Pre-pandemic the story went like this: On your way to work you stopped at Starbucks/Costa/Pret where your sole aim was to get your coffee as easily and fast as possible. After all, you were barely awake.

Service design across a wide range of sectors reflects this prevalent desire for ease and speed by eliminating any element of friction within the customer journey likely to cause a slight hitch or delay. From an Uber that can be with you in 5 minutes, to one-hour delivery slots courtesy of Amazon Prime, seamlessness, speed and convenience are increasingly the dominant drivers when designing customer experiences.

Now, in a new era of possibly recurring pandemics, we’ve added safety into the mix, delivered through a bewildering array of screens, masks, and hand sanitizers.

Expect the new safety considerations to accelerate existing commercial pressures on brands to remove transactional friction from the customer journey. Over the next 12 months there will be a renewed drive toward self-service, more kiosks in restaurants, a greater use of checkout-free or pay-in-advance options, as brands seek to optimize the throughput of customers at different stages in their journey as quickly, seamlessly and safely as possible.

But what if the race to digital optimization goes too far? What if one of the unintended consequences of the march to frictionless customer journeys is that brands miss out on an opportunity to add more value and more humanity?

As well as being safe, how can brands be fast enough to keep pace with customers’ accelerated expectations, while also leaving them with a unique and memorable experience of the brand?

There is a need today for experiences to be frictionless, but also human—depending on context. Here are three recommendations for creating a compelling brand experience by remembering human interactions in the transactional process.

Pause for thought

There is a big difference between operational speed and the customer’s perception of speed.

We know for a fact that prioritizing operational speed does not always deliver the best possible customer experience and can compromise customer engagement.

Coffee chain Costa launched a new mini format store placed in high traffic areas such as stations and forecourts and wanted to investigate the perception of speed in the customer journey. We interrogated every detail of the customer experience, from front of house to back of house, ordering to drink creation, payment to collecting drinks. We mapped the journey from a customer perspective, learning where service needed to be slick and efficient and where waiting time was acceptable.

What we discovered really reinforced the value of designing for human interaction. We considered and tested new ways for the checkout process to operate, such as a ticketing system, with coffees identified by a unique number.

While ticketing may have increased efficiency, what we learned is thatregardless of the brand or contextwhen buying coffee, consumers remember human interactions far beyond the actual interaction. Customers talked at length about the time they had a great experience, all of which involved a human moment.

A key point of brand differentiation for Costa is that their baristas actually make the coffee, rather than just pressing buttons. By creating time for customers to observe this creation process, and being personally handed a crafted product, it’s possible to build a Costa-customer connection.

Based on findings, Costa introduced some process to this insight— encouraging baristas to smile, make eye contact and repeat the order as they handed it to the customer—who like to double check their order when collecting it. By focusing on efficiency AND human connection, we not only sped up the process but also personalized the interaction.

Initial results show that customers value this new approach. What’s more, it has helped the new Mini formats to deliver a condensed product experience without it feeling rushed.

Use tech to augment not replace human interactions

In the quest to reinject humanity into a brand, it’s easy to assume that a human connection can be reintroduced by reducing technology. But sometimes it’s just about using it in a different way.

We worked on a multi-year engagement with a global fast food retailer to reinvent their customer journey. One tangible execution of this strategy was to launch in-store kiosks for customers to place their orders. 

Outcomes included staff being freed up to interact with customers in a more natural and engaging way than simply typing in orders and taking money. This gave customers a much more satisfying experience; they could complete their order without the pressure of the queue behind them, and  it also made staff feel better about what they were doing. Commercially, the in-store kiosks generated higher basket sizes. Data showed that while the ordering process took customers longer, our research revealed it was more satisfying, as they had agency and it was less stressful.

Decide whether tech should optimize front or back of house or both

Technology can be an incredibly powerful tool, however when it comes to deploying it in the best possible way for customer experience, it’s really important to understand the nuances and requirements at each point in the end to end journey. There will be times when a tech-first approach is the best solution. Take our fast-food retailer client: their priorities around customer experience were focused on browsing, customization and speed. In their case, the more extensive use of high tech kiosks helped to enhance these aspects of the customer experience.

However, in sectors where the human touch is a key differentiator of customer experience, such as luxury hospitality, a tech-first approach may not be appropriate. Screens and self-service can present as ‘work’ for the customer in a scenario where they might be paying to have those very barriers removed and be swept up in an experience. In this context, exceptional personal service and human interaction are differentiators and strong brand proof points.

In cases like these, technology has a powerful role back of house, to help the front of house do their jobs superbly well. When working with Crowne Plaza, we helped them in their goal to bring humanity to business travel by defining their technology philosophy as being enabled by technology rather than driven by it, looking for key points in the flagship lobby experience in order to bring the philosophy to life. The most powerful points proved to be behind the desk rather than front of house. In the case of Crowne Plaza, technology is there to help them understand and anticipate their customers’ needs and to help free up the mental load of their guests, enabling them to focus on the more important human aspects of the travel experience.

We live in a world with a wealth of information but a poverty of attention and understanding. What I’m arguing for here is a different way of analyzing the design of the customer journey that takes into account the myriad opportunities brands have to build in some authentic human connection. In this era of lockdowns and social distancing, human interaction is more important than ever to our happiness and wellbeing. As we’ve discovered through our partnerships with blue-chip brands, it only takes small shifts to bring real benefits, commercially and in terms of the human customer experience.

Helen Le Voi is the Executive Design Director at Strategic Design consultancy Method. Method is a strategic design agency that creates products, services and experiences for the digital age. It uses design, data science and applied technology to find unique opportunities to grow your business—and then makes those opportunities real. It’s worked with many of the worlds most impactful businesses such as Google, Renault, Lush, The Economist & Walgreens Boots Alliance. Method is the strategic design arm of GlobalLogic, Inc., a Silicon Valley based product

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