On a trip to Korea in the 1990s, I discovered every café I went to had a button like this on every table:
It was always off to the side, where you were unlikely to accidentally press it, and sometimes mounted on the wall. As far as I could tell it was wireless. When you pressed it, a waiter or waitress appeared within seconds. My (native) cousin referred to it as the "Yogi-yo" button. (Yelling "Yogi-yo," literally "Hey, over here" is the rather blunt statement one traditionally yelled out to summon staff in Korea.)
A year later I was living in Japan and found that they had the same system.
It's a brilliant piece of service design, and ought to be standard in restaurants everywhere. Trying to flag down a waiter—particularly in New York, where you're often in a rush to get up and out—seems primitive and catch-as-catch-can in comparison.
A Japanese student temporarily relocated to Boston, and who documented his "culture shock" experiences here, was bewildered to find American restaurants didn't have a call button. Unsure of how to summon the server, he raised his hand, but…
…Someone told me that it is rude to raise your hand to call the waiter [in the U.S.] and I should wait till someone comes. But that's totally inefficient. What should I do if I happen to have some thing extremely spicy and want another glass of water? Should I sit there and wait till my tongue burns off?
While that may seem funny to us Americans, and particularly New Yorkers—as a former waiter I can tell you there are plenty of customers whose tongues I wish had burned off—it is interesting to see how perplexed he is.
In both Korea and Japan I experienced a level of service I've found unmatched in other countries. Staff there are trained with a heavy emphasis on the user's experience. It goes beyond their rehearsed salutations to include physical objects like the call button and this example of shopping baskets, seen below:
To provide a little ethnographic context: The store employing these baskets, Innisfree, is a Korean cosmetics brand. In Korea they take cosmetics extremely seriously. Innisfree staff/Korean staff in general are not only highly knowledgeable about their product lines, but are also notoriously eager to help—bordering on pushy. As two commenters on this Reddit thread point out:
Commenter 1: "[Innisfree stores] are usually horrible for introverts. There are 3 salespeople for every customer, hovering around following you all around the store even if you tell them you're fine."
Commenter 2: "In my experience, South Korea had the most aggressive customer service when it came to shopping. If I even showed remote interest in an item of clothing, a person working at the shop would walk over to try to help. It can get really annoying if you're just browsing. [But] if you're [doing focused] shopping it's actually kind of cool. My girlfriend went to a bunch of shops and got fantastic service. The employees would make recommendations, help with sizing, and even would tell her when a piece of clothing wasn't her style."
Thus the Innisfree baskets. Cosmetics pros who know what they want and are just looking to get in-'n-out grab a green basket. Noobs grab an orange one and get the service they need. Even the little icons represent a loner and someone with a staff "buddy."
I realize that the "problems" engendered by the absence of server-summoning buttons and color-coded shopping baskets can seem trite, but I find these simple products to be great examples of what happens when folks really think the user experience through.
Lastly, and this is a bit extreme, but here's what happens "when a befuddled customer at a Japanese subway ticket machine hits the Help button:"
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I usually just get up and go find the waiter when they neglect me. This is much more convenient.
"i can do myself" 😁