Video: Louisa Heinrich’s #mexsession discusses the etiquette of robot UX

As digital machines gain greater autonomy, Louisa Heinrich (@customdeluxe | talks about our expectations of this coming generation of entities which will bridge the physical and digital worlds, blurring the definitions of ‘robot’, ‘drone’ and ‘appliance’. Louisa goes on to discuss how our interaction expectations are formed and how we might avoid the looming ‘domestic wars’, when contextually aware machines countermand each others’ instructions as they seek to fulfill their missions. Recorded at MEX in March 2015.

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  • Technology has the potential to imbue users with superpowers, but only if designers put people first.
  • The term ‘robot’ was first coined by Czech playwright Capek in the early 20th century, but the concept of mechanical helpers is older. Greek mythology attributes autonomous dining tables and bronze soldiers to Hephaestus, the smith God. Similar notions occur in Indian, Jewish and Norse mythologies. China also has tales from as far back as the 10th century BC concerning entities we might now identify as robots.
  • The desire to create entities which equal human intelligence drives the tendency to anthropomorphise robots. It is closely linked to a sense of the magical.
  • Anthropomorphism in robots creates unrealistic expectations that their behaviour will closely replicate that of a human. For instance, users’ frustration with Apple’s digital assistant Siri is multiplied because it tries to present itself as having human characteristics. Using design to manage expectations of robotic behaviour is critical to their overall customer experience.
  • Robotics should not be seen as a discrete category, but rather a scale by which we might judge a range of objects possessing varying degrees of intelligence and autonomy. Smartphones have characteristics some might consider robotic, perhaps even more so than more obvious robots like Roomba cleaners.
  • The human need to relate to robotic objects as we relate to other humans has governed the interaction language, driving the popularity of Twitter accounts like the ‘self aware Roomba’, spacecraft and the House of Coates.
  • The experience design of robots tends to be guided by what may be possible in the future rather than what is achievable today. This leads to user frustration because their expectations become artificially raised. “It’s still learning,” is not a valid excuse for poorly designed connected objects, nor one users will be willing to accept.
  • It is essential to consider robotic objects as citizens of a wider community. For instance, what happens when the smart coffee machine with the milk cooler is fighting a virtual battle with your connected plant pot to lower the blinds to keep the sun out?
  • The more creators imbue objects with remotely guided purpose, the less the customer actually owns them. For instance, an iron today is designed to be used for clothes, but theoretically someone could buy it to make a grilled cheese sandwich. When all your smart objects are remotely controlled, do you really own them anymore?
  • If robots become embedded into the fabric of everyday life, to what degree do users risk exposing themselves to unwanted business models. For instance, your smart toaster may be remotely updated to start branding advertising onto your toast and refuse to work unless you accept the new ‘terms of service’. Amazon’s Echo is a smart speaker, but it also listens for your commands and pushes you products.
  • It is harder not to be creepy and intrusive with robotics than it is to be creepy and intrusive.
  • The process of designing user journeys, which has hitherto underpinned many types of digital design, is unsuited to planning robot experiences. Their design must be inherently neighbourly, so that they are able to adapt favourably to the inevitable unplanned situations in which they find themselves. Design for chaos!
  • Designing robot actors which may be used in a wide range of unexpected scenarios and environments makes it more important than ever for digital designers to invest in expanding their knowledge into other domains: healthcare, psychology and anthropology, for instance.
  • Science does not yet fully understand how the human brain makes basic decisions, such as how you decide who to sit next to when you walk into a conference room full of strangers. In trying to design robotic experiences which emulate human decision making, we must acknowledge the limits of our understanding. Our lives are not made of data, they’re made of decisions.


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