Design Thinking in Hospitality

Hospitality businesses fail because they often solve the wrong problem. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the share of interactive hotel guides in room are at the flimsy 19 percent. Most of the hotel guests decided they are not useful, especially with guests bringing their own laptops and smartphones. Smartphone docking stations proved to be similarly unexciting. Arguably, these costly ventures failed because they did not identify the essential challenge that their customers grappled with.

Design thinking can help. The idea of design as a methodology and a problem-solving approach emerged back in the 1950’s, but more recently, Stanford University’s School of Design and design firm IDEO started using design thinking for business purposes. Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, characterizes design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and he requirements for business success.”

Putting human needs and behaviors first in defining business strategy and deciding investments in technology is a powerful change of perspective. It reminds us that behind every business need there is a human need. Marriott’s PlacePass evolved this hotel chain’s business from selling accommodations to selling great experiences.

The beauty of design thinking is that one doesn’t have to be a designer to use it. Today, design thinking’s tools like empathy, rapid prototyping, focus on customer experience design, iterations and agile strategy are widely (and successfully) applied in a range of industries. They take away the guessing from guessing or relying on historical data when deciding what customers really want and instead focus on ethnography, behavioral economics and observing customer behavior in their real-life contexts.

Above all, design thinking is about asking questions differently.

The essence of any given problem, according to Harvard Business School professor Herman Leonard, can be reached through question zero. As practiced by IDEO, question zero is a sequence of “whys” used to get designers through a chain of answers until they reach the actual challenge they need to address.

Applied to hospitality, question zero can clarify the exact thing we are trying to accomplish and help us create smarter and, from our guest’s point of view, more desirable services. It allows us to address bigger and more important issues than we originally set our sights on. The question zero of a successful hospitality service is to ask what the problem is, why it is a problem and how we can use resources at hand to solve it.

There are five ways to go about answering the question zero:

Humanize It

At the bottom of most problems is a human truth. If we do a better job of understanding it, we can do a better job of satisfying our guests’ needs. Our task is to observe how our guests are currently solving their problems and build a better product or service offering based on this observation. A simple look at our immediate environment offers proof that we are surrounded by things constructed around machine needs rather than human needs. For example, think your hotel’s vending machines. We need to bend all the way down to get a pack of snacks from it. It is easier for a machine to use gravity to drop a pack of snacks into a bin at our feet than to deliver it at waist-height into our hands. Machine wins, we lose.

Zoom Out, Find Your Narrative

Once we take the big picture into account, it leads us to a new way of seeing a problem. When a problem is very specific, a holistic approach has proven to be the best. One way to implement a holistic approach is to tell a story around the intended use of a product or service. A simple narrative helps us understand how an interface or an app is going to be used and how it’s going to fit into the wider context of consumers’ existing behaviors. Modern hospitality companies, like Urban Cowboy B&B, Parlour or Nomad hotel, aim to make its customers feel at home wherever they are. This experience of community and belonging, rather than the actual rooms and amenities that these properties list, are their key product. The immediate befit is that this wider, bigger-picture, emotional “feel at home” approach creates a powerful narrative about solving a real human need and allows modern hospitality companies to grow organically by adding offerings that enforce their bigger picture, emotional narratives.

Think About Time

Contemplate how a solution is going to unfold with the progression of time. A few years back, Airbnb’s founder Brian Chesky read a Walt Disney biography. He was inspired by the famous auteur making the entire Snow White animated movie in storyboards. Chesky and his experience designers applied the same method of telling a story through sequential, discrete scenes in order to come up with the optimal travel experience for both Airbnb guests and hosts. Storyboards helped Airbnb to humanize its user journey and develop empathy for the people they were designing the experience for. Their careful choreography of Airbnb users’ online and offline activities helped them call out the key “wow” moments of the trip and create a seamless end-to-end experience Airbnb is now known for. Storyboarding also helped Chesky’s team to continuously improve each stage of their users’ experience (and Airbnb’s business performance) by asking what kind of value they can add, where the revenue opportunities are and how to organize their company’s process around each stage of the experience in order to serve their users better.

Think About Your Team

Ask who you need on your team in order to solve a problem at hand. Once you know what kind of experience you want to create, and once you have a hypothesis on how people are going to move through it, it is time to think who do you need to join forces with in order to make it a success. Think about whether you need to bring in an ethnographer, a behavioral economics, anthropologist, an analyst, an experience designer, a journalist or a business consultant — or all of them.

Improve As You Go

There’s no way to know if your solution is the right solution until you see it out in the wild. Treat your creative brief as a straw man. Use it as a perpetual draft. Service briefs don’t need to be perfect, but they have to be useful. Move faster. Concept something quickly and immediately put it in front of your customers to see what they say and how they behave.

Set Your Expectations Right

There’s a great story about how a British cycling team recently won the Tour de France three times in a row since a massive multi-decade drought dating back to 1966. Their secret weapon was Sir David Brailsford and his 1% rule. Sir Brailsford and his team broke down every single thing they could think of that goes into the process and experience of riding a bike. Then, they improved each thing by one percent. The nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of a bike seat, the weight of the tires, the pillows that the cyclists slept on, the gel they used for their massages : they improved it all, just by a tiny bit. By putting all those 1% margins together or, by “aggregating marginal gains,” Brailsford ended up with a significant increase in his team performance. Improving by just 1% isn’t notable (and sometimes isn’t even noticeable), but it is meaningful, especially in the long run.

A good service — in hospitality or otherwise — is a business of solving customer problems. Stop worrying about making your communication more creative and start thinking about what problem you have, why it is a problem, and how you can use resources you have to solve it.

This article was originally published in Beyond Magazine, Issue 3, June 2018