Reimagine Voice Assistants: Understanding Domestic Voice Assistants as Material for Design

Claire Florence Weizenegger
8 min readApr 9, 2023

Master of Design Thesis — Ideation and Design Phase

Introduction

Since the start of my Master of Design program, I have been interested in how smart home consumer IoT (e.g., VA, smart home cameras, smart locks, etc.) establish relationships between the user and its environment. I am particularly interested in how these relationships shape the user’s experience of the real world and how they make sense of these relationships. Within the frame of the thesis, I have decided to narrow the inquiry down to domestic Voice Assistants (VAs) and the repercussions of design and engineering decisions. My main focus lay on gender and other moral implications between technology, and the user, and how these interactions actively shape the human experience. By introducing VAs such as Alexa and Siri in home environments, it redefined how we interact with smart technologies. However, as many critical scholars predict, as more personal assistants are introduced into our homes, we develop even more intimate relationships with them, which are thought of as a natural part of everyday life. They fulfill the fantasy of a machine that performs women’s labor without being affected by stress, relationships, or the body. There, my focus on the home environment is crucial as it ties back to gender-normative labor work. Alexa, Siri, and co are portrayed as submissive, always available 24/7 assistants that you boss around at home. I concluded in my research this representation of the world projected into domestic VAs can reinforce hurtful gender biases and contribute to greater inequality while actively shaping moral values.

Following the RtD tradition, I used design proposals, sketches, scenarios to critically consider the effects of interacting with intelligent things in everyday life, and bring into view the ethical implications of those effects of design. Then, as many scholars observe–technology is not neutral. The combination of post-phenomenology and craft design research helps me materialize findings from design research.

Research

I am influenced by Peter-Paul Verbeek’s Mediation theory (2005) and Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Therefore, I recognize the agency of objects to establish relations between the user and their environment. By using domestic VAs as a prime example, I asked myself how the interaction between users and VAs in their everyday life could be reimagined — away from social norms and submissive personal assistants. A main point of critique is that manufacturers attach gender to technology which forms a body society consumes. I use the word body to give material to my critique, as it is a discourse of social, political, and cultural issues. By doing so I acknowledge that gendered technology or systems (e.g., bodies) are imaginary, manufactured, designed, built, created, and commodified for capital. Hence, we have to ask ourselves who designed the material of the body and who gives it value–and why? What and whose understanding of sociality & emotionality is realized in those bodies? As a techno-feminist design researcher, I believe these questions have to gain more attention.

Smart Devices as Social Actor

Peter-Paul Verbeek (2006) puts attention to how the morality of technology is linked to human actions, perception of reality, and hence the embodied-lived experience. When technologies co-shapes human actions, they give material answers to the ethical question of how to act. As recent research in science and technology studies and the philosophy of technology has shown, technologies profoundly influence the behavior and experiences of users. This implies that designers are doing “ethics” while designing today and future technologies. In other words, we materialize and conceptualize morality. In order to gain a better understanding of this theory, I have started to look into the role of smart home devices as social actors–beyond domestic voice assistants only.

I begin with direct and everyday experiences with smart consumer technology. A thermometer, for instance, establishes a relationship between humans and reality in terms of temperature. Reading off a thermometer does not result in a direct sensation of heat or cold but gives a value that requires interpretation to tell something about reality. For example, a smart doorbell camera establishes a relationship between humans and reality by recording and broadcasting one’s environment for possible threats. Smart home cameras make both live and recorded camera feeds remotely available over the internet allowing a monitored space to be remotely present on demand across time and space. To push this further, one might not have the desire to monitor a delivery man for instance, however, after receiving notifications it might become a habit subconsciously. These intentionalities can be seen as unintended consequences, repercussions, or second-order effects of the design of the device as they are not fixed characteristics of the artifact. However, they become given attributes within the relationships the users have with these devices. Resulting, within different relationships these digital technologies can have different identities.

Finally, we arrive at examples of domestic VAs. VAs differentiates themselves from other smart home devices in regard to their functionality, physical interface, and others. Their physical design is minimalistic and lacks buttons and visual indicators like displays. The interaction takes place through speech. The users learn that if they want Siri or Alexa to understand them, they need to be as concise and precise as possible. While processing user speech as commands or requests VAs acknowledges niceties, jokes, or sarcasm as nonfunctional statements. However, domestic VAs are not yet perfect in processing human speech. This glitch often leads to anger, frustration, or offensive responses from the users as the VA often asks to repeat the questions multiple times. Mostly, this is done in a female-sounding voice. A report from the year 2019 I’d blush if I could by UNESCO stresses that the gendered design of most VAs reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and inequality (UNESCO, 2019) For instance, since people become used to interacting with those intelligent agents in a commanding tone, humans might also (subconsciously) mirror this behavior in their everyday conversations with women. This example represents the relation between technology, sense-making, and everyday life–this is mediation theory at its core.

Diagram Mediation Theory + VAs

However, as noted in my last medium post, female voices are not the (main) problem. For example, the whole engineered scripted character of VAs is a submissive, always available 24/7 assistant that you boss around at home. This representation of the world projected into technology reinforces hurtful gender biases and contributes to greater inequality while actively shaping moral values.

Design

According to the research through design principles, I used crafted sketches and scenarios as creative material. The goal of this step in the design process was to ideate what a future at home with voice-activated interfaces could look like. These developing scenarios are inspired by “thing-centered” and “machine centered” design approaches. Furthermore, I expanded this approach with a broader understanding of future home environments. For example, the number of single-person households has recently shown an exponential increase. At the same time, smart home technology has been growing to provide at-home rest to individuals. In this situation, a home’s role as a social space is diluted, and many people cannot receive the social support they need at home. For instance, by creating a helper tool, That has based on AI, and ML, the ability to learn and evolve their personality I respond to these challenges and rethink current use cases.

Design Sketches

I have shown the design sketches to an audience from the University of Washington community (mostly other design students) which enabled me to gather feedback. Within the frame of the Master of Design poster show, I designed an interactive poster that allowed the visitors to give feedback on my thesis, and the design concepts. See the picture below.

UW Master of Design Poster Show

What I found very encouraging yet surprising was that the majority of people were very interested in the topic, however, never thought about the sexist aspect of domestic VAs. One visitor wrote “Wow, I have to say that I am slightly embarrassed not even realizing that Alexa, Siri, etc. are reinforcing hurtful gender roles.”

Visitors Responses

Zine–Reimagine Voice Assistant Futures

These reactions made me decide to explore a suitable educational tool for young design students to raise awareness towards the topic and secondly to understand how ethical and social tension in existing technology can be used as a material for designers to explore alternatives. Therefore, I started to design a zine that documents my process of creating concepts and sketches of what the future with domestic VAs could look like. The core idea of the Zine is to be used in a classroom setting with undergrad design students to engage with the topic in a playful way. The Zine can be seen as a DIY speculative tool to create their own proposals. I have decided to focus on this audience, as they will most likely enter the tech industry after graduating and will be part of teams who design tomorrow’s smart artifacts.

The zine (see pictures below) starts off with a background section that gives the reader an introduction into the topic. The second chapter of the zine contains a step by step manual about a collaborative design approach on reimagining how everyday life with a voice interface in a domestic environment could look like. This section will also contain my developed design sketches and scenarios.

Zine Draft

Henry Gallery

Every year Graduate students from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design Master of Fine Arts and Master of Design have an exhibition at the Henry Gallery to present their thesis work. For this outstanding opportunity, I want to communicate and raise awareness regarding my critique of domestic VAs. Therefore, I aim to design an interactive wall that displays my main points of critique towards contemporary domestic VAs, and how this is linked to the moral world.

My main points of critique:

  • Anthropometric Characteristics: female voice by default, false emotional ties to a machine.
  • Gendered Technology: Scripted technology, shy yet caring, designed and engineered to represent traditional gender roles.
  • Technology Interaction + Appropriation: bring it into your home, and use it which subconsciously can shape reality. The current conceptualization of an assistant is accompanied by submissive servant tasks.

I am currently considering a video as a medium to share my critique with visitors — and hopefully inspire reflective behavior for their future interactions with VAs. I believe that the broader public should be aware of the ethical and social implications of VAs domestically. Therefore, highlighting what is happening today can be a starting point for a conversation about it.

--

--