Too much standardization and systematization can eliminate the crucial human element.

ipad-restaurant-service That was my recent experience at JFK Airport. I had arrived too early for my flight, and decided that instead of grabbing a sandwich, I would calmly enjoy a “real” lunch, complete with actual silverware, at one of Terminal 2’s new iPad-driven restaurants.

The place looked clean, modern, and attractive. I didn’t love the idea of sitting at a small table, facing a complete stranger with nothing but a pair of back-to-back iPads between the two of us, but luckily the place wasn’t crowded, so I could sit alone and observe. (Note: This setup causes a kind of enforced discomfort in which, to avoid looking directly at each other, customers tend to take refuge in staring at the iPad dividers or at their own mobile devices.)

There was quite a lot of staff on hand, and after one pleasant person seated me, another pleasant person came to the table to make sure I could figure out how to order on the iPad. The ravioli I chose was delivered within 15 minutes — but I must emphasize that it was “delivered” rather than “served.”

A Catch-22 for Customers

For customers, there are a few obvious difficulties with this style of service:

  • ipad-dining-orderThere’s subtle encouragement not to personalize your experience. If you want to modify your order to leave out the hot pepper, for example, you can’t do it on screen. You can press the little assistance button at the bottom of the screen, but the quality of that assistance really varies.
  • You lose a certain amount of control over the transaction. For instance, you must assign a tip percentage before you receive either your meal or the service the tip is meant to reward. That means you can’t gear the tip to the quality of the service, which is problematic because, again, the quality of service really varies. You could, of course, opt not to include a gratuity on the check, and leave a tip in cash instead, but that would appear to your server — who is about to deliver your meal — as if you are leaving no tip at all, which may affect the quality of your service even more — and might certainly make you feel uncomfortable.
  • You may or may not get the service you need if you want assistance after you’ve totaled out your check. For example, a youngish, fashion-forward fellow seated near me tried hard to flag down a server to ask for more hot water for his tea, but the passing server seemed nonplussed, as if it wasn’t his table and therefore wasn’t his problem, or as if he didn’t understand the request. After finishing my meal, I pressed the assistance button just to see what would happen. No one came, even though there were numerous servers filling salt-shakers, folding napkins, and just standing around. When I finally got someone to pay attention, and asked if I could just leave, or if there was anything else I needed to do, he seemed quite confused by my question. Again, the quality of service really varies.
  • I can’t say it more emphatically: the quality of service really varies! Some of the servers — or helpers or however they think of themselves — never looked directly at customers. Yes, they carried dishes and poured water, but without acknowledging any customer’s presence. Some staffers, like the two who helped me get seated and started with ordering, were actually quite personable, but I didn’t see any of them actually showing up when a customer needed actual help.

Screen vs. Service

So here’s my review: Too much screen, not enough service.

I fear we will encounter this kind of screened self-service more and more often — and confront an interesting set of trade-offs. On the one hand, it’s true that this kind of dining can be very useful when you’re in transit and want a decent meal, because the food is fine, delivered quickly, and not horribly priced. But the overall experience is also so detached and depersonalized that, ultimately, it’s dehumanizing for customers and staff alike.