The Pinocchio effect:

The 4 personalities of ‘Smart’ products, services and experiences.

Mark Weedon
Feb 16, 2017 · 8 min read

I’ve always been fascinated by people and behaviour - the differences between a person one on one or privately vs. in a group of friends or in public. I’ve spent many an afternoon sat in the windows of coffee shops sketching and watching the world go by, studying people’s behaviour towards each other, situations put in their paths and the products and technologies they are using day to day to solve problems.

Beautiful objects and interfaces are only the first steps towards delivering beautiful experiences and interactions between people and technology. As designers and developers, it’s our responsibility to define these interactions and create meaningful experiences for people in this complex connected world we live in.

I’ve spent the last 3 years working more specifically on connected products and the new dimension of dialogue we can have with products and services through the simple application of intelligence. I agree with Aaron Shapiro of Huge Inc. and Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research in their ‘important design jobs of the future’ article that in essence, a future category for designers and developers is that of the AI or personality designer - taking technology and not just making it more empathetic but turning meaningless complexity into connected technology that is accessible and engaging to the many.

My approach to connected technology and the dawn of truly ‘intelligent products’ comes from a romantic notion about products previously being dormant, with the introduction of technology and ‘smarts’ somehow awakening them into a strange new world of possibilities - for the sake of this conversation, let’s call it

For those that somehow missed the Carlo Collodi story about Geppetto, the lonely carpenter crafting inanimate companions in his workshop only for them to come to life and face very human moral choices in their journey to become truly ‘real’ and accepted into this new world and society - Pinocchio, is my notion of how I view the connected products of today. Designers, developers and technologists (the Geppettos of this world) have given these objects life, or at least a means to communicate and are learning together what is morally acceptable and what will be the relationships we build between humans and these intelligent objects in the future.

Working through these exact conversations with brands and individuals over the years, it’s been clear to me that the level of ‘intelligence’ we give must be proportionate to the level of trust we want to allow our connected home and smart products to have. These personalities along with our understanding of human behaviours are important in defining the relationship people have with products and services. In the process of working through this on many projects I think we can break it down into 4 characters that currently make up the range of ‘intelligence’ we see within our products and services today.

It’s important that brands get this correct - I’ve talked before about the one size fits all approach and the results of getting it wrong - I expect a very different behaviour and dialogue from my robot vacuum cleaner than I do with my autonomous car.

So, here’s my take on the 4 personalities of ‘Smart’ products and services we see today and where we could see them evolving in the future:

The Autonomous Pet (Monstro the whale):

Monstro is the definition of an autonomous, single purpose product personality - swimming effortlessly through the ocean, occasionally swallowing a ship or two but basically oblivious to the insignificant events happening around it and driven by the singular desire to feed to stay alive.

With that in mind, meet my robot friend Ludo the vacuum cleaner - We don’t speak the same language unfortunately (I speak human and well, Ludo speaks… App) so we have a very basic interaction and honestly he’s pretty simple, I once caught Ludo confused at home and trapped behind a plant pot but he’s efficient and gets immense pleasure from doing the tasks that I really don’t want to do. He’s also very self-sufficient and if I do come home and catch him doing his ‘work’ he usually is so focussed on his task that he’s oblivious to me and carries on regardless, apologising with a quick ‘beep beep’ if we bump into one another before retreating to his bed for a rest.

I could be describing my first university housemate - I’m actually describing a kind of ‘animal’ personality and one which is used for our single purpose connected products today! I trust it to do one thing well and forgive it its mistakes because I know it’s not the most intelligent of beings and It takes the mundane tasks I don’t want to do myself.

Current applications: Vacuum cleaners, Lawnmowers, Smart locks etc.

The Personal Adviser (Jiminy Cricket):

The next step into the intelligent connected space involves personalities that have reasoning and opinions but rely heavily on their human counterparts to take action and make things happen - the same way Jiminy acts as the outspoken conscience of our little wooden friend.

The world today is full of these type of connected products and experiences from smart thermostats to voice assistants. These services and products work tirelessly and are always available, offering speedy advice and digesting complex data and tasks to create meaning and something understandable for us. They have made at the very least the effort to understand our language but are still very unwilling to make a mistake and make us (their masters) unhappy and disappointed by their actions - so in the process of doing tasks and being aware of problems they constantly need their human counterparts to take action based on their input.

This personality gives the feeling of intelligence and the ability to do things faster than a human, but with very little confidence in taking pro-active action. I trust that it can balance multiple tasks and complexity for me as an adviser but not enough to let it actively make decisions for me and my family.

Current applications: Voice assistants such as Alexa, Thermostats, Chatbots etc.

The Trusted Expert (The Blue Fairy):

The goal of all autonomous connected objects and the focus of truly ‘intelligent’ products and services is the ability for us to trust them enough to allow them to take action on our behalf, to pro-actively decide what’s best for me and my family and preforming a task or action based on predefined algorithms and devout of human input in the moment. This trust and power of decision making is comparable to the ‘all-powerful’ and wise Blue Fairy character from our story.

This is the biggest barrier currently being felt within the introduction of connected technology and pro-active products and AI into our lives. These products are now not just learning our language to understand, but can also create and hold a dialogue, for the first time being given the trust to react and make choices based on their superior processing capability - almost like magic. The dilemma we’re experiencing at present is the unwillingness for us, as their masters to accept that these superpowers are being used for good and that we can ‘let go of the wheel’ no pun intended.

From autonomous cars not wanting to remove the steering wheel, to the legacy of the emergency button in lifts - People still need to feel in control and the biggest barrier we need to break in 2017 is the ‘trust’ of technology and putting in place the safeguards so that the power we are relinquishing to connected tech is being used for good.

Current applications: Autonomous driving, Connected home platforms

The Curious Explorer (Pinocchio the ‘Real’ boy):

I have this romantic notion that to go forward we need to go backwards and not give more intelligence and power to our connected objects but allow them some time to evolve and mature. For true machine learning and intelligence to take place we need our intelligent tech to make some mistakes and workout for itself the boundaries of its own world in the same way our favourite marionette is faced with challenges and moral dilemmas in order to prove he can handle the ‘real’ world.

So, what does this look like? Are we talking about technology harbouring very human personality traits and attitudes? This opens the possibilities of future technologies and products becoming Independent free spirits or slightly self-centered egotists. I’ve seen some great work from designers such as Simo Rebaudengo about products needing stimulation to stay happy and not getting bored. These ‘intelligent’ products are capable of building and maintaining relationships with multiple people at one time and responding based on mood and the situation - is that the most efficient way? Do we want free will for our connected or empathetic technology or efficient slaves that will always be answerable to their masters? The answer to this very much lies in the role we want technology to play within our life’s.

Current applications: Humanised operating systems - Products with feelings

So what’s next?

Well, for me and the rest of the Geppettos out there with the power to shape these future personalities and behaviours, that’s up to us! The adoption of technology and its encroachment into our lives is inevitable and is already changing our relationships to brands and services such as banking, retail and transportation. The future is ours to shape and the level of intelligence and the nuances of how products and services that interact with people will continue to effect our relationship and engagement to brands and the services they offer - if we’re all searching for true AI and awareness from the products in our daily lives then the role of ‘personality’ designers that bridge the physical and digital realms becomes very exciting and important in defining our future relationships with ‘intelligent’ tech.

What did I miss? Is my Pinocchio analogy too simplistic? We could talk for days about other influences here from West world to HER and other AI and Sci-fi classics. Where do you stand on the topic and if you’re a designer - where do you see your specialisation heading as we craft intelligent products, interface and experiences?

Mark Weedon

Written by

Creative Director - Connected Products and Experience - Designit CPH