A Smarter Future

Daniel Eckler
Apr 10, 2016 · 9 min read

Objects have evolved from static to dynamic, becoming “smart” with the adoption of human traits like autonomy and proactivity. In this context, form is no longer just about the physical attributes of an object, or a traditional interactive experience, it has expanded to adopt the dialogue between man and machine.

As it stands, there’s no pattern language for how to design a smart toothbrush, a VR experience, or a self-driving car. When dialogue becomes an interface, consistency in design shifts to become consistency in personality.

When dialogue becomes an interface, consistency in design shifts to become consistency in personality.

Studies have shown that many people, in an effort to make sense of their smart objects, tend to liken them to pets or children. People, on a whole, are anxious to establish a relationship with their technology, and they do so by creating a mental model for its behaviour.

And although our technology promises connection (Facebook’s mission is to “connect the world”) it can act as a disconnect as well. We treat our social networks as a source of pleasure, but recent data shows that the majority of our actions on these platforms — the passive consumption of other people’s information — is rated as virtually meaningless and proven to lower our mood, while the communicative aspects actually have fewer negative effects.

We’ve all seen the couple ignoring each other on a date, completely immersed in their smartphone, while the world buzzes on around them.

What we need now, in this era of rapidly progressing technology, is a set of principles to ensure that these powerful, all-consuming objects retain an element of humanity at their core.

Design for Humanity is an interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. You’re currently reading part 4 of 7.

These 10 principles are by no means exhaustive, or even clearly defined. This is a new field, with new ideas, that are only starting to emerge. As we enter into this unknown future, we propose starting with these principles, and we’ll refine them, collectively, along the way.

Intuitive design represents, but does not imitate the human form.
As robotics and AI begin to adopt characteristics that only humans have historically possessed, it is important to establish boundaries. When adopting body language, tone of voice, or emotional response, it’s important to exaggerate these features, because strict imitation usually results in disturbing side effects like The Uncanny Valley.

Intuitive design is visceral.
With so many materials at our disposal and a myriad of ways to arrange them, we should make use of shape, texture, smell, sound and lighting to create the most organic experience possible.

Intuitive design has a consistent personality.
When objects display a clear personality type through specific behaviour, it allows people to develop clear expectations and relate to a smart object with ease.

Intuitive design is friendly.
A transparent, approachable personality helps people establish trust, and suggests that the smart object will act in their best interest.

Intuitive design makes its use-case clear.
Clear communication during the initial interaction helps to establish expectations about how a smart object can be used. Encourage specific behaviours by making use of people’s intuition.

Intuitive design is explicit about its limitations.
Determine unobtrusive ways to restrict options throughout a user interaction. Be upfront about what an object cannot do. Above all, take ownership over mistakes and accept blame in a creative, charming way.

Intuitive design develops a relationship.
Analyze user behaviour to understand individual preferences, and develop a smart object that can learn and respond, creating a personal experience for every user.

Intuitive design is submissive.
Smart objects should be neutral, restrained, and allow the user to take control whenever possible. It should develop habits tailored to user preferences in order to minimize its presence.

Intuitive design requires minimal augmentation.
Technology is best used, not seen. This rings especially true for wearable devices, whose goal is to aid its user without drawing attention to itself.

Intuitive design is attractive.
A beautiful object is a useful object: it propels its user towards a solution with confidence.

Now that we have a set of principles to help infuse personality into our products, what happens if we decide to create something with traits that we don’t personally embody?

The hair of Brad Pitt, the effortless charm of George Clooney, the mind of Elon Musk: present day products are not only becoming an aggregate of the people we aspire to be, they’re becoming a pastiche of a company’s resident personalities. In order to design tomorrow’s interactions with smart objects, we’ll require more than just interactive and visual designers. The talents of psychologists, sociologists, copywriters, among others — will be leveraged to complete a well-rounded user experience.

And, as data analysis becomes more robust, this aggregate team will expand to include product users, their feedback, and their personal preferences.

In order to design tomorrow’s interactions with smart objects, we’ll require more than just interactive and visual designers.

Take, for example, Netflix’s premier drama: House of Cards. When it launched in 2011, it became the most-watched program in the site’s library, which came as a surprise to the general public, who weren’t used to online-only prestige television. However, the team at Netflix had a hunch that the program would be a wild success. When they purchased the series (a BBC remake), they gathered subscriber data and realized that fans of the original miniseries were likely to watch films involving Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mixing a highly talented multidisciplinary team with user data isn’t just a novel way to create today’s TV shows, it will be a necessary component of product design for tomorrow’s smart objects. One thing we can expect is a rapid uptick in user experience: the more that users communicate and interact with the products they use, the more tailored and submissive the design will become.

Now that we’ve established the principles of intuitive design and its potential path, let’s explore how some of these principles might be applied to present day CUI.

Intuitive design makes its use-case clear / Intuitive design is explicit about its limitations

Remember the Hackers screen we discussed earlier? The stark black screen scrawled with unreadable code that has been replaced by GUI? This is a version of DOS (Disk Operating System) and it requires very specific instructions in order to operate. Users can type anything they want on the command line, as long as the computer understands what they’re typing. Here is a list of DOS commands:

The list of commands presents a challenging problem: if you don’t know exactly what you can and can’t communicate, it’s very difficult to get anything done, and this is a problem that we’re encountering again as we begin to experiment with CUI.

To expand, when we type our personal information into a form via GUI, there are several checks and balances that ensure a user’s input is correct. Questions and directions are built into the form to direct the user. For example, if an incorrect address is detected, the form will provide an alert. This process isn’t as clean in a conversation. The user is free to type or say whatever they please, so the experience must be guided with well-constructed questions, and the user’s answers must be digested and interpreted as efficiently as possible if the experience is to be effortless and pleasurable.

Both Slack and Peach anticipated these difficulties and developed a series of written commands that encourage users to engage with rich media directly within their chat windows.

When conversation is more free flowing, it’s important for the product to avoid asking open-ended questions. If the user wants to buy an item, narrow down their desire. Ask them a series of step by step questions: item, size, color, etc. Mixing several questions into a single sentence will only confuse matters and invites the user to miss a question. Repeat all valid answers to confirm the request and move on: “Red? Perfect. What size would you like?”

If there is a mistake, simply explain the misstep and provide alternatives: “Sorry we don’t have that size in stock. We do have a 10 or 11. Would you like those sizes?”

Intuitive design is submissive

A less conversational version might suggest the right commands at the right times.

You’ve already seen hints of the potential connection between CUI + GUI. Here the computer understands your intent (listens), but doesn’t impose itself with a conversational response, it just offers you a link to the proper GUI element.

Image Credit: Jonathan Libov

Intuitive design develops a relationship

Overall, the product should always be doing two things: nudging the user to the next step, and highlighting less-familiar features when the opportunity is right. A user’s first contact is a great way to tackle both. The product should use its very first response as an opportunity to let the user know what its capabilities are, and suggest the next potential steps to accomplishing the user’s goals.

Conversation can be toned down after the user has a few successful interactions and becomes familiar with the product’s limitations. As the relationship progresses, options and tips should be revealed based on user history. For example, users might know a service can schedule meetings, but don’t know that it can order food for that meeting: “Hi! You have a meeting at 12pm. Would you like me to order lunch?”

When a product adds a nuanced layer to its repertoire, as in the previous example, it inches closer to becoming a friend, rather than an app. In fact, there are a handful of features native to conversational interfaces that lend well to friendly interaction.

Instead of installing an app, you can “Contact”, “Add” or “Invite” it to chat with you within the interface.

Traditional apps are constantly nudging us to perform actions that benefit the company instead of the user: “Install”, “Download”, and “Buy Now” are popular button commands. Due to the conversational nature of CUI, these direct, forceful commands aren’t necessary. Instead of installing an app, you can “Contact”, “Add”, or “Invite” it to chat with you within the interface. This results in an experience that feels less like an interaction with a salesman and something closer to a chat with a friend.

As a result of these affable qualities, CUI also lends well to notifications. Where users may tire of a shopping app’s sale reminders, the same offer housed in a messaging app, delivered by a bot that you have a friendly rapport with, can come across like a friend letting you in on an obscure sale they’ve dug up.

Design for Humanity

An interactive essay exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. Also available as a talk.





Thanks for Reading

This is an interactive + evolving essay. Please get in touch if you have thoughts regarding new content, modifications to current content, or anything else!

If you enjoyed reading this article, please hit the ♥ button in the footer so that more people can appreciate great design!

Hi, I’m Daniel. I’ve founded a few companies including Piccsy (acq. 2014) and EveryGuyed (acq. 2011). I am currently open to new career and consulting opportunities. Get in touch via email.

This article was co-authored by Shaun Roncken.

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Daniel Eckler

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