2013: How E-paper Almost Became the Future of Housekeeping Software
When Flexkeeping began in 2013, Aljaž and I took on one of the biggest challenges in the field of software design (UX and UI). How to design an app for hotel housekeepers who might have never used a smartphone before, much less, 8 hours per day? The challenge didn’t end there. On top of this, not all housekeepers speak the same language, and their devices would have to withstand some wear and tear. Just imagine all the times the devices would probably fall on the floor, be sprayed with cleaning substances, or even fall into the water. And most importantly, how to make a housekeeper’s job easier and their lives better? The solution was a combination of hardware and software design.
Smartphones seemed to be the logical option, but in 2013, we saw 3 main drawbacks with them:
- They were expensive. Often too expensive for hotels to be willing to invest in.
- They were very fragile. The normal conditions from housekeeping were too hazardous and replacing smartphones would mean extra costs for hotels.
- They weren’t widely used. Although smartphones had already been around for 5 years at that point, they hadn’t reached widespread acceptance. For example: WhatsApp had 200 million active users back then vs. 2 billion today!
For all of these reasons, we thought the real housekeeping software innovation might lie in a different hardware approach.
Back then, another group of young entrepreneurs had recently launched a successful company called Visionect. They had developed a product based on e-paper technology and its main use at that time was as a tabletop restaurant e-menu & ordering solution. What got our attention was that the hardware offered a couple of unique features that could give our housekeeping software solution a special edge. Several aspects made it appear as the perfect solution to cater to housekeepers’ working conditions:
- The product was extremely durable (you could drive over it with a car or wash it in a washing machine). Also, it wasn’t sensitive to cleaning substances so there were no concerns about the longevity of the device
- The device had a big touch screen (6 inch was way bigger that any smartphone at the time) so it would be very easy for housekeepers to use
- It had an anti-theft system that would alert management if a device exited the property
- It also provided an integrated Mobile Device Management system
- The device had a battery life of up to 1 month without the need to re-charge! That outlasted almost all of the smartphones by a full month, both then and now
It seemed like a match made in heaven. Here is what the first version looked like on a Visionect device.
The testing and the results
In 2013, the 1st version of Flexkeeping was running on Visionect’s e-paper tablets and had been tested in 2 hotels: a city hotel with 154 rooms and another city hotel with 87 rooms.
- Housekeepers immediately knew how to use the interface and software
- The devices really proved to be durable
- The battery actually lasted for 14 days
- Do we want to manage hardware?
- What if housekeepers wanted to type a message or send a photo?
Conclusion: We loved it, but ...
We loved the potential of the devices and we were positively surprised by the vast variety of possibilities with e-paper. Another huge success was the user interface and that housekeepers knew how to use it immediately. However, we did see one challenge with the concept.
For us, e-paper was a great platform for simple housekeeping communication purposes. For example, updating room statuses with one click. But in the future, if a housekeeper wanted to send a message, picture, or another more flexible and multimedia message, it just wouldn’t have been possible. We also realised we might not want to manage hardware, but rather focus solely on our housekeeping software.
Eventually, smartphones became cheaper, in addition to their overall usability and flexibility, which solidified them as the more appropriate solution. By the end of 2013, we already had the first version of Flexkeeping ready for Android phones. Meanwhile, Visionect become an enormously successful company, with one of their products being Joan, the world’s #1 Meeting Room Scheduler.
Does that mean we made a mistake by testing e-papers in 2013?
Not at all. Think of all the hundreds of thousands of hotels worldwide that still don’t use any housekeeping software. They are often worried that their housekeepers won’t know how to use a smartphone app. Instead, many still use the outdated method of updating a room’s status with a 4-digit code on the in-room phones or nothing at all. For all these cases, we could have prepared a solution where a hotel orders `20 e-paper tablets”, takes them out of the box and immediately starts using Flexkeeping.
However, we envisioned how the hotel housekeeping solution of the future would look, and it included smartphones.
Flexkeeping’s Design Today
The interface we currently use is a result of all that we learned in 2013 with the e-paper platform and beyond. If we hadn’t gone through that learning process, it would not be what it is today - a unique and internationally leading housekeeping software interface.
We can’t wait to see our interface in 2029 :)
All the best,