Starbucks knows technology needs to be human

When Starbucks trains employees—”partners”— a core goal is to help them understand the culture and values of the company. How a partner anticipates a customer need, delights the customer and creates a human connection is key to the ongoing success of the brand.

But now technology is playing a part.

Starbucks is an experience. And it’s centered around that customer connection in the store, the human connection, one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time. I think that mission is so critical to how technology has to show up for us. Tech has to amplify that human connection, not get in the way of it. It is not about building cool, shiny tech. It’s about building tech that appeals to that connection and craft that is uniquely Starbucks.

Gerri Martin-Flickinger, Starbucks CTO

Artificial intelligence offers brands like Starbucks a powerful personalization tool. Personalization is one of the four pillars of the “digital flywheel” for Starbucks. Data is used to create the most personal view of each individual, which can then be used to provide new experiences.

When we were asked to speak to Starbucks’ technology partners about AI, we wanted to leave them with one key idea; the paradox of personalization. The paradox of personalization says that the best way to personalize a person’s future is to make that future less personalized. 

AI has made human behavior a design material. Because a good portion of AI’s behavior relies on its post-design experience, designers can no longer be concerned only with intent. Designers need to plan for consequences, to foresee how the human-machine system will operate and to broaden the scope of their designs to include human choices and agency.

To increase the efficiency of personalization, designers need to put individual consumers in a box that will fit the prediction of who they will be tomorrow. When this is done so accurately that is becomes over-personalization, it can feel creepy. How did the AI know that I would want that? Or perhaps the question is, would I have wanted it if the AI hadn’t said that I would? Am I making choices for myself or is the AI making choices for me? 

Modern AI makes inferences about people; finding patterns in data, learning on its own and making valuable predictions and recommendations to customers. The ultimate success of personalization is to understand who we are today and who we will be tomorrow. Understanding our futures is valuable and, done well, AI can enhance the human experience; helping customers find more of what they like and freeing up a partner’s attention for more meaningful tasks. 

Just like their relationship with a barista, customers receive the same care and personalized recommendations when it comes from our digital platforms.

Jon Francis, senior vice president, Starbucks Analytics and Market Research.

AI changes the way people work together, whether it’s part of a customer/employee interaction or an employee/employee interaction. Designing “machine employees” that act in accordance with brand values and support human connection requires resolving this paradox by ensuring that people retain human agency and choice as they interact with AI.

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