What working in the service industry taught me about design

Great businesses show the customer they are welcomed and valued

This article is part of a series based on a talk I gave at Adobe Max and WebVisions last year. To read the other articles in the series, check out Bringing the Humanity Back to Digital.

Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen on Unsplash, not one of the actual hotels I worked for

Before discovering design, I held the following jobs: fast food drive thru attendant, receptionist at a skydiving center, waitress at a pizza place, and front desk clerk for several hotels in the Orlando area. In each of these companies, this was the gospel:

Show the customer they are welcomed and valued and they will become a loyal advocate for your business.

From greetings to handling complaints to encouraging repeat service, every action was rooted in this belief. Fail to make a customer feel welcome or valued, and you were penalized; the failing could be not smiling, not restocking the toilet paper, or not taking feedback seriously. Our training taught us who our customers were, what made a great experience for them, and how to respond to their needs so they felt good and kept coming back. Customer experience was the bottom line, because it impacted our bottom line.

As a 21 year old I found little satisfaction in helping people have a great meal or a fun vacation. People are often hard to please, unpredictable, emotional, and complicated. I was delighted when I left the service industry to avoid people and serve my love of Photoshop instead.

I believed becoming a designer meant I no longer had to understand what nuanced responses and actions would help people feel welcomed and valued. Instead, I would create interfaces that were as streamlined, controlled, and consistent as possible. I loved having this digital wall between myself and the people I was serving. Now instead of looking an upset father in the eye and telling him we were oversold on hotel rooms, I could build a form for him to submit a complaint in a concise and efficient manner.

It would have been easy enough to stay in this mindset: we take the human messy unpredictability out of life by putting buttons where they need to go so things get done without emotion getting in the way. In many ways this is the mark of a junior designer, and the level many designers remain at.

But our industry is full of voices (Jared Spool, Indi Young, and Erika Hall, to name a few of my early influences) declaring at the top of their lungs that we can’t avoid the human messiness. To be effective, we need to live and breathe the complex human need that drives our work. I began to realize early on that an essential truth of my work as a designer is:

Show the user they are welcomed and valued and they will become a loyal advocate for your business.

Well, crap. Turns out I’d learned the most important lesson of my design career years before I became a designer, but I’d ignored it. After all, understanding the subtleties of what makes people feel welcomed and accepted is the very thing I hid behind computers to avoid.

But slowly I saw and delighted in the impact I could have when I embraced this lesson all over again. As a good waitress, I could help couples have a nice date. As a front desk clerk, I could help families create lasting memories. But as a dedicated designer who is deeply invested in the people behind the screen, I could help thousands transform their lives.

The reverse is also true: had I continued to have the attitude of a designer who doesn’t care about the people she serves, I could do a great deal of harm. This goes beyond creating “loyal advocates for your business.” This is about shaping the world we want to live in. As Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher demonstrate beautifully in Design for Real Life, ignoring the humans behind our designs can have far reaching painful consequences.

I now believe all designers have an imperative to understand the real lived experience of the people they serve in order to avoid doing harm to our world; this is our most fundamental responsibility (see: A Designer’s Code of Ethics). This is only possible with diverse teams and a deep investment in knowing our users. In other words, with a mega-dose of complicated humanity. We are all here to serve each other, and just because we do it from behind a screen doesn’t change that truth.

While I now strive to be mindful of this responsibility and to do no harm, I also enjoy thinking about the other little lessons I learned in the service industry: have a warm greeting and a welcoming personality; as a representative of your company, be cheerful as long as it’s appropriate; speak in a genuine, personable manner.

As Don Norman, author of Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things points out, everything we make has some personality whether we intend it or not. We can choose how we present ourselves and the impression our work gives.

“Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions. Bad websites have horrible personalities and instill horrid emotional states in their users, usually unwittingly.” — Don Norman

We create interfaces that are representatives of our companies; the dashboard replaces the accountant, but that doesn’t mean it can’t incorporate aspects of humanity that will help customers feel welcome and keep returning.

This is the first in a series of articles based on a talk I gave last year. You can also read the next article in the series, “Everything Has a Personality” to learn how the lessons of the service industry apply to design. You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook to find out when new articles are published.

PS. I’m currently accepting new freelance projects, so drop me a line if you’re looking for help with web or product design, or front-end development.