With hotel rooms going increasingly high-tech, hoteliers have to keep on top of an ever-growing range of technology. Enter Sonifi, a company that oversees “guest engagement solutions” for what it estimates to be 500 million travelers in approximately 1.2 million hotel rooms each year. Focusing on interactive television, mobility and Internet access, the company looks to make technology a seamless a part of the hotel experience.
“Imagine checking into a newly renovated hotel that’s beautifully appointed and turning on the HD TV to find standard definition, fuzzy graphics displaying an interface that’s confusing to navigate and hides access to the channel guide,” said Kara Heermans, Sonifi’s VP of product management and user experience. “Immediately, that impacts the guest’s overall impression of the hotel, just like the interior design elements of the lobby or the brand of toiletries in the bathroom.” A guestroom TV system should be user-friendly, she continued, and should not require the guest to problem-solve. Ultimately, Heermans added, the guest will have a better impression of the hotel as a whole when all of the tech elements work easily.
Technology and Design
“I have always been interested in design and in how subtle differences in layout, imagery, typography or language can significantly impact what viewers learn from a creative piece and how they respond to it,” Heermans said. “I particularly enjoy user experience design because of the interplay between visual design, human factors and technology and the problem solving necessary to meld all three into a usable, memorable experience.”
Heermans graduated from Penn State University during the dotcom boom and planned to pursue web design, working at a start-up in New York. After marriage, she moved to South Dakota and worked as a development manager for a bank that, she said, had “an entrepreneurial spirit that was exploring new revenue opportunities such as ISP services and web design.” When the dotcom bubble burst, however, she had to find a new platform for her skills. “Sioux Falls has relatively few opportunities for user interface designers,” she said. When she heard of an opening at Sonifi—at the time, known as LodgeNet—she jumped at the chance. “Although TV is a very different medium than web, the same [user experience] challenges apply: simplifying complex tasks into easily understood steps, influencing user behavior through design elements and considering how physical objects like the input device impact the experience.”
Working downstream from those who created and defined new products, Heermans learned the importance of “clear business goals” and saw how solid requirements and open communication could lead to both better products and happier teams. “Over my years at Sonifi, UEX became a more integral part of the product development process and we had the opportunity to help shape new products,” she said.
Working with hoteliers, Heermans said, involves listening to their problems and then brainstorming solutions. When problem solving, she said, she shares the company’s “road map plans” and solicits feedback, which she then uses to prioritize the team’s efforts. “I get to demo our products and have in-depth discussions about the user experience and how to customize it so it best meets the needs of their particular guest profile,” she said. “And I also get to discuss ideas they’ve outlined in concept and help bring them to life through technology.”
In general, Heermans said, hoteliers understand the importance of guest engagement solutions, and are sufficiently familiar with their own customer base to know what kind of platform is right for each hotel. “With the breadth of options available, the right solution is flexible and capable of adapting to their unique needs,” she said. “We know that a high percentage of guests turn on the TV in the hotel room. We also understand their primary goals: relaxation, entertainment, companionship and information. The interactive TV system has the opportunity to facilitate the guest’s ability to realize those goals or to be a hindrance.