Marcela Sapone: Hospitality Requires the New Human Interface
The CEO of Hello Alfred offers insight into creating the “invisible app”
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.
Technology is running us, and not the other way around. People walk around on a beautiful day, heads buried in their smartphones. Friendly elevator chatter is replaced by the tapping of fingers on screens, small talk at restaurants has made way for YouTube videos, and free cognitive space is being eaten by a relentless whir of notifications, bleeps, pings and refreshed news feeds.
Our many screens are becoming the lens through which we interpret the world and are heavily influencing the design of our offline, tech-enabled services. The supposition is that we want to do more through our phones and less with person-to-person interaction; which reinforces the great temptation businesses have to create value by replacing humans in favor of automation.
For example, we may agree an attentive, engaging waiter would be preferred while dining at New York’s finest restaurant. But on most days it feels more convenient to order dinner through an app to avoid talking to a human being altogether. Restaurants at JFK airport now allow travelers to interact with an iPad — and only an iPad — to order a pre-flight sandwich and coffee. And to a busy traveler, perhaps one less conversation feels like a welcome relief.
But follow this design logic into the future and you will 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?
Up until this point, technology’s central design principle was to take humans out of the picture. Yet of course, this is fundamentally at odds with the concept of hospitality, which is wholly concerned with where it can harness the power of human touch.
In many ways we simply haven’t gotten around to creating hospitality tech yet. Right now, our apps are focused on services as a transaction and the ways to make them more efficient. However, real service is defined as a relationship, not a one-way transaction. So mimicking the current tech interface in service design sucks our attention away from experiencing things richly as a relationship, to a transaction with a machine. In my opinion, current service experiences are punctuated by clumsy technology interruptions and flat interaction points that fail to take your holistic experience into account.
Hospitality-driven technology would likely take us to a place where the interface is the lack of one, and a service experience is a series of informed and reinforcing interactions. Most importantly, the future of technology in hospitality would still utilize powerful data, but place it in the hands of well-trained, empathetic people who can anticipate, be flexible, and help steward a cohesive experience.
Hospitality tech is coming. As the founder of a technology hospitality brand, 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. Hello Alfred, the company I started with my business partner, is a shared neighborhood butler service that blends technology with human intuition. It is human-centric and powered by technology. We pride ourselves in having an interface that always feels like you are communicating with an intuitive, warm human that cares about you—but that the execution is aided through optimization and automation on our tech platform.
We are not the only one. 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.
The most exciting part of a hospitality tech evolution is that every brand can participate in improving their customer experience. The first step is to realize we have a design problem. The second is to imagine a world where technology isn’t the lead character in our lives, but rather a fantastic supporting actor. And the third is to find new design inspirations.
One design inspiration my business partner and I look to is the Japanese ideal of Omotenashi, the balance between attentive care and unobtrusiveness. Omotenashi is an age-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.
Maybe the role of tech going forward should be quite hidden, but it could inspire more delightful moments with greater frequency. Anticipatory actions which 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.
Imagine checking into the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn and the front desk suggests you stop by an art gallery on the way to a new restaurant, which has the best omakase, and that you have enough time to get a run and steam in because both venues are open until 11pm. If you find yourself thinking “how did they know?” on a regular basis, then we will have arrived in a very special place.
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 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.
Marcela Sapone is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hello Alfred, the home operating system that pairs you with a dedicated butler. 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, Forbes 30 under 30 and the 2014 winner of TechCrunch Disrupt SF. Marcela holds an MBA from Harvard Business School with distinction.
Female smartphone user in public via Shutterstock
Woman surfs internet in cafe via Shutterstock