The ‘human element’ in digital is becoming increasingly imperative to businesses’ survival as consumers are reacting differently to what they want from a customer experience – a mix of both technology and basic human interaction.   

When I use a self-service check-out in a supermarket or register my attendance on a touch-screen computer at my local doctor’s surgery, I don’t get the same ‘feeling’ as when I engage in a face-to-face interaction with a person. I certainly value the time I save from using these technologies, but I wonder if my customer experience is compromised on a different level. Similarly, in a work setting, whilst different colleagues’ geographical locations become irrelevant for an important meeting to take place, sometimes messages do not land as well as they do when such information is conveyed face-to-face (and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has checked emails whilst using LiveMeeting!) It appears that I am not alone in my thoughts. The increasing number of digital channels being adopted or demanded by consumers is proving challenging for organisations. Whereas some customers are adopting human-less interaction, and indeed welcome it, there is a significant segment that is shunning what they see as “information overload” and are urging for a mix of both technology and basic human interaction.

Furthermore, psychological studies back the claim that we have a preference for communicating with others’ face-to-face [1]. However, businesses and organisations are becoming acute to these notions, realising the power of the ‘human element’ in the customer experience, and are leveraging their digital strategies to capitalise on this. Indeed, rather than ‘eroding’ the human element of the customer experience, digital technologies are bringing this theory to life – and contributing to businesses’ growth.  

The ‘human element’ and the link to digital

Self-service machines are not the only examples of digital technologies ‘replacing’ the need for human interaction. Indeed, this transformation occurred long ago with the invention of online shopping.

From a psychological perspective, studies show that we are wired for human interaction and engagement and that we value face-to-face contact. Our unique facial recognition quality is also key for communication and can therefore help with the successful landing of messages.  

However, what is it about human interaction, in the context of customer experience, that we so prize? Aside from the scientific, psychological endorsements, what is the social construct that we value so much? It can be argued that the importance we place on human interactions within a customer experience setting is derived from the fact that they are personal. The reason that many people love shopping at Waitrose, in-store, is not just because of the premium products on offer, but the attentiveness that the staff place on each customer’s needs [2].

Couple this psychological behaviour with the advent of big data and multiple technologies, all competing for a customer’s attention, and we have a situation whereby customers are increasingly placing value on the human element in the customer experience. Customers want more from their experience – but in a way, want less, insofar that they are after a simple, personal interaction.

Can this be transposed to digital? And can businesses harness such a trend to their advantage? The trend outlined above poses an interesting and exciting scenario for businesses that can capitalise on employing digital innovations and technologies that bring to life the human element, thereby increasing engagement and producing the best-in-class customer experience. Indeed, it appears that those companies which are becoming savvy to this customer requirement are implementing or adapting their digital strategies accordingly and enjoying success.

How businesses are leveraging the human element in digital

We have already witnessed digital technologies creating opportunities for human interaction on a personal level – from the very basic ability to send an SMS to a friend, to having a conversation with a loved one over Skype or Facetime. In her TED talk [3], Stefana Broadbent specifically addresses how digital is enabling intimacy, citing one example of families split by geographic location sitting down to dinner together through the use of Skype! This can also be seen in the recent Barclays ‘Digital Eagles’ commercials [4], whereby less digitally savvy people are helped to connect with their loved ones using technology.     

Barclays Digital Eagles in their local Community

Capitalising on the human element is already underway – advances in CRM systems are enabling call centre activities to be more personal; logging personal details of returning customers or enabling multiple handlers to know the same information about an individual and thereby have a single view of the customer, for example. Sophisticated analytical tools are also capitalising on the power of the human element in digital, such as those offered by ‘Clarabridge’, which can capture people’s emotions from the text they post on social media. This allows for a personal, individual conversation to take place between a business and its customer, creating loyalty and advocacy. Social media is also ‘humanising’ brands, whereby carefully selected language tone, personal conversations and transparent, honest interactions are valued [5, 6]. Furthermore, holograms and augmented reality are technologies that demonstrate the need for, and importance of, the ‘human’ form in order to land messages. Iberia Airlines is one example of a company successfully integrating the human element with technology through their customer service approach, whereby there is always a real person behind their social channels, with each response tailored to each individual customer and query. Iberia modifies its language depending on cultural diversity and also encourages users to create content for the website [7].  All these examples of leveraging the human element through digital are producing successful customer experiences because they place the emphasis on personal, targeted interactions.

Holograms at airports. Image courtesy of Skyscanner/REX
Holograms at airports. Image courtesy of Skyscanner/REX

The human element and digital – a happy marriage for customer experience!

In conclusion, nothing will ever replace physical human interaction in the seller-customer exchange but businesses can exploit the underlying desired psychological construct through adopting clever digital technologies. By adapting their strategies to reflect the customer’s penchant for a human element in the customer experience, businesses are enjoying customer loyalty and ultimately growth. This also highlights, therefore, the importance for businesses to recognise its customers’ changing behaviours and expectations so that they can react appropriately. This was most recently addressed at Capgemini’s Summer University in Les Fontaines, where keynote speaker Brian Solis, Principal Analyst at Altimeter Group, stated that “people are changing” and that “understanding people…through psychology…is what gives digital transformation meaning” [8]. The ‘feeling’ stated in the introduction, therefore, can be recreated through digital to an extent. Whilst it can never be replaced by human-to-human interaction, in the context of customer experience, whereby technology also offers efficiency and convenience, the duo of the ‘human element’ and ‘digital’ seem to be in a position where they can happily co-exist. Perhaps we have now reached the state of a ‘happy marriage’ in the customer experience!


  1. ‘Face to Face versus computer-mediated communication’ Lee Cheng Ean (2010)
  2. Best and Worst Supermarkets revealed by Which? Waitrose tops survey…
  3. ‘How the internet enables intimacy’ TED talk, Stefana Broadbent, July 2009
  4. ‘Barclays Digital Eagles in their local community’ Barclays UK, June, 2014
  5. ‘Social Media, the Human Element and Your Brand’ Pratik Dholakiya, April 2013
  6. ‘Why Brands Need the Human Element’ Heather Taylor, March 2012
  7. ‘Iberia Airlines: nine key elements of local customer service and experience’ Christopher Ratcliff, May 2014
  8. ‘CC Week 2014: Brian Solis keynote presentation on Digital Transformation’ Brian Solis, August, 2014