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Hospitable Design

Joel G Goodman
/ 8 min read

Back in 2020, I started a podcast with my friend Jon-Stephen Stansel called Thought Feeder. Our primary goal was to explain why our seemingly hot takes on Twitter were actually well thought out. If you think back to those pandemic days just after the initial cabin fever had started to subside and everyone started having emotional anxiety, there was this ongoing conversation about how stressed we all were and how much we craved more empathy.

The din of empathy continues to resound through higher ed social media circles. We all know we should empathize with our colleagues and target audiences. But what J.S. and I saw happening bugged us. A call for empathy became an excuse for bad practice. And that shielding of us from constructive critique swirled into toxic positivity.

I think we’re somewhat past that particular part of pandemic pandemonium, but there was still the lingering issue of what to do with all this empathy. Empathy in and of itself doesn’t act. It listens; it understands. Maybe it even sympathizes. But it doesn’t inherently move us toward action.

And to me, that was the biggest missing piece. Empathy without action — empathy devoid of kindness — isn’t worth much at all. And what’s interesting to me is that most of us see and experience the kind of interactions we all crave every day, but we aren’t as aware of them as we could be. We experience it from the greeting at our local coffee shop. It’s the person who holds the door for us at the grocery store. It’s in signage helping us find our way in a new building or even a nice onboarding flow we find in a new app. .

The result of all of this planning, thinking, consideration, and design is what we all call hospitality.

We all felt a change when the pandemic hit the service industry didn’t we? My wife and I tried our best to order takeout as often as possible from our favorite spots, just to help the servers and owners stay afloat.

But we felt the gap their effortless hospitality left when we couldn’t go out anymore. The impact of those interactions is felt when they’re no longer there. We miss that slice of pizza or perfect cocktail or expertly made espresso. Deep down, we are resonating with the experiences that surround them.

Hospitable design affects each of us, and as people creating experiences for others, whether digital or in-person, we are responsible for considering how our work impacts other people.

My friend Ron Bronson calls this analytical approach Consequence Design.

All designed interactions have consequences, whether it’s someone getting stuck buying a train ticket from a kiosk, or hidden menus inside of web applications. The consequences might be unintended but they cost time and money and erode trust in our platforms. We need to uncover how a product can cause harm and fix it.

Take a moment and sit with that. Every decision we make from the language we use in a social media reply to prioritizing a fun new hero video over simpler user journeys has consequences. We may not mean anything by choosing one Learning Management System over another, but there will always be consequences.

From software (no one thinks Blackboard is intuitively designed, yet how many millions of dollars does higher ed dump into it?) to meal plan management to disjointed branding. All of these friction points add up to an overall experience. The consequences of these design decisions are felt far and wide beyond your marketing efforts.

Where Consequence Design is a way for us to notice the anti-patterns we encounter every day, Hospitable Design is a framework for doing something about it.

Hospitable Design

To really dig in, let’s talk about why we as humans value hospitality and kindness so much. I have a Communication background and tend to go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The basics of this classic framework describe human needs with the most basic represented at the bottom of a pyramid — these are things like water, food, and shelter. As we attain those we move up the pyramid to fulfilling our need for safety, security, and health.

After our basic physiological needs are met, we move into our psychological needs, then finally to our self-fulfillment needs. Notice our need for belonging, care, and acceptance in the hierarchy. This is where friendships, human interaction, and even simple kindness come into play.

Being hospitable scratches that itch. If you think of the places you’ve felt the most welcome in, a large part of that experience is because you were met without bias or judgment and simply cared for. Restaurant waitstaff are the real pros at this. They may have initial reactions to guests, but they know that real hospitality hinges on them extending the benefit of the doubt.

And while it may seem a bit strange at first to mash our two professions together, when it comes down to it, higher education institutions are a type of hospitality industry. Sure, our main mandate is to educate, but our campuses also offer dining services, housing, and recreational activities. Kind of like a less-fun resort, if we’re honest.

There are nine widely accepted principles of hospitality and service.

1. Being welcoming, friendly and courteous

We can translate this to mean being inclusive. Do we genuinely welcome everyone regardless of their abilities, societal status, or personal preferences? And what efforts do we take to notice disparities in our offered experiences?

2. Being knowledgable

Beyond simply listing the facts we know, great hospitality anticipates what our guests or users are really looking to understand.

3. Being Efficient

Respecting our users’ time is an act of genuine care. When our systems are efficient, they look effortless and smooth. But when the opposite is true, we waste their time and erode their trust.

4. Being Well-timed

In the restaurant world, we see then when our water glass is constantly filled, or a clean fork magically shows up. In the world of marketing, this could be in website personalization or accurately targeted advertising. The goal is to provide just the right information or services before the users even realize they need them.

5. Being Flexible

Some rules can be bent if it means we’ll provide a better service to our users. In his keynote at PSEWEB 2022, Hamza Khan spoke about how being willing to rethink how you do business is the only way to stay relevant in the changing world. Feedback loops allow you to adapt more easily than rigid structures do. So for instance, perhaps you took the plunge and put a chatbot on your website. Pay attention to how well that’s serving your visitors. If you find they’re getting frustrated with poor answers, you could try offering live chat with a human.

6. Being Consistent

People return to restaurants, stores, or even your website for a reason: they like the experience they’ve had in the past. Uneven experiences don’t encourage return visits. We can extend this to the enrollment funnel, too. If experiences on your website, with your admissions staff, or with other community members are inconsistent, prospective students have less incentive to choose you over a competitor.

7. Communicating Effectively

We’re all communicators here, so we know that the sweet spot in communication is transmitting just the right amount of information at the exact time it’s needed. Our audiences expect our websites and marketing communication to recognize what they want and communicate it simply. Remember that efficiency principle? Don’t use five words when three will do.

8. Instilling Trust

Everyone wants to feel secure in the decisions they’re making. Whether that’s a menu item when you have a food allergy or knowing you can trust that tuition information is current and accurate. Often times when Bravery conducts user experience research we’ll hear comments to the effect of, “I just don’t know when that content was updated and if it’s accurate.” Normally it’s not because of anything on that specific web page but more of a culmination of design consequences from across the site or other connected sites.

9. Exceeding Expectations

When we think about higher education and how competitive the industry has become, the institutions that are really thriving are the ones that hit all the basics perfectly and then add that special touch. Every person that interacts with your brand has an experience baseline that they expect. But your committed, vocal fans are the ones that will tell their family and friends about your institution. It’s the details that make that difference, and imagine how much more effective your marketing could be with a whole squad of fans telling your story for you.

So to recap those principles:

  • Inclusive: welcoming, friendly, and courteous
  • Knowledgeable
  • Efficient
  • Well-timed
  • Flexible
  • Consistent
  • Communicates effectively
  • Instills trust
  • Exceeds expectations

How do we put all of this into practice in higher education digital marketing? I’m going to share five areas where we can start to practice hospitable design right away. And as you get into a rhythm of approaching your work through this lens, I think you’ll find yourself applying the principles of hospitable design to other areas of your work and life.

First and easiest, we can work to speed up our websites. Optimizing your page speed requires judgement calls and may prove a bit more challenging from a design and build perspective than what you’ve done in the past, but it’s extremely important for a number of reasons.

Think of prospective students, parents and guardians, who live in rural areas without stable access to fast internet. What are we doing to help those with slow connections or only mobile internet access quickly find the information they need?

Bridging that connectivity gap requires weighing things like, how much media is on a page, how video and images are loaded, what HTML and CSS frameworks you might be using, and how much JavaScript your core experience requires.

Page speed optimization is one of those low-hanging fruit scenarios that will immediately benefit your website audiences and provide a number of knock-on benefits to your SEO, conversion rate, and UX performance.

You can start by using tools like Lighthouse built into the Chrome browser or Google Page Speed Insights. Most of the page speed tools out there will give you a detailed list of exactly what opportunities there are to speed up your website.

Second, and very much related, is traditional accessibility. We know the importance of web accessibility and most countries have laws in place to back it up, but when we begin to think about it from the vantage of hospitable design, it moves from simply a legal requirement to a requirement of compassion.

Our websites need to work for anyone no matter the means by which they access them. That means connection speed, device, assistive software, and other means of interacting with our work. By not bringing weight to our accessibility practices we at best are leaving money on the table and at worst are furthering the worst experiences our audiences have and contributing to inequality.

There are tools you can use to scan for accessibility problems, but there is no solution better than developing accessibility into a core value for your organization. It’s everyone’s responsibility.

Third, we need to consider the language we use in our website copy and communications. Too often our website copy is wordy, confusing, passive, and written above the level the general public can easily parse. And that’s not a knock on our audiences. Given time and patience, anyone can sit and figure out what we’re trying to say on our websites, but why not do them a favor and get the point in simple, straightforward, and actionable language?

We must also be aware of bias and gendering in our written copy. Exclusionary language does not help us at all, and only serves to damage how well our brands connect with others.

At Bravery, we use tools like Grammarly to automatically check the language policies we’ve implemented. But in some cases, you may need to develop or rewrite those policies.

Fourth, all the rest of our UX. The ways we organize content, the attention we give to journeys, and how well we understand the tasks our website users are looking to accomplish all work to extend kindness. UX can dip in and out of all of the nine principles.

The best way to practice hospitable design in these areas is through research. Talk to your prospective and existing students and build that feedback loop into your everyday work — whether that’s design, content strategy, or anything else. Ask specifically about the challenges they face and if there are ways those experiences can be made better.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, we need advocates for this work. If you’re the sort of person who hosts dinner parties with friends, often notices the person who needs a meal, or just feels there isn’t enough empathy in the world, I want to encourage you to take up this charge.

The fact of the matter is that everyone brings their own baggage with them wherever they go. If we can be vocal advocates for carrying a bit of that load by offering a kind word, listening closely without judgment, and adjusting our actions to suit, we’ll not only change our digital marketing for the better, we’ll start to impact those around us to take similar action in the world.

As we continue to negotiate our constantly changing reality, we can have all the empathy for others in the world and it won’t do much for them. What we all really need is more empathy combined with kindness. Let’s be hospitable to each other and to the world around us.

What other areas of your institution could be looked at through the lens of Hospitable Design?

Start practicing hospitality

The best place to start is with a research project with Bravery Media. Get in touch below or message us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Call: (512) 593-8094 / Email: