January 30, 2019

Digital vs. human experience: Where to draw the line?

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Digital vs. human experience: where to draw the line?

In 2015, Japan introduced us to Henn Na. It was the first hotel in the world completely operated by computers and robots. In January 2019, a growing number of customer complaints led the company to fire 243 of their robotic workers and replace them by humans. While people were ready for a digital human experience, they weren’t ready to completely abandon humanity just yet.

The Henn Na case is extreme. But it illustrates the tension between technology and humanity in customer experience. Companies invest billions in technologies to make experiences easypredictive and even immersive. However, while helpful, this technology can make customers uncomfortable.

Human vs. Machine – Should we draw a line?

The digital or human experience debate on where to draw the line between humans and machines is interesting, but moot. As customers, our standards are expectations continuously evolve. We complain about ‘everything that those stupid computers get wrong’. But the moment they get it right, we embrace new technologies with a vengeance. So what’s unthinkable today, will be tomorrow’s new ‘normal’. Digitalisation is here to stay.

But it can't fix everything. As it permeates our life, digital teams should remember that:

“As long as people are paying the bills, no amount of digitalisation can ignore that all customer experiences are inherently human.”

So feel free to pursue your dream of a digitally transformed business. But don't let your customer experience lose its humanity in the process.

I've summarised three ways in which you can do this.

#1 Think of ways to make your technology 'feel' human

Steve Jobs was right. You need to "start with the customer experience and work your way back to the technology”.  Sadly, many digital initiatives only do this in part. They equate customer experience to simplifying or even eliminating jobs to be done.

This isn’t wrong per se. Using digital tools to eliminate pain points can make our lives easier. But focusing too much on this aspect can make teams miss the bigger picture. This is that differentiated customer experiences are predominantly emotional.

Customers aren’t data-points or rationally minded bio-organic interfaces. They are beautifully irrational, emotional, social and behaviourally flawed individuals. Folks who want to work their way up the Maslow scale. Who just want to be happy, or at least content.

As such, they will appreciate that you eliminate the pain in the jobs they need to get done. But the absence of negative experiences doesn’t add up to a great one. To really get customers to care, your digital tools, interfaces, algorithms and gizmo’s need to connect at a deeper level. Raise the customer’s heartbeat.  Make them feel truly understood.

So next time you embark on a digital project, raise the bar. Think about how you can make the digital experience feel human. What is the customer insight you’re tapping into? How will it get the job done? How will it trigger the emotion you’re looking for? Don't stop, until you're crystal clear about the answer.

#2 Craft human + technology (hybrid) solutions

Still, being realistic, there is a limit to the level of emotions that your technology can elicit. While great progress is being made, today’s and even tomorrow's technology lacks the empathy and familiarity of a human.

Just consider the Tipsy Robot bartender in Las Vegas’ robotic. It may look cool and it can serve 100 drinks an hour in any combination. But can it give you a sympathetic look or pretend to laugh at your jokes?

Compare this to CitizenM hotels. They combine a digital self-check-in for their customers with welcome staff that actually has time to have a chat with new guests as they arrive. And if needed, do the check-in for them. Or Amazon Go, where people walk in and out of the store without passing a cash-register. And where staff has the time to offer help to customers proactively (when did that last happen in your local supermarket?).

The desire to ‘make customers self-sufficient’ is often corporate speak for ‘can we use technology to cut costs?’. But take a breather before you replace your people with machines. Instead, think about ways to combine digital and human experience. Approaches in which you leave the heavy process lifting to computers and leverage the newly freed staff time for better and richer experiences. For eliminating the rules and KPI's that make your people act like robots themselves. For letting them do what they do best: connecting to customers as fellow humans.

Whether online or in real life, human employees are still the most advanced experience personalisation engine around. And they’re by far the most qualified to make your customers smile.

#3 Humanise your business

Finally, it's time to get philosophical. Especially in the West, customers are getting increasingly annoyed by unsustainable, tax-avoiding, money-above-everything corporate behaviours. Soon, this irritation will also affect their spending habits.

Whether you think this is a good or bad development, depends on your political conviction. But topics like purposesustainability and fair trade are moving out of the fringes. They are becoming mainstream. In the coming decade they will actually become customer expectations.

Companies that can align themselves with this changing mindset, will continue to flourish. Those that can‘t stand up to scrutiny, will start feeling the heat.

As Gilette, Pepsi and others experienced, this path isn’t easy to walk. But the good news is that the world isn’t burning yet. There’s still plenty of time to plan a humane transformation for your business. Provided you start today.

My final 2 cents

There are no shortcuts to making digital experience feel human. And I'm definitely not claiming to have all the answers. But as we augment our customer experiences through deep learning, 5G and intelligent interfaces, we should never lose sight of the end goal. This is that every digital initiative should enhance the ability to deliver and capture customer value.

From the customer's perspective this value is partially rational, and largely emotional. And it needs to be managed as such.

If you'd like to discuss or explore the topic a little more, feel free to come by, or get in touch for a (virtual) coffee. I’d love to hear from you.

(c) Alain Thys – January 30, 2019 – all rights reserved.

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