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Falling in love with tech again

The make-up after the break-up

By: Andrea Papenmeier & Kristyna Lyle

I remember the first time we met; it was definitely love at first sight. She was beautiful, elegant and entertaining. I’d been hurt before, so it took me a while to warm up to the idea of a relationship, but soon we were inseparable. She made my life better and I was sure I couldn’t live without her. For the first time, it seemed like I was truly happy because I had found everything I’d been looking for.

But then things changed, or I was blinded by love and didn’t see them before. There was the beeping, buzzing and flashing — constantly trying to get my attention and interrupting me at work or when I was with friends. The incessant nagging and notifications drove me insane. I began to resent her and our toxic relationship. It was then that I knew I had to end it.

Technology, I really enjoy your company. We’ve had some great times together and those are memories I’ll always treasure…but it’s over. I’m sorry, we can’t be together anymore. In this case it’s you, not me.

Meet Teye: Our screenless VoIP telephone that uses voice recognition to interpret the speaker’s feelings and expresses them physically.

Time to unplug: sometimes you just need your space

You laugh, but it’s a situation we can all relate to. Our devices have become the technological equivalent of a needy girlfriend. And as painful as it might be, sometimes you’ve got to break up to make up. Our relationship with technology is like any other human relationship. It should enhance our lives not control them. And we should be in these relationships because we want to, not because we are manipulated into them. It’s all about the give and take. If a device requires too much of your attention, but doesn’t offer anything valuable in return, it’s time to kick it to the curb.

Easier said than done. Especially since technology is becoming more pervasive and constantly evolving. We’re confronted with seductive new devices on a daily basis. And these devices are smart, autonomous, adaptable and ready to learn. It’s no surprise then that our relationship with everyday objects is changing and becoming more complex. The founding fathers of ubiquitous computing, Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, predicted these changes saying in the future, the technology itself will not be as important as the relationship we have to it.

“What matters is not technology itself, but its relationship to us.”

What if we could design technology with these relationships in mind? How can we create everyday objects users will want to engage with? How do we create value for the user and facilitate human-computer relationships? Notice the choice of words: facilitate, not force. Nobody wants to be conned into a one-sided relationship. Don’t forget that poor sap at the beginning.

Determining relationship deal-makers and deal-breakers

To answer the questions above, we must re-examine our users, their behavior and the relationships they have (and want) with technology. Weiser and Brown propose the concept of “calm technology” and moving away from “user-centered design” towards “user-centering” design. In other words, focusing on the interplay between the center and the periphery and designing technology that can move back and forth between the two. For users, it means that on the one hand, technology is in the background and barely noticeable, but on the other they have the freedom to choose which information they want and when — and can engage with several objects simultaneously. An open, polyamorous relationship with technology, if you will.

Snoofy: Our smart sleep tracker and its app help parents monitor their children’s sleeping patterns.

While some argue that this causes a discontinuous human-machine dialogue, human nature itself brings about other kinds of relationships that are equally, if not more valuable for us. We are social animals and as such, have a very strong need to belong and feel connected. That’s why we build relationships in the first place. As technology becomes more autonomous, these relationships aren’t limited to other humans anymore. It’s becoming increasingly easy and desirable for users to humanize or anthropomorphize objects. We subconsciously perceive human-like characteristics not innate to our devices. Some might even go as far as to say we project them. Taking this and a user’s emotional state or needs into account can be extremely valuable when designing interactive systems.

So why not use this to our advantage and create products and solutions with greater value? We can design for long-term social interaction by using relation agents — autonomous systems that build social-emotional relationships with their users. Ultimately, the products we use are just an extension of ourselves, so much so that at times they’re like an extra appendage. By purposely creating a character for or adding a personality to devices, we perceive them as more human thereby allowing for a deeper connection between users and objects. This emotional bond gives such devices a special place in the hearts of their owners and makes them irreplaceable. Take for example, Furbies or the AIBO robotic dog, who were more like pets (or friends) than toys.

You deserve so much better

This combination of calm technology and emotional design create a unique situation that is just overflowing with potential and possibilities — and the time to act is now. We need to go beyond the typical social interaction and feel-good design, where users rely on aesthetics, price and function to have a pleasurable experience. This is no longer enough. We need to enhance human-computer interaction by creating technology with characters and personalities. In the thinx lab, we’ve already started designing to cater to these needs with projects like, Snoofy, Teye and Ernesto. While products like these do not intend to and will not ever replace true human relationships, they do however allow (and almost encourage) users to engage with their technology in a new way.

Ernesto is a cat-like personal heater that was created by the 2017 Summer of Thinx team.

Reunited, and it feels SO good

Maybe we were a bit quick to break it off with technology. She promises to change and there seems to be a lot more here than we originally thought. Now comes the makeup after the breakup. It’s time we explored the full potential of using human or emotional needs to design interactive products and start falling in love with technology all over again.



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