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The ease-of-use slippery slope

I was in a Starbucks the other day and for the first time saw the pickup point for their online ordering. While I sat in my chair, I saw people walk in and grab their beverage from a delineated section, coming and going in moments. The baristas at Starbucks typically move at a pretty brisk pace but they understandably get backed up at peak times. I imagine this new feature certainly helps you time your arrival to avoid waiting in lines and in fact, not have to interact with anyone at all.

When Starbucks began to gather steam - pun intended - in the US coffee market under Howard Schultz’s leadership, the space they seemed to find their stride in was creating a European-esque coffee experience, where people taking your order were personable and attempted when possible to remember regular orders in a space built for lounging. Part of what made the Starbucks experience unique was having your order called out by the barista and then delivered as requested. They weren’t just serving coffee, they were serving up relationships, which has created a good deal of the following they enjoy.

As I watched people buzz in and out without having to chat with anyone, I began to wonder if this was the start of an interaction-less slippery slope. No doubt there are times people have either had to pass on a trip to Starbucks because they were running late or upon arrival ended up becoming late to something because they were delayed in a long queue. But what happens if online ordering becomes the norm and most people cease to interact with the company’s employees? If you can customize your order and have it waiting does Starbucks lose its differentiation from Coffee Bean, Peets, etc. Howard Schultz has said, “We’re not in the coffee business serving people. We’re in the people business serving coffee.” But if his people are no longer interacting with people coming through the door, do they risk compromising that bond? Can you have the same relationship with the Starbucks app you have with a barista?

Ease of use is a common conversation in today’s economy but when things become so easy, when simplicity erodes at key human interactions, does a business lose part of that emotional connection? Ease-of-use efficiencies are important and valuable but after a point does it take something emotional and strip it down to solely a transaction? People without question may have affinity for the company’s brand but if they become more transaction-based and less relationship-based will they recognize a short-term gain and face a long-term decline?

Restauranteur Danny Meyer has said, “The number one reason guests cite for wanting to return to a restaurant is that when they go there, they feel seen and recognized”. Will people feel seen and recognized to the same degree at Starbucks if their relationship becomes digital and transactional?

While at Trader Joe’s yesterday, the woman checking out next to me casually commented, “I hope I can keep the squirrels away from my carved pumpkin this year.” While there was no major distress in her voice, she was obviously a bit vexed by this. The cashier in my lane turned around to her and said, “If you dilute bleach in water and then coat it on the inside of the carved pumpkin, they’ll leave it alone.” The customer's eyes opened wide and a grin appeared. She couldn’t believe she’d just found a way to solve this small problem. Not only did she certainly leave a little more satisfied, when I was walking to my car, I overhead her as she loaded groceries into her car sharing the same story tip with the person loading their groceries in the car next to her. She wasn’t just keeping it for herself, she was sharing it with others. A bit of tension she carried with her into the store was no more. Trader Joe’s executed a technical transaction by selling her the pumpkin. It became an emotional one - ad a strong memory - when they her figure out how to preserve her carved creation.

In today’s economy, ease-of-use is critical to the survival of your company. Just make sure this trend doesn’t leave you short-selling the value of relationship and emotion.

Go Forth Boldly

“Only emotion endures”, Ezra Pound

Bonus read: "Why we should design some things to be difficult to use"

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