What’s the Difference Between the Front-End and Back-End of Automated Self-Service?

Automated self-service is the front-end, automated self-service interface combined with the back-end, automated service operations.

The great thing about writing for the web is that you get feedback like this great comment on my Automated Self-Service is Taking Over article:

I was very interested in the Creator — I hope they’ll offer Impossible burgers as an option — but I wouldn’t consider that innovation a self-service automation. It’s automating the back end of the restaurant, the cook. They have it on display because it’s novel and cool to watch, but it could just as well be doing its work behind the scenes, and the customer interaction would be no different. Ditto for the Zume pizza referenced in the same link.

Phil Heinrich

In that article, I had referred to the new automated hamburger fast food restaurant as an example of automated self-service. Phil is making the crucial point here that what Creator is doing is automating the back-end production process. You can hook those automated operations up to a front-end kiosk and you have an integrated system, but the way Creator is assembling the burgers is not, in itself, automated self-service.

As automated self-service grows in scale and importance, we need to develop a clear articulation of the various components of these systems. One good place to start is by distinguishing between their front-end and back-end processes. The distinction is relatively straightforward, actually. Back-end processes are the operations that do not interact with end users. Front end-end are those processes that do interact with end users.

The Back-end

To help draw this distinction, it’s helpful to use some standard terminology. For the back-end, I think a good term is “automated service operations.” One way to think about these processes is as tasks once done by employees but that are now being automated within the service sector. The way that Creator uses automation and machine learning to assemble hamburgers is one example. Other examples include the automation of delivery services once Amazon and others perfect drone delivery. Another example is automated baggage handling at airports.

The Front-end

The term I like for the front-end of these systems is “automated self-service interfaces.” They are automated because they don’t require employees. They are self-service because they allow end users to serve themselves. And they are interfaces because they are the contact point between the end user and the back-end, automated service operations.

Automated self-service interfaces come in a variety of forms and have a long history. There are older mechanical interfaces like gumball machines. There are digital interfaces like bank ATMs. And there is a new breed of automated self-self service interfaces powered by machine learning. One of the results of this latest iteration is that we are increasingly able to converse with these systems the way we do with humans. We speak to them and they increasingly recognize our subtle emotional expressions.

Front-end and Back-end Integration

When I use the term “automated self-service,” what I am talking about is the integration of the back-end with the front-end of these systems. Automated self-service is thus the front-end, automated self-service interface combined with the back-end, automated service operations. The interface is the bridge between end user and system. It is how end users tell the system what to do—which is to say, how they guide its operations. It is also the medium through which end users experience the resulting automated service.

In practice, there are many times when the front-end and the back-end of these systems will be difficult to differentiate. Imagine yourself in a self-driving Lyft or Uber vehicle at some point in the future. You tell it where to go by simply speaking into your phone and it interacts with you along your route through a very human-like voice. The back-end of the system is the routing, billing, rating and other operating software in the cloud—but it also includes the software for driving the car itself. The front-end includes all of the interfaces that the system uses to engage and interact with you. Explained this way, you see the difference. But in terms of your actual experience, it will feel like one undifferentiated, single system.

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