Experience Designers Should be Looking to Hospitality for Inspiration

sxsw · Thoughts-

Find me a person who doesn’t crave the feeling of walking into a café and having the barista hand you your coffee order without asking. There’s just something so profoundly personal about a barista knowing you – seeing you – and making sure your short time in their space is the highlight of your day.

For hundreds of years, hospitality has been centred on one thing: customer care. Every detail: the lighting, the music, the decor, and the seating. The menu options, the serving sizes, the presentation of the food or drink itself… it’s meticulously designed to create a specific, memorable experience for the paying customer.

This insight was mentioned off-hand at SXSW in Austin this year, by Emilie Baltz, a Creative Director in Digital Experience Design at Gensler in New York. She noted that in our industry, we throw around buzzwords like “human-centred” and “people-first” – but we’re not delivering on that promise the same way your barista does.

I spent my Uni years working in cafes, restaurants, pubs, and events. It was ingrained in me to leave my ego at the door and do everything for the customer. Not just some things, but everything. If the customer didn’t find every aspect of their experience perfect, then we’d failed.

Of course, that’s a lot of pressure to lump on a first-year student who was only pouring pints to make enough money to spend at the bar on Sunday night… but the principle holds up. Now, a few years later, I’m realising the value in my hospo habits.

There’s so much that designers and advertisers can take from their morning coffee run. To illustrate the point, I got back in touch with my old hospo colleagues and crowdsourced the top things experience designers can learn from the service industry:

1. Show the customer you have time for them.

Great work and experiences start by listening. Spending time with the people who’ll interact with us, forming connections, and giving them undivided attention will go a long way in not only strengthening the design process but providing genuine solutions to their problems.

2. Educate the customer.

It’s not about hierarchy or authority, and definitely not condescending.
A great experience begins with great onboarding. Explain everything to the user, make it clear and simple, and talk to them like a human being (which in our industry feels often easier said than done). Communicate why things are or aren’t happening. Nobody likes hearing “it won’t be long!” to then sit around waiting. Context is key to understanding and empathy.

3. Let nothing get in the way of service.

Our industry is hyper-focused on technology and, while the potential benefits of technology are undisputable, we’re not stopping to consider what’s way more important: does it help or hinder? Do people really need that VR experience? Really? If technology becomes a barrier to the customer, get rid of it. At a SXSW panel on XR and performance, Hayley Pepler (Senior Digital Producer at Factory International in the UK) said: “Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should do it… only if it adds value, then let’s do it.”

4. Anticipate their needs.

My best advice to new starters was this: a customer should never have to ask for water. Understanding a customer’s experience and predicting their needs (and frustrations) will allow us to take an experience from good to great and turn unavoidable bad experiences into positive brand moments. A seamless experience is not one devoid of problems, but one full of solutions.

5. Take time with the finished product.

Deadlines and stakeholder pressures mean we sometimes have to push forward, cut corners, and go live with something we’re not 100% happy with. Don’t rush quality. Focus on the end result, weigh the pros and cons of taking more time, and recognise that memorable and incredible will – in most cases – last far longer than the three weeks your customers didn’t have the thing.

Don’t forget to thank your barista tomorrow morning. The above advice is why a good coffee at your local literally gets you get out of bed some days. That experience is not just fluke – it’s by design.


Originally published in Little Black Book.