Understand user needs in hospitality by working on the front line

Understand user needs in hospitality by working on the front line

When we talk about squiggly careers in design it’s not just about deskbound jobs. I learned a lot working in pubs and clubs, face to face with ‘service users’.

What got me thinking about this was a recent performance review at SPARCK. My squad lead gave me some unexpected feedback: apparently, I had a “natural ability to lead”.

They then asked me a question:

“Where do you think this ability to lead has come from?”

I’ll be honest and say this stumped me, and forced me to reflect on where, and how, I might have developed this skill. So, I mentally scanned my career path.

I haven’t always been a product designer. I retrained during the pandemic, in 2020.

Before then I had work various internships within the fashion industry. None of those experiences included any lead responsibilities.

But then I started to think about the work I did on the side and connected the dots.

I hadn’t found my feet in the fashion industry. The tendency to offer unpaid internships meant I couldn’t dedicate myself to that industry.

To pay my way as I studied and interned, I had worked in hospitality from the moment I left school in 2012 right through to 2020.

Customer service equals customer experience

Before the pandemic hit, I was working 60 hours a week as the assistant manager of a busy pub and nightclub in East London. The sheer number of hours I worked meant I had a wealth of experience in hospitality.

Initially, I’d overlooked it, as it didn’t seem relevant to my new product design career.

This sparked a memory of a mentor telling me to add this experience to my LinkedIn, suggesting that it was incredibly valuable. So I put this small paragraph on my CV:

“Responsible for payroll, stock and finance management and the wellbeing of the staff. Quick problem-solving skills and able to work under pressure in a fast-paced environment. Learned valuable customer service and business skills. Management of 20+ bartenders and team leaders.”


And there it is – my very real leadership experience.

I suddenly understood how naive I had been to not consider the extent to which I’d grown as a person while working in hospitality.

A crash course in user needs

I had come to London as an anxious 19-year-old and ended up helping to run a busy nightclub in the heart of East London.

My years at The Three Crowns were fantastic and are a huge part of who I am today.

The team relied on me to look after them and give them guidance on how to survive and succeed in a tough environment.

I was their go-to person on shifts that ran until 6am and were non-stop.

During my time in hospitality, I learned a significant amount about people’s individual needs. I also observed how the space around them can influence their decision making and reactions to the services they’re using.

I solved customer problems in real time against the backdrop of a very loud, busy nightclub, long after midnight.

Now I work in a team of designers to meet tight deadlines against a differently loud backdrop of business needs and technical constraints.

As we know, designing a service is not only about the digital design. It’s about looking at the service as a whole. That includes the real-world impact of the products we design, and the experiences users have before they reach us.

Hospitality truly was about working under pressure while delivering for the customer.

For example, I learned to research user needs and iterate the product. After all, I always wanted the next shift to run smoother than the last.

I did that by watching customer interactions with staff, listening to feedback, and interpreting their needs.

I learned a valuable lesson: every customer is different, and only by empathising with them can we deliver the best experience possible.

Designing for hospitality

I hope at some point to get chance to apply my design skills in a hospitality context, such as catering or hotels.

I’d love to do what I used to do informally as a bar manager with the weight of a user research team behind me – observing users, talking to them, and listening.