Purdue Hospitality and Tourism Management graduate student wins best paper award for innovative technology research

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

A group of individuals stand in a banquet-style conference room, posing for the camera.

Evita Ma poses with the fellow Purdue HTM attendees at the 29th Annual Graduate Education and Graduate Student Research Conference in Hospitality and Tourism in January.(Photo provided)

As Starship robots deliver food to hungry Boilermakers across Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus, their presence is often welcomed like that of a neighborhood pet — students are often seen helping them when they get stuck or smiling and moving out of their way when they meet them on the sidewalk. When Alei (Aileen) Fan, associate professor in the White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) and an expert in service innovation and experience design, helped one along its way one day, she was met with a low-tone, male voice saying, “Thank you.” This contradicted the “cute” vision Fan had in her mind of the robots being like her dog at home.

When Fan relayed the experience to her PhD student Chang (Evita) Ma, the College of Health and Human Sciences graduate student was inspired to investigate deeper how the combination of appearance and voice impacted the consumer’s overall experience in the service encounter.  

Evita Ma stands in front of a backdrop, posing with her award.

Evita Ma poses with her best paper award at the 29th Annual Graduate Education and Graduate Student Research Conference in Hospitality and Tourism.(Photo provided)

These efforts culminated in winning a best paper award at the 29th Annual Graduate Education and Graduate Student Research Conference in Hospitality and Tourism in January.

“I’m really honored,” Ma said. “As far as I know, for the past three years or so, no one from our school has gotten the award, so it was a pleasure to have that. It’s very competitive — over the 130-some presentations, I was selected as one of the four winners.”

The study looked at how people’s reactions differed when comparing matched, or congruent, voice and appearance and mismatched, or incongruent, voice and appearance. The researchers found that depending on the robot’s function, people tended to be either more or less accepting of when a robot’s voice does not match its appearance.

In a utilitarian scenario where the consumer really only desires the robot to perform a job function and doesn’t care as much about having an emotional connection, people often prefer the congruent voice and appearance because they feel the incongruent one is not well-designed or not capable of performing their desired outcome. When consumers are in a hedonic scenario where they don’t care as much about the functions the robot is performing but simply wish to have a connection or engage with the robot, the congruency doesn’t matter as much, and some of the surprising elements, such as the mismatched voice and appearance, may attract people to engage with it.

“We as human beings actually view things holistically,” Ma said. “We don’t separate the different parts.”

Considering how these distinct factors work together to shape consumer perceptions could ultimately shape the characteristics of future service robots to improve service encounters across the industry.

“It’s a timely topic,” Fan said. “Whether you like it or not, technology takes up a lot of our lives. This research provided practical guidelines for industries and companies on how to design different robots to better serve our customer.”

This study resulted as a product of Ma’s study “Decoding the Shared Pathways of Consumer Technology Experience in Hospitality and Tourism: A Meta-Analysis,” which examined the literature currently available to investigate the different types of technology and how humans interact with them. Ma ultimately noticed a gap in papers that combined elements — many simply looked at appearance or voice independently.

“Very few of the papers actually combine all the different subtle elements together; they just focus on one single perspective like appearance or voice,” Ma said. “So, I began looking at: What is the combination between those? Our initial idea was we wanted to know how the combination of design elements of service robots impacts the customer’s reactions and feelings of the service in different scenarios.”

Prior to coming to Purdue, Ma spent four years gaining industry experience at the Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals nonprofit in Hong Kong, where she made many connections on the technology side of the industry and solidified her interest in coming to a very technology-focused university to earn her PhD.

“Purdue has such a strong background in terms of technology and engineering, so that was also one of the reasons I wanted to keep focusing on that for my research area,” Ma said. “After taking a class with Dr. Fan, I decided to join her team.”

Beyond research, Ma has fully immersed herself in the teaching and engagement areas of graduate student life as well. Ma teaches two 200-level marketing courses to undergraduate HTM students, where she’s maximized opportunities for the students to engage in experiential education. She’s also working on curriculum development with HTM faculty and has become involved in several graduate student organizations, including the Purdue Graduate Student Government, where she is a senator.

After graduating from the program, Ma plans to pursue a faculty position that allows her to combine her passion for research with her love for teaching and service.

“She’s really the star student,” Fan said. “When we evaluate a PhD student, there are three aspects: research, teaching and service. Evita is excellent in all of these.”

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