4 things chefs can teach us about designing great digital services - amazingminds | digital strategy & concept development
January 18th, 2013 Blog Bart 0 Comments
4 things chefs can teach us about designing great digital services

Although the characteristics of the products may be modified (temperature, texture, shape, etc.), the aim is always to preserve the purity of their original flavour.

– #5, from the Synthesis of ElBulli cuisine

Like anyone, I love a great dining experience. And fortunately, I have been able to enjoy some awesome culinary moments in the past. Either through the food, the setting or the company enjoyed, these experiences have usually been nothing short of delightful and often highly memorable.

The thing that strikes me most about these special experiences, is how they succeed in stimulating all senses and by doing so, creating a rich array experience that really keeps you in the moment. From the buildup of the evening in general, to the just-in-time delivery and service and the rich flavours of the food, all elements are delicately combined in order for the guest to be delicately guided towards a state of flow. A state where you lose any sense of time and space and you are purely focused on the enjoyment of the moment. When executed properly, this can be nothing short of magical.

So what has any of this got to do with digital services? I feel a great deal of insight can be taken away from the delightfully designed dining experiences, which can be used to vastly improve other – digital – services. Though the warmth of an evening in a cozy restaurant might seem worlds apart from the rushed seconds you spend using a digital service via your phone, both experiences touch upon the same basic principles in order to truly stand out. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, why not learn from those who have been successfully designing services for ages? What can we learn from chefs when it comes to designing digital services?

Chefs preserve the purity of the original flavour

Great chefs know the single most important feature of their dishes is that they should always preserve – or even better, invigorate – the purity of the original flavour. This means they’ll use a finely developed sense of flavour and all of their technical skills to make the most out of the ingredients. Also, chefs realize that in order to taste flavours to the fullest, one should never have to do more than ‘just’ enjoy the food. This means pretty much everything in a restaurant is aimed to completely disappear – even if only temporarily – into the background. No need to worry about the dishes, your waiter serves out dishes ‘just-in-time’ (with wine to match) and everything you need is within hand’s reach. You just sit down and focus on enjoying the experience.

Interfaces usually take away from the experience instead of adding to it

This is where future digital services can be greatly improved. Because as it stands, pretty much every digital service has an interface that distracts you from what you are doing in order to use it. This takes away from the original flavour, instead of invigorating it. I believe we are entering an era where interfaces will need to blend into the background completely. This will not only allow for a more human experience, but it will also free up valuable mental capacity by being pro-active (you’ll be served, just like in a restaurant), so we’ll be able to enjoy the purity of the experience as it unfolds, not just before and afterwards. I feel future digital services are moving towards ‘always on’ (e.g. Nike’s Fuelband) or ‘automagic’, being switched on based on recognized context (e.g. Google Now). Either way, interactions with services will start to disappear into the background.

Chefs focus on the guest’s experience

This brings me to another point: the user experience. What sets apart a good restaurants from great ones is how every little detail is  taken care of. This signifies the importance beyond the food: it’s about having a great evening. As the famous Ferran Adria once said: “this starts with the drive up to the restaurant.” By combining all those little details and personalizing them for individual guests, chefs are able to design a very rich and human experience. An experience that stimulates all your senses in exactly the right way and the food acts as a kicker for a wide range of emotions.

This seems worlds apart from most digital services that are currently available. Even the most frequently used and most personal ones still feel rather clumsy, as they don’t really consider all those little user details and context. As a result, most services just do what they do. They’re not restaurants, merely grocery stores or at most self-service cafeterias.

To design great services, we really need to start looking at user experiences holistically, well beyond the moments we’re actively using the service. Or put differently: we need to treat a user like our guest. This not only requires a vision on the meaning of your service to its users, but also about the world and its context in which the service will be used.

Chefs combine mastery and understanding

In order to translate vision into a meaningful reality, chefs need to have mastered their skills and techniques. This is no different from service designers and developers: they need to master their skills and combine that with deep understanding of all the ingredients in order to fully appreciate all the parts of the puzzle that make up for a great service. Also, mastery of your tools enables cheaper prototyping and experimenting on-the-fly, which adds a level of sophistication and personalization that makes digital services truly unique.

Rene Redzepi plating up

Chefs ship consistently and improve continuously

As a restaurant, you are only as good as your last night. And as a chef, you’re only judged by the last dish you have served. This means great chefs have to ship great quality consistently, under tremendous pressure and ever changing circumstances. Also, they need to be able to adapt and improve based on feedback in an instant. It has always amazed me that in the digital world – where people only take seconds to judge your service – improvement cycles can take up so much time and quality control is far from continuous.

Fortunately, this process is changing slowly, but surely. However, I still feel service designers need to make a big mental leap forward in delivering services that are not only delightful to experience, but  can also be instantly updated. Like chefs, we need to understand launch is just the first plate of a dinner-service and we need to follow through consistently and continuously. Being able to adapt quickly – and preferably cheaply – and improving continuously is one of the things where digital services can learn a lot from chefs. So stop thinking in version numbers and start thinking about how you can instantly improve your service, as this greatly improves the chances of delivering a delightful digital experience.

The future looks tasty

We are on the brink of a revolution. A revolution where we will see radical progress in the way we design, deliver and use digital services. With services like Siri and Google Now becoming mainstream and the accelerating adoption of wearable technology (like Nike’s Fuelband), we are starting to see smarter services that deliver way less techie and much more human experiences. This requires a fresh approach and a different way of thinking, well beyond the functional specs of your service. Want to get a taste of this digital future? Just book a table at your favorite restaurant…

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