a phone call to friends or family for a ride. As cool as those features sounded in theory, they would have forced too much behavior change and might sway guests from using the app at all. By meeting people where they were comfortable, we were able to provide a more welcoming experience overall.

2. Anticipate every need.

What distinguishes a good service experience from a poor one is how cared for a guest feels. A good host not only shows an interest in taking care of their guest, but does the work to ensure the guest experience is ideal. A good host knows what questions to expect, what things could go wrong, and what the guest’s basic goals are (leisure, adventure, wellness, etc).

Niki Nakayama’s Los Angeles restaurant n/naka is famous for remembering what returning guests liked and offering it to them again.

As experience designers, anticipating user needs and desires is a core element of our work. Tools like user research, personas and journey maps help us discover and find solutions for latent needs, goals and desires. But how do we take it to the next level?

The rise of artificial intelligence and context-aware systems opens up many new opportunities for anticipating and fulfilling user needs. Recommendation engines are becoming more capable of anticipating user intent through machine learning and by taking into context things like the time of day and your current location to surface relevant information. The new challenge for designers is to create products and services that use this data and context to create unique, dynamic experiences. We are currently moving from the two dimensional flatland of linear flows to a three dimensional model where experiences can move in multiple directions, shaped by data, context and user input.

3. Stay present.

“Hospitality happens when it feels like the other person is on your side.” — Danny Meyer

A good host is always available and responsive whenever a guest has a need. The importance of follow through in hospitality cannot be understated. The hotel industry famously created the “10 and 5 Staff Rule” to train hotel staff to create an emotional connection with guests. Anytime a guest is ten feet from a staff member, the staff member should make eye contact and smile warmly. At five feet, the staff member should do the same plus offer a sincere greeting or friendly gesture of acknowledgement. This technique has been adapted and applied in retail environments like Walmart, in theme parks and even in hospitals with great success.

In our work designing health care products and services, we’ve found that it’s very important to support the personal connection between patient and doctor throughout the patient’s journey. Patients have told us that one of their biggest fears is being abandoned by their doctor after a major surgery. Doctors tend to be the figurehead or symbol of a medical treatment and as such, patients place a lot of trust in their doctor. The doctor’s assessment about recovery progress and recommendations is hugely important for adherence to a treatment plan. In a recent patient engagement app we designed, we created many virtual touch points with the doctor and framed tasks and progress reports as coming directly from the doctor, even though they are often system-generated. We expect that by placing the voice of the doctor in the center of the user experience, patients will be more engaged and adhere more closely to the prescribed care path.

Clarify Health emphasizes the doctor’s presence by including her image and voice wherever possible.

4. Keep guests front stage.

There is a “front stage” and “back stage” to every guest experience. In a restaurant, the front stage is the dining area and the back stage is the kitchen. Front stage, servers treat diners with respect and attentiveness, creating a sense of order and calm. But when a server goes back stage, they may become more informal and irreverent in the noisy chaos of the kitchen. Diners are expected to stay front stage and not enter the kitchen to “see how the sausage is made.”

Some of the worst guest experiences happen when there are no clear boundaries between front and back stage. Consider airport security lines, where travelers must take off clothes and shoes, empty their pockets, place their belongings on a conveyor for inspection, stand in a scanning machine with their arms up, then quickly gather their things and try to recompose themselves on the spot. The whole experience is exposed, so it feels both voyeuristic and like an invasion of privacy. From removing clothes in front of others, seeing other people’s belongings in the x-ray monitor, getting patted down by security personnel and hearing their conversations as they assess people’s belongings, there is little regard for the traveler’s experience.

Poor stage boundaries at airport security

When designing digital services, it’s generally easy to control boundaries and access between front and back stage. It’s common to design applications with a distinct consumer interface, as well as a back end for internal use. Still, there are often considerations around how much access different types of guests should have.

Last year, we designed a portal for financial advisors to share data with their investors. To conserve development costs, we designed a single user interface with two view modes: one for the financial advisor to see a detailed view of a client’s performance (back stage), and an investor portal that allowed the consumer to see a lightweight view of performance on their own (front stage). There was lengthy debate about where to draw the line between front and back stage. Many investors wanted to see performance graphs but financial advisors wanted to minimize what investors could see, to avoid having to answer lots of questions, especially about downward trends and losses. In the end, we designed a flexible, configurable model where financial advisors could share more detailed information if needed, but keep the default investor view within the front stage experience.

5. Identify EVERY moment that matters.

Guest experiences are peppered with “moments that matter” — touch points that make or break an experience. For a hotel guest, it may be entering their room and seeing a small chocolate resting on a crisp, clean pillowcase. For an airline traveler, it may be finding their seat in business class and being offered a glass of Pinot Noir. As designers, we focus on these key moments, when emotions are heightened and there is the greatest chance to make a positive impact on the overall experience. However, we may overlook equally important opportunities to intervene just before or after these moments.

Theme parks like Disney World break down their attractions into “scenes,” where a ride may have several stages before it reaches its climax. A lot of thought is also put into creating a “Scene One,” the experience of waiting in line, which can be much longer than the ride itself. At the Star Tours ride at Disney World, guests queue up under a giant Snow Walker and are entertained with animatronic characters and fully costumed Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. This not only keeps guests engaged while they wait, but sets up the story and emotional tone for the main act to come.

These moments just before and after a “main event” offer great opportunities for design interventions. In the world of ride-sharing, the moment that matters most is when you set foot into a stranger’s car, a moment fraught with emotional tension. Can I trust this driver? Will they drive safely? Am I even in the right car? Lyft’s new in-car device Amp helps to reduce some of this tension. The user’s Lyft app and the dashboard-based device glow in a custom color, helping the waiting passenger and driver identify each other. On the backside of the device, the device may display a welcome message with the passenger’s name. These small touches help set the stage for smoother interactions once the passenger opens the door of the car.

Amp, Lyft’s new in-car device helps address awkward micro-moments before a passenger enters a stranger’s car.

You are welcome.

We believe that innovation can sometimes happen when you apply the best practices from one industry to others. As you can see, guest design principles are pretty universal, and can be adapted to many different products and services beyond the hospitality sector. We invite you put some of these ideas to work in your next project because in the end, when guests feel at home, you have done your job well.


Big Tomorrow is a design consultancy based in Austin and San Francisco.

We help organizations solve complex challenges by building experiences that improve how people live, work, learn, and play. We’re design thinkers and doers who uncover opportunities, accelerate growth, and deliver meaningful results. Think we can help? Get in touch.