The Retail Lessons of Building a Needy Robot

There is no denying that the age of robotics in retail is upon us. We should no longer consider when but how AI and robots will be utilized in retail. In the current conversation, retail robots are seen as repetitive task workers, at best. At worst, they’re feared to be human replacements and heralds of a completely automated retail landscape.

In 2017, Amazon reported it had 45,000 robots working alongside humans in its warehouses — a 50% increase from 2016. The announcement sparked endless debate about whether human retail employees were on the verge of being sent to pasture or if robots might actually boost employment for sapiens in retail.

In the throes of this conversation, we often forget to consider how robots could make a retail experience more interactive, more enjoyable.

In fact, retailers are uncovering unexpected results when they pair robots with humans in store settings. Take, for example, Walmart, which has implemented Bossa Nova’s stock-checking, label-swapping, and price-adjusting robots to patrol aisles in certain stores. On the surface, these robots seem like a threat to any retail employee.

The reality, however, is quite the opposite: employees have embraced their in-store counterparts. Associates name the robots (who wear name badges), work alongside them, and even advocate for them to consumers and to headquarters. Walmart’s robot-associate relationship poses the question, what does it take for a retail associate to form a level of comfort, and eventually a bond, with a piece of retail technology? Could a similar relationship be built between robots and consumers?

At W+K Lodge, we study the relationships that people build with emergent technology in order to help brands and retailers build tech experiences that consumers will care about. Naturally, we wanted to better understand the human-robot relationship. So we began by posing the question: what if we build a robot that, rather than being omnipotent, needed help with everything?

In May 2015, we set out to create Needybot, a robot that flew in the face of the rhetoric that dominates the robotics conversation. Instead of an all-knowing, all-capable robot, Needybot would not do even the simplest of tasks on its own. By creating a robot to be a foil to the popular narrative, we hoped to discover an alternate, more human-forward outcome to the current apocalyptic predictions.

The core aim of creating Needybot was to build a robot that tested the capacity for empathy and care for a robot among humans. We tasked the robot with a mission: to be introduced to every employee in Wieden+Kennedy’s Portland office.

Let’s set the scene at W+K Portland: it’s a six-floor, Escher-esque building where stairs, ledges, and drop-offs abound — each an insurmountable peril for our little robot. Needybot could not climb the stairs, nor could it press elevator buttons to navigate the office; all it could do was ask each of our 600 employees questions and follow them with blind faith. Could emotion, rather than function, be the conduit for an interaction with Needybot?

Needybot met humans in one of two ways. Most commonly, Needybot met people in isolated, spontaneous interactions while wandering the building. Needybot also received help from people to locate specific employees that it had set out to meet.

Needybot would remember your face after meeting you just once, compliment you, and follow you down a hallway very, very slowly — a true test of your patience, assuming you do not normally walk at a snail’s pace. A thermal camera within Needybot’s shell allowed it to “see” different people to target for interactions and seek out people (and the occasional running dishwasher) to help it when it was lost or needed help.

During the initial design phase of the project, we chose to imbue Needybot with childish characteristics: a high-pitched, androgynous voice akin to a prepubescent child’s, a short stature, and an innocence and naiveté that manifested through an inability to gauge situational nuance.

Our intention behind these decisions was to make people care for Needybot and feel inclined to help it, as they would a lost child. So, if Needybot was stranded on the sixth floor, asking for help, you might think twice before brushing by it.

With decisions made on the pitch, tone, and vocabulary of Needybot, we began to investigate how to infuse this childish innocence and wonder into every part of the device, including emotional capabilities of its eye, its weight, and the friendliness and furriness of the robot’s physical form itself.

Only a month into the experiment, Needybot had met 140 of the 600 employees at the Portland office — meaning that four or five times a day, a new person took the time to meet Needybot and agreed to help it find and meet someone else. Despite employees’ busy schedules, quick turnarounds, and long hours, Needybot’s new social circle seemed indicative of an appetite and excitement to interact with robots for reasons beyond efficiency.

However, excitement for Needybot eventually waned and its popularity diminished. Needybot topped out having met just over 200 employees in the Portland office, with children and parents of children as its biggest proponents. The rest of the employees began exhibiting everything from ambivalence to negativity toward Needybot.

Needybot was even bullied: it was locked in conference rooms, tipped over, and tucked into a trash can. For some employees, Needybot represented an unfeeling, defenseless package of technology; their pranking was not intentionally malicious, just funny (at a creative agency, there’s no shortage of comedians and the earnestness-challenged). Likely feeling some sort of responsibility over a childlike figure, parents of young children were the most outspoken protectors of the device.

In the retail landscape, robots are most often applied to expedite and optimize processes, and logically so. But ease and utility are not the only, and often not the most important, components of a shopping experience. We believe a retail interaction can evoke emotion — not just in the form of easing shopping fatigue, but in creating feelings of delight, community, and confidence. A stronger brand learns and grows with you through multiple interactions — which can come from brand ambassadors, associates, and yes, even robots.

Needybot opened our eyes to the opportunity that exists for robots and tools such as AI to facilitate connection and care. It may not have been the catalyst for connection among our coworkers as we had imagined — facilitating far fewer coworker introductions than we thought — but it did succeed in building empathy in some. Even the bullying was a success for the experiment because it showed potential to spark strong emotion and action through a robot. These reactions wouldn’t be the desired reaction in a retail setting. But, these learnings paired with a thorough understanding of a retail audience allows us to build joyful experiences for humans, made possible through robots.

Humanity does not need to be (nor should it be) sacrificed as robots suffuse retail and other landscapes. We should remember that, in itself, technology doesn’t make things “better” or worse for people — we do that.

Want to know more about Needybot?

Check out this Monocle podcast here.
Needybot is open-sourced, learn how to build your own robot here.

Illustrations by Cassandra Swan.

Frontiers is a forum for the engineers, designers, strategists, and producers at W+K Lodge to consider how the world is changing through the lens of emerging tech — and how brands can evolve to keep up. In our first frontier, Retail, we explore what it means to combine brand creativity and technology in brick-and-mortar and e-commerce.