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What Does Digital Hospitality Look Like?

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Ty Fujimura
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Digital Hospitality is the idea that digital products are spaces visitors inhabit, not billboards they see from a distance. We empathize with each and every visitor and care about every detail of their experience.

Imagine that a customer walked in to an office or place of business. The business would greet them and welcome them in, right? But we’ve all experienced websites that turned us away. At Cantilever we want to welcome them in instead.

Websites are spaces that users enter, not billboards they see from a distance. We put ourselves in the shoes of the user and design sites the way they would want to experience them, not the way that suits our agenda the most. Ultimately this gets even better results for our clients than exploitative tactics. Users are comfortable on the sites we build, which creates a connection with the brands represented on those sites, which leads to engagement.

Principles of Digital Hospitality

Digital experiences are hospitable when they include…

Human-Centered Design

Digital Hospitality means products should be designed around the user’s “Jobs To Be Done” rather than around the designer’s own tastes or preferences. A successful product may look totally different than products the designers would use personally.

This does not imply that aesthetics are secondary in achieving Digital Hospitality. We know from physical space that aesthetically pleasing environments make it easier to get stuff done, because people feel comfortable and safe within beautiful spaces. Design implies the underlying qualities of the system. Blunt, brutalist user interface design implies that the system is perfunctory and there to check a box, not to provide value. Flowery, overly complex design implies that the system is trying to look better than it is. DH avoids this by using minimalist, on-brand, clean and legible user interfaces.

The backbone of human-centered design is structure and purpose. Purpose means that the system actually has a role in helping a real person solve a real problem or need. Structure requires that the system be organized in such a way that it aligns with the real need of the user.

For example, on the BPC website, our initial user research revealed that users wanted to interact with the client’s content by policy area (Housing, Economy, Immigration, etc) more than by type (Blog, Report, Video, etc). Therefore we oriented the site structure primarily around content category pages that consolidate lots of different kinds of information together.

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The backbone of human-centric design is research, because to design around the user’s jobs-to-be-done, you have to understand what they are and how the user is doing them now. Then you have to unite purpose, structure, and aesthetics to provide an experience that makes it easier, faster, and better. That’s Digital Hospitality.

To ensure that a product is serving users well requires ongoing monitoring and testing, both at a macro level through analytics, and at a micro level through direct user testing.

Universal Code

Most digital products are built in the quickest and easiest way possible. This means that the underlying code that goes into the site is low quality – either coded poorly, or using prefabricated components that may be of dubious quality. While this saves money, the consequences may be that:

  • The intended user experience is not actually what people are getting. The site may be buggy and inconsistent.
  • Users with disabilities may have particular difficulty using the product because it is not coded in a way that assistive technology can easily understand. For example, visually impaired users use screen reader software which relies on certain coding techniques to understand the contents of a web page. With low-quality code this is almost never the case.
  • The product may load slowly or in a manner that feels flimsy or glitchy. This makes the user frustrated and could exclude people who have a worse internet connection, either due to their country, income level, or temporary circumstance (subway, etc).

Digital Hospitality requires careful and deliberate planning of the tech stack to ensure that these consequences are avoided. Products with strong DH are fast, reliable, and accessible to all users.

It is easiest to achieve DH with custom coding. However, not all products can feasibly be created using custom coding. DH can be achieved using frameworks and no-code tools, but it is harder. The framework/tool must give the site creator a lot of specific nuanced control over the code delivered to users, and must allow speed optimizations that get the product close to the performance of a custom-coded one.

Automated metrics are not a stamp of approval, but show that some major problems have been avoided.
Automated metrics are not a stamp of approval, but show that some major problems have been avoided.

Delightful Motion & Interaction

The human brain is trained to understand and react to motion. This is why a stop-motion animation or neon sign with just two frames can appear to actually move – our minds are wired to fill in the gaps and respond. Motion is a tool for drawing the eye towards critical information, delighting the user, and communicating the feeling of the company represented by a digital product.

An example animation on one of our sites
An example animation on one of our sites

When using motion, it is important to remember that some kinds of movement can cause negative health effects such as vertigo. Fast flashing can cause seizures. It is important to always follow accessibility best practices when implementing motion in a digital product.

Interaction is also vital. Digital Hospitality requires that when the user starts to “touch” the web page by using a mouse, keyboard or assistive device, they should see the page “react”. This helps the user feel welcomed and encouraged along their journey.

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When the user performs an action that is helpful for them achieving their job-to-be-done, the product should give them a positive-feeling response so they know they are on the right track. For example, it should be super fun to click an “add to cart” button. This gives the user the feeling that they are one step closer to their goal of purchasing what they have decided to purchase.

This “Like” button on one of our sites has a cute little bounce animation when the user clicks it. This tells the user they have just done something positive, and that they might want to try it again with another page.
This “Like” button on one of our sites has a cute little bounce animation when the user clicks it. This tells the user they have just done something positive, and that they might want to try it again with another page.

Tasteful Personalization

Imagine walking into a great restaurant and being greeted by a smiling host. “Would you like the seat by the window again?” they might ask. You order a coffee and the server says “You take it light and sweet, right?”

In hospitality, personalization is the ultimate cherry on top. It can take a great meal and turn it into an unforgettable experience. Even in a casual setting, when the person taking care of you remembers your name and strikes up a chat, it turns a transaction into a moment of community. Personalization elevates experiences.

In Digital Hospitality, the same goal applies, but the context is very different. Digital products must be careful first and foremost to respect the user’s privacy. The same common-sense rules apply that would in person. Don’t research things about the user and then repeat those things to them. Don’t remember things that the user didn’t want you to remember.

But when the user does provide information they want you to have, Digital Hospitality means remembering that information and finding ways to seamlessly improve the experience of the product for that user. For example, if a user on a travel site requests information on programs in Asia, Digital Hospitality could mean promoting content for programs in Asia on the homepage, so that the next time the user comes back, they see content they are more likely interested in.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for what is creepy and what is tasteful, but the golden rule is always to do to users what you would want as a user.

Digital Hospitality Antipatterns

These kinds of things are NOT Digital Hospitality:

  1. Intrusive & annoying popup windows/banners
  2. Projects whose business model is to take user data and sell it
  3. Sites which don’t respect the user’s privacy
  4. Products you need to “learn” how to use
  5. Sites devoid of enjoyment and flavor
Addendum: The Business Value of Digital Hospitality