Smart technologies are creating dumb services

Smart technologies are creating dumb services

Jelte Timmer
  • Jelte Timmer
  • Livework Insight

Our interactions with digital devices are currently being shaped by two big trends. The first is that every device is somehow becoming ‘smart’. The second is that, since the advent of Amazon’s Alexa, every interface has to be conversational. Both technological advances are really valuable. But both will also amount to nothing but trouble, if not used well.

Smart technologies aim to make tech more human

At its core, making things smart and talkative is about making technology more human. Technologies mimic human behaviour in their ability to sense, react and adapt themselves, and respond in our human language. We can see this in smart thermostats that sense when you’re at home and adjust the heating to your lifestyle. Talkative interfaces like Siri, Alexa and Echo allow users to request music, play games, order pizza or make a shopping list.

Mimicking human behaviour doesn’t make technologies more human-friendly by default

This presents a great advance in how people interact with technologies. I’d choose to talk to a device over punching in commands on a keyboard any time. But just mimicking human behaviour doesn’t make technologies more human-friendly in itself. It can even make them less user-friendly. If something’s able to talk but does so at the wrong time, or says something irrelevant, that’s not innovation, that’s just annoying. If your coffee machine can connect to the wifi, but it’s just quicker to hit the regular button, then the smartness is useless.

I hope to someday have grandchildren who are mystified at how, back in 2016, if you were to say ‘Hi’ to your microwave oven, it would rudely sit there and ignore you.

Andrew Ng , ex-Google and former Chief Scientist at Baidu

We’re reinventing Clippy

But who would like to be greeted by every piece of kitchen furniture when they wake up in the morning? Or a bit closer to home. Who likes to be interrupted by a supposedly helpful chatbot while browsing for a pair of shoes. The enthusiasm for smart chatty interfaces seems to have created a new generation of Clippys, the paperclip-shaped Microsoft office assistant that annoyed people with unwanted requests and conversations. PWC research shows 64% of U.S. consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience in their push towards automation.

And we’re making things dumb by making them smart

We’ve been fooled into thinking that sticking a chip into something will always be an improvement. As countless examples show – refer to the Internet of Shit for an afternoon of fun – many smart features offer more frustrations than comfort or efficiency to consumers.

The example of Mark Rittman who spent 11 hours making a cup of tea with his WiFi kettle vividly illustrates the point.

Tweet Mark Rittman

Making digital technologies work for real people

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that sensors and conversational interfaces are useless. We just need to ensure we design them in the right way. For us making smart technologies work for real people means 3 things:

  1. Build on real needs.
  2. Understand the difference between digital and real-world behaviour
  3. Align with people’s values

Building on real needs

A good case here is Google Glass, the awkward looking AR glasses Google launched in 2013. The glasses were first released as a generic consumer device and failed disastrously. They didn’t serve a consumer need, did not connect to the way people are used to interacting with each other, and got slammed because of privacy concerns.

But the glasses didn’t die. A second edition was launched. And this worked out better. Why? The ‘enterprise edition’ actually solves a problem for people. It provides information to factory workers who need their hands for other things. And by serving a limited purpose in a factory environment, the privacy and social concerns were also addressed. Building something for a real need saved Google glass from dying. But a lot of smart IoT devices don’t seem to have gotten that memo, with nearly three-quarters of them failing.

Understand the difference between digital and real-world behaviour

The second thing that’s crucial to understand is that digital is not the same as the real world. Many companies assume that their customers will behave the same when they digitise their systems. But they don’t. People won’t talk to the chatbot the same way as they will to an actual person. For instance, one thing research has shown is that people actually tend to behave less honestly online. Because there’s no direct human contact or sense of control, people are more likely to cheat. For one of our clients, we put this insight into practice. We used behavioural analysis to build social control back into their systems and reduce fraud.

Align with people's values

As the Google glass case shows, new technologies can cause anxiety for customers. Research suggests that privacy concerns are slowing down the growth of the IoT market.

We worked with UK broadcaster, Channel 4, to formulate principles with their customers on how and when they wanted to share their data. In this way, we created a policy that was trusted and supported by their users..

Building a more humanised digital future

As smart technologies take on a more prevalent role in people’s lives, aligning them with user values becomes more important. From autonomous cars to health trackers and smart home services, respecting user values will be paramount to gaining consumer trust. Designing these services so they connect to people’s needs and behaviours in the analogue and the digital worlds, will be crucial to beating that 75% failure rate. This is about using technology to empower people, rather than creating technologies that try to behave like them. That’s what humanising technology means to us.