28 April, 2015

Lessons in Hospitality and User Experience Design

My team and I traveled to a satellite office this past week. Like many companies, our company has a list of preferred hotels that it recommends employees stay at when traveling for business. For the first time, I booked a hotel not included in this list. Ignoring the adage of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I decided to give the new Hyatt Place in town a chance. One by one, my teammates followed suit, until all seven of us were staying at Hyatt Place. Primed by positive reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp, and the beautiful, high-definition website photos, I walked in through the automatic doors with high expectations.

Act like you want to help me.

After checking in and settling into my room — suitcase unpacked, HBO movie on the television — I decided I needed a shower to wash away the long travel day. That was when things began to fall apart. After three or four unsuccessful attempts to turn on the shower, I phoned the lobby. No one answered my first call. On my second attempt, the front desk answered with a hurried:
“Um, yes.”
“Oh, hi. I think my shower is broken.”
“Um, fine, I’ll send someone up.”
This threw me off. First, I’d expected to be greeted with a professional welcome, a rendition of the standard but comforting, “My name’s Jennifer, how can I help you?” Second, I’d expected some form of an apology for the inconvenience.
When designing an e-commerce website for an information design class, we were instructed to be careful to ensure that the path to finding help was frictionless, and that entry points were plentiful. I should never be at a loss for where to turn for help, nor should I be made to feel like I’m inconveniencing you when I ask for it. This design principle extends beyond e-commerce, into any experience that involves a user interacting with a product or a service.
The above can be broken down into three simple guidelines:
  1. Make it easy for me to find help.
  2. Apologize for the fact that I need help.
  3. Do not convey that my cries for help — however exaggerated — are insignificant. The need that the user is expressing is coming from some place, regardless of whether it’s ‘right,’ and that place needs to be traced and surveyed.
Hyatt Place struck out on all three.

Take me where I want to go.

Minutes later, I opened the door to a woman dressed in the hotel’s signature seasonal red. I described what was happening and, uncertainly, she asked if she could take a look at my shower. Once there, she began fiddling with the shower, retracing the movements that I had just gone through and aimlessly pulling on handles and pushing on buttons. At one point, she began turning the temperature control from hot to cold and then from cold to hot again:
“So, this just turns it on?”
Cue sinking feeling. This was not the right path to solving my problem.
Everyone has had the experience of calling customer service and being bounced from one person to another, with an eternity of hold music in between. It is an experience of surreal, sublime torture; panic expands in your heart as you wait, listening to Sheryl Crowe and thinking “is this really my life?”
When a user needs to solve a problem, there is nothing worse than following a series of misplaced signs into a labyrinth, past mirages and promises that never materialize. There is nothing like the blood-pressure-raising frustration that comes with reliving a Groundhog’s Day of the same conversations and the same steps, yet no closer to solving your problem. This is an insult to my time. More than anything else does, this tells me — in the loudest of volumes — that you don’t care.

If the first impression isn’t a good one, do everything you can to ensure that the second one is.

Unsurprisingly, she was unable to fix the shower. Instead, she decided to put me in another room. I agreed amiably, though mildly annoyed at having to re-pack and re-locate.
Thankfully, the second room was just across the hall. However, I noticed immediately that the room was frighteningly cold — despite the thermostat’s 75°F setting. I asked whether the heat was working and she assured me that it was, but would take a couple minutes to heat up.
Thirty minutes later, it was still cold. I once again phoned the lobby.
“I don’t think the heat is working.”
“It takes time…it’ll take at least half an hour.”
“Ok, thanks.”
Another thirty minutes passed. Still cold. It was now almost midnight and I was beginning to feel desperate for sleep before our first day at the office.
This was strike two. When a user first encounters a snafu in their experience — an error message, a broken interaction, a page that takes too many seconds to load — the situation is still salvageable. There’s a second chance waiting to be taken. It would be foolish to miss or misuse this opportunity to remedy the relationship. Whether it’s ensuring that the rest of the experience is impeccable or demonstrating a little extra TLC — a strategy that Lyft and Uber have mastered — the objective is to kiss and make up. How can I stay mad at a company that not only refunded my ride and ensured that I would never get the same driver again, but also added $5 credit to my account?

Devil (and delight) in the details.

The fun wasn’t quite over yet.
Get the basics right. A teammate mentioned that after returning to her room that evening, she’d noticed a towel strewn on the floor. When I returned to mine, I saw that the pajamas that I’d folded on my bed were inexplicably left on the television stand. My 3/4 empty shampoo and conditioner had not been replenished. My bathtub had been sloppily cleaned, and a clump of hair (mine, I hope) remained in the center. These are the ABCs of hospitality; I’m not sure you can get anymore fundamental than clean towels. There are similar basics in web and app design — a (largely) error-free experience, an onboarding experience that sets expectations, orients and guides you, familiar design patterns, and an effortless way to contact support — that are the foundation of the user experience.
The delight of everyday things. In the words of designer John Maeda“When a small, unassuming object exceeds our expectations, we are not only surprised but pleased.” This is the philosophy behind ‘delightful’ moments, such as those documented in Little Big Details. In the hospitality industry, the possibilities for easter eggs are endless. At the Dylan in Dublin, Ireland, guests receive chocolate truffles from a local chocolatier and bottles of water every evening. My travel companion and I would sometimes skip dessert in anticipation of the truffles. “I’m so looking forward to those chocolates!” She once exclaimed laughingly during a cab ride home after dinner. Similarly, at The Element in Omaha, trays of fruit, disposable headphones, magazines, and towels welcome you at the the fitness center, silently saying, “we’re here to take care of you.” Such gestures create the impression of not only warmth and welcome, but also luxury and leisure. Isn’t that how a hotel stay is supposed to feel?

Find a sustainable solution.

It was my third call (fourth if you count the time no one picked up) to the lobby and I was beginning to feel frustrated.
“So…it’s still cold here.”
“Oh…so what do you want to do? I can have my security guard bring you blankets?”
Blankets. Was this the solution we were looking for, an ingenious old-school solution to a unnecessarily technological new-world problem?
“I didn’t think you’d want to move again…” she went on.
What I didn’t want was to continue to follow a winding rabbit hole wildly chasing the baseline amenities necessary for a pleasant week-long stay. I wanted to settle into a room that worked — shower, heat, the whole shebang — once and for all.
Unless absolutely necessary, the answer shouldn’t be a bandaid solution. In the age of minimum viable products and failing fast, it’s easy for ‘this will do’ to become the default. To be sure, there are times when workarounds are necessary, as work behind-the-scenes moves toward the right answer, the final answer. But, careful to avoid becoming a patchwork, Frankensteinian version of yourself.
One of the enduring lessons in product management is that trade-offs are an emblem of creating. Think about problems in terms of their importance and urgency, and about solutions in terms of feasibility and effort. In the end, I accepted the blankets, because, well, at 1am, the ease of the solution was perfect for the urgency of the situation