Rethinking interactions in a touchless world

A restaurant storefront with QR code posters fixed to the door

COVID-19 didn’t start the drive towards a more automated, touchless future, but it certainly hastened it. In the US, QR codes and NFC were often viewed as a nice-to-have or novelty. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to walk down a street full of businesses and not see QR codes on storefront windows offering core business interactions as new, contactless experiences.

It’s early-days, though, and solutions of varying sophistication are popping up all over the place. I thought I’d document some of the traditionally physical and person-to-person interactions we’ve observed getting the touchless treatment, and highlight some of the emerging hallmarks of good, contactless interaction design (Spoiler: general interaction design guidelines still apply).

Let’s get started.

# Check-ins and wait-lists

A tablet at a restaurant prompting customers to check in by entering a name and phone number

What’s the first thing you encounter when you walk into a hotel, restaurant, or office? It’s likely a check-in flow. Do you have a reservation? Who are you here to see? How many are in your party? These interactions often involve talking to a receptionist and using a pen on paper or a shared tablet.

This interaction can be relatively easy to automate. In fact, pre-COVID, tablets were appearing in all sorts of businesses, from restaurants to corporate offices, that allowed check-in without the need for human interaction. While the concept is sound, customers are now hesitant to touch a surface shared with countless others.

Now, these tablets are beginning to use QR codes that can be scanned by a kiosk, allowing people to sign in from their own device. Unfortunately, many solutions require an app and oftentimes an account or exchange of personal information to use them. We’ll get into why this is bad a bit later.

# Curbside pickup

Curbside pickup isn’t new, but it has certainly expanded during the pandemic. Put simply, a customer should be able to order and pay electronically, get notified when their order is available, and provide some notification for the order to be delivered to their vehicle.

Buckets with posts and signs in a retailer's parking lot instructing customers to call when they arrive

It’s now common to see reserved parking spaces and signage with instructions to call a number with the order ID and parking space or tap a button in an app to type the information in. As we wrote previously, these experiences require unnecessary overhead, burden customers by requesting redundant information, and tie up phone lines, resulting in lost orders and revenue.

Some solutions use geofencing to track when customers leave for the location and arrive, but this too has issues, as they require customers to have an app and allow access to fine-grained location information. Besides battery and privacy concerns, this can be confusing. Do customers open the app and let you know when they’re leaving? Do they have to keep the app open? Who else can access their location information? The goal is to make it easy for customers, not instill uncertainty and doubt.

A QR code on a fuel pump at a gas station offering a link to install an app for payment instead of using the keypad

We’re all familiar with handling physical menus (the condition of which can vary wildly, from pristine to yikes) and talking to servers throughout a meal, from ordering to asking for refills to paying the check. It’s easy to think of menus and service as specific to restaurants and retail, but the high-level concepts apply more broadly. Basically, any interaction that allows people to select options and pay for goods or services is being rethought. Think stadiums, theme parks, theaters, and so on.

Restaurants are now placing QR codes on tables that point to their webpages or install a 3rd party app to enable a virtual menu and ordering system. A restaurant webpage isn’t likely to be interactive or allow for selection, so human interaction is still required. Apps provide interactive menus and POS functionality, but require a download, account creation, and the overhead that comes along with it.

# Requests and issue reporting

Where do people go when they need something or want to report a facility issue? Before, even in large companies with ticketing systems, it was often easiest to just tap someone on the shoulder. This particular interaction was already pretty bad (imagine being the someone whose shoulder is constantly getting tapped), and now it comes with a health risk.

Besides requiring social distancing or using Slack/email/voice, the interaction is still problematic in terms of efficiency, just as it was pre-COVID. Ideally, people would make requests and report issues in a contextual way with their own devices without the need to navigate a ticketing system or go find someone to help. Need something or see something? Scan or tap this sign to let us know!

# Surveys and feedback

A sign in a doorway asking for customer feedback with a QR code

How do we know how we’re doing and how we can improve? One of the best ways is to simply ask. Customer and employee feedback is invaluable, and it’s typically gathered via paper forms, shared tablets, or other physical interactions (E.g. the Happy or Not kiosks you encounter at airport restrooms).

Contactless ways of gathering feedback via email and text already exist, of course, but those require personal information and also lack context, typically showing up when it’s convenient for us, not when it’s relevant to them. Ideally we would collect feedback in the moment, and do so in a safe way.

Some basic solutions have begun to show up, like QR codes that point to Google forms. While you may get the data you need, you’ll still need to figure out how to format and import that information into your workflow.

# So, what makes a good, touchless interaction?

A QR code and NFC tag are mounted to a wall, prompting visitors to interact via their phone to make requests

People are used to face-to-face interactions when they need something. Introducing technology into the equation is inevitably going to complicate things, especially at first. So what should we consider to minimize the impact, increase safety and comfort, and ease folks into this new world?

# Low friction

Requiring apps and accounts is a burden. Unless you’re confident that a large percentage of your customers already have your app installed (and actually like it vs. installing it begrudgingly), avoid requiring an app installation. Similarly, unless absolutely necessary, do not require account creation or sign-in. Oftentimes the information you need to serve and communicate with your customers can be achieved without the extra hurdles.

# Intuitive

Most people are not used to pulling out their phone to accomplish traditionally touch-heavy tasks, let alone using it to scan QR codes and tap NFC tags. Despite most modern devices supporting these functions natively, we must educate customers. Clear signage and instruction works wonders here. But the experience doesn’t end there, does it? We also need to be mindful to offer data entry that is accessible, easy to navigate on a phone, and that doesn’t collect unnecessary information we can collect contextually and automatically.

# Fast

Talking to someone typically has instant feedback and gratification. With a touchless experience, it’s difficult to know who or what is on the receiving end of the communication, so it’s important to set expectations and deliver on them. Is this going to contact staff inside? Do we expect that this might take a few minutes? Tell people up front and eliminate confusion.

# Long-Term design

It’s tempting to slap something together as a temporary stop-gap until a vaccine is discovered, but that’s doing a disservice to your customers and to your business. Many, if not all, of the interactions we’ve discussed have benefits that go beyond limiting the spread of the virus. Done right, touchless interactions deliver better experiences because they streamline interactions and enable staff to focus on more important things while respecting your customers’ time and privacy.

# Automated

Consider whether the interaction can be accomplished without any data input at all (E.g. requesting a bellhop or flight attendant, reporting a bathroom in need of attention, or marking a desk as occupied), and make the interaction as simple as possible. We’ll explore this topic in more detail in an upcoming article.

# Wrapping up

As you can see, there’s a lot of work to do, but these are problems that can and will be solved. It’s amazing to see the ingenuity and creativity on display. While there is much to refine, it’s clear that in just a short time we’ve already begun to adjust to this new, contactless world, and these experiences will only get better.

If you have some thoughts on how contactless, touchless interactions are evolving, I'd love to hear about them in our comments section for this post.


An examination of the curbside pickup experience

As states have introduced restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most restaurant and retail organizations have worked quickly to shift operations to phone/online ordering and curbside pickup. While curbside pickup has reduced the number of in-person interactions required, each companys' implementation and success has been wildly different. Restaurants built on years of takeout/delivery experience are thriving while some sit-down restaurants and retail stores are struggling to adapt.

Let's talk, with a smattering of snark and candor, about some of the curbside pickup experiences I've seen in the wild, where they fall short, and how they can be better.

# What do customers want?

I want to arrive, let you know I'm here, and get my order. That's it. No muss, no fuss.

This is surprisingly difficult to find. Let's dive into some of the major pain points.

# Don't force me to go inside your establishment

We aren't all wearing holsters strapped with lysol cans looking for germs to spray. If you aren't enforcing social distancing guidelines and promoting customer/employee safety in public, I don't have high confidence you're doing so behind closed doors.

Customers are unlikely to return if they feel required to sanitize all goods purchased from your business.

We know your top priority is keeping your staff healthy and your building clean so it can stay open. In addition to the impact on sick employees and their families, you're facing a quarantine, deep cleaning, and sanitization. This is a huge expenditure and loss of revenue that lasts beyond reopening day. No one is champing at the bit to patronize a business immediately after a reported COVID-19 outbreak.

Even if your state is re-opening, reported cases continue to rise. This isn't going away anytime soon.

Limit exposure to limit business risk.

Instead of forcing me to go inside, make me wait outside of the building, in my car, or outdoors. I don't need to be breathing on you or another customer's food.

# Don't make me install an app

I know, I know. You've got an app. You want to send me push notifications with the latest deals. Bump those engagement metrics, I get it.

Not all customers want to be part of your loyalty program.

The app might be a worthwhile experience once I have it, but think about how this plays out for those who don't. We’re expecting a quick interaction and pickup and this isn’t it.

I pull into the parking lot to pick up my order of Sriracha, Lucky Charms, and toilet paper. Before I can get my order I have to wait to download your app, accept permissions, and sign up for an account. Do I already have an account? What is my password? I have to do all of this just to let you know that I’m here to pick up my order. Too many hoops that take too long.

What is the market penetration for your app amongst your customer base? What percentage of those customers without the app will purchase for curbside pickup? These are all of the customers that are negatively impacted by this process.

"I should receive my order and leave in less time than it takes me to download your app."

Andrew Hawker

Consumer of goods and services

Instead of an app, why not a website? I don't have to download it and it's accessible by every smartphone on the planet. Make it available via a QR code, NFC tag, or short url. Heck, include it in my receipt. Viewing a website and providing my information is infinitely (math checks out) faster than installing an app.

# Do not make me wait on hold

You only have one phone line that you're using for curbside pickup calls and taking new orders. Not great.

Einstein wrote a paper in 1905 positing that flavor = time * salt / moisture ^ 2. Once it enters that clamshell, takeout food has a shelf life of around four seconds. The longer I have to wait to notify you that I'm waiting decreases the quality of the food exponentially. Soggy burger buns make me question returning to your restaurant and humanity in general.

Help me help you.

Don't make me block your phone line from taking new orders while I tell you that I'm in parking spot #4 driving a Pontiac Fiero and would like extra ketchup. How many potential customers call back a restaurant to make an order if the line is busy? How many potential food orders are you losing?

Instead of waiting on hold, I'd rather do anything else. Do you have a business line with multiple numbers? Use a different one to separate orders and pickups. Use different phone extensions. Use anything other than the phone for pickups if it's going to be in contention!

# Don't ask for redundant information

Why do you need my name and order ID? Why aren't your order IDs unique? A description of my car? I just gave you the reserved pickup parking spot number I'm in.

I'm wearing a hat. Does that help?

I made a curbside pickup at a big box electronics company recently. I filled out the required online check in form upon arrival. A worker came to my car, asked me if I had filled out the form and then proceeded to ask me for the same exact information that I had already provided.

Don't ask for three pieces of information when one will suffice and sure as heck don’t ask twice!

Dr. Seuss

Ambassador of curbside pickup, Whoville.

Instead of asking for more, change your workflow to ask for less. To complete a curbside pickup, you only need information for the following:

  • Uniquely identify an order
  • Identify my current physical location

Leverage technology for this.

Provide customers unique order identifiers in their email receipts that can be easily referenced. Identify your reserved curbside pickup spaces with separate phone extensions or unique QR codes. Customers notifying you that they are waiting will automatically have location context provided. Are they in parking spot #3? Are they at the side door? That's another piece of information you don't have to ask for and they don't have to think about.

# What tools are available to help?

With all that said, I am biased. I have a dog soggy bun in this fight. I built Routegy to create wonderful customer experiences within physical spaces and since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have started leveraging it to improve their own curbside pickup experiences.

With Routegy, you can create signage outside of your establishment with QR codes and/or NFC tags that customers can interact with directly from their phones. Customers are asked for only the information you need to identify their order and Routegy will gather the rest. That's it. No app required!

With Routegy’s integrations, employees inside are instantly notified when customers arrive and have relevant order information at their fingertips. Once an order is delivered to the customer, it can simply be marked as done.

# Want to learn more?

Routegy is helping a number of local businesses in the Washington area with contactless curbside pickup. Take a look at our case study for Orenji Sushi & Noodles, our contactless curbside pickup tutorial, or contact us at connect@routegy.com.

# Don't want to use Routegy?

Hey, that's fine too. I hope after reading this that you've discovered some ways to improve your own curbside experience to build loyal customers and fans.

Using different tools/technology? Looking for an integration with your PoS system? Want to discuss problems you're experiencing with curbside pickup? I'd love to hear about them in our comments section for this post.


Streamline curbside pickup with Routegy

Orenji Curbside Sign

When Washington state introduced dining-in restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Katia Chan, owner of the popular restaurant Orenji in Issaquah, quickly retooled her operations for takeout only orders. To meet social distancing guidelines, and the expectations of her customers, Katia decided to exclusively offer curbside pickup. An Orenji customer would pull up, call the restaurant, and Orenji staff would deliver their order directly to their vehicle.

While phone-based curbside pickup worked, Katia and the staff at Orenji immediately encountered issues. First, customers calling from the parking lot kept the restaurant phone line busy, preventing Orenji from taking new orders. Second, using just pen and paper, Orenji staff struggled to keep track of who was waiting and for how long. Finally, matching orders to customer information collected over the phone was prone to mistakes and inefficient. “All of these small problems would compound and burden our staff, especially during the very busy dinner hours, and we knew we needed to improve the process”, Katia says.

When Katia learned about contactless curbside pickup powered by Routegy, she saw it as a potential solution to Orenji’s problems. Routegy’s approach was simple; rather than calling the restaurant or walking in, customers could scan a storefront QR sign, fill out a simple form, and staff would be immediately notified.

Getting started with Routegy was easy. After creating her first Routegy touchpoint, Katia had only one question left: how would her team be notified of customer arrivals? Routegy can send simple notifications by text, email, or Slack, as well as integrate with popular tools like Zapier and Jira. Katia decided to track waiting customers and order status with Trello due to its simplicity and ease-of-use.

Orenji’s Routegy + Trello curbside flow is simple: when a customer scans the storefront QR sign, Routegy automatically creates a new entry in Orenji's dashboard in Trello. The entry contains the customer’s information and arrival time. Once staff delivers the order, the entry is marked as complete.

Katia also added instructions and a Routegy link directly to customers' receipts. Instead of scanning the storefront QR sign, customers can simply click the link when they arrive.

"We've seen great results, my team loves it! Routegy protects my team members and guests, and best of all it increases productivity and order accuracy."

Katia Chan

Owner

Orenji began using Routegy in May, 2020 and she is already planning to use Routegy for various dining-in experiences. “I’d love to use it for our dining-in waitlist, customer requests, and even touchless menus”, says Katia, “With Routegy, we can keep our guests and staff safe while improving the experience at the same time.”