Industry Perspectives

How consumers respond to technological innovation

From pilotless flights to emotion-based artificial intelligence (AI), the emergence of new technologies will undoubtedly impact the travel industry. But will the customer’s emotional response to the unfamiliar hinder innovation? Futurist and social psychologist, Thimon de Jong, shares his thoughts

There are numerous new technologies coming to the market that we can all rationally agree will be great. They’ll improve our lives, enhance experiences and offer convenience. But emotionally embracing them is a completely different story.

The emotional response to technology

Take the automatic elevator as a historic example: despite now being a staple device in most hotels, it wasn’t initially embraced. Rationally, everyone understood the product and agreed with it since the technology was available and human operators were expensive. It was tested and found to be safe but still, people refused to step aboard. They were scared of the unknown and didn’t want to ride an elevator without an operator.

You could compare it to the discussion the aviation industry is having today about pilotless aircrafts. Most aircrafts spend the majority of the flight in autopilot and if you look at the statistics, around 80% of errors are human mistakes from the cockpit. It would make sense that in the coming years - for safety reasons and from a technical and functional point of view - we switch to pilotless aircrafts. But emotionally convincing people to embrace the fact there’s nobody in the cockpit isn’t easy. Ask yourself: “how would I feel about boarding an aircraft with no pilot?”

After failing, the automatic elevator was reintroduced 45 years later. The revised design was successful as it incorporated psychological elements, including a stop button to ensure people felt a sense of control, outside helpline to connect the user with a fellow human if needed and a mirror and background music as distractions. This is why, when it comes to product innovation, it’s crucial to involve experts such as philosophers, sociologists and psychologists, who understand human behaviour. Many innovations falter because while the data and tech may add up, the people element is missing.

Exploring emotion artificial intelligence (AI)

One emerging technology for the travel industry to keep an eye on is emotion AI. Today, consumer customisation is based on components such as their demographic, booking history and location, but personalising user experience based on emotion will be the next big thing. There are a few ways businesses can work with this technology, including investing in cameras and voice and text analysis tools that measure emotions in real-time. Emotion AI is forecast to be a billion-dollar industry by the end of 2020 and you can expect it to be built into the Alexas and other digital assistants of the world.

Emotion AI is already being used in human resources, where large corporations - such as Unilever and Vodafone - now outsource the first round of job interviews to companies that conduct digital interviews. Candidates sit in front of their webcam and are asked questions by an algorithm while emotion AI software runs in the background. Using the camera and microphone, the software can assess the interviewee’s emotion, enabling it to indicate things like whether they’re being honest or not.

If you then translate this to the travel industry, what about a future where you could measure guests’ emotions and only a happy guest would pay? I’m not saying accommodations should switch to this model but the technology is coming that could facilitate it, so would that be a business model worth exploring? Are you so confident about your property that this approach would be feasible?

Measuring emotions

GDPR-wise, and considering people may not yet be ready to embrace such a technology, this approach is still far in the future, but there are in-between ways of assessing emotion in the meantime. One is simply to ask your customers about their emotions - they will happily share them, especially the younger generations. Both in an online and physical space, people are quite used to sharing how they’re feeling. Think about the satisfaction scores at the bottom of a website or the physical emoticons found at airports that ask you how you found the experience.

Once you have this information, customer experiences can be customised based on how they feel. Take Netflix’s ‘Recomoji’ - a feature that allows people to set their emotions via Facebook Messenger. Viewers simply select one or more emoticons and Netflix suggests recommendations based on how the user is feeling. If you can offer value (recommendations, in Netflix’s case) in exchange for measuring your consumer’s emotions, whether it’s automatic or manual, the idea will be better embraced.

The key to emotion AI is to introduce the concept to your consumers slowly - go too far, too fast and you’ll scare people. As humans, we don’t want to feel like a company knows us better than we know ourselves and we want to feel in control of our own decisions. With this technology, the same as the self-driving car, it will be ready technically before we are emotionally ready to let go of the wheel. But you should already start thinking about what this technology means for your business. If you could know the emotions of people sitting in front of your website or app, what would that mean? What experiences would you offer? What would the benefits of doing so be? And then, with baby steps, how can you start to slowly introduce this technology?

 

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Photo: credit to Alex Knight, Unsplash

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Takeaway
  • The majority of people tend to respond emotionally to technological innovation and have a difficult time embracing the unknown
  • When it comes to product innovation, it’s crucial to involve experts such as philosophers, sociologists and psychologists, who understand human behaviour
  • Emotion-based artificial intelligence (AI) is forecast to be a billion-dollar industry by the end of 2020 and personalising the user experience based on emotion will be the next big thing as a result
  • The key to emotion AI its to introduce the concept to your consumers slowly - go too far, too fast and you’ll scare people