The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineWhy are Alexa and Siri designed to be so nice?

Why are Alexa and Siri designed to be so nice?

By Ray Bert

My Robot Gets Me: How Social Design Can Make New Products More Human, by Carla Diana. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2021; 304 pages, $30.

For decades, “user-friendly” has had a well-accepted definition: software and technology that is relatively easy for a novice to understand and make use of. As our devices have gotten steadily smarter, however, they’ve also become literally friendly. Alexa politely asks if you’d like more information on a topic. Your step-tracking app congratulates you on meeting your daily goal. Siri says “my pleasure” if you say “thank you” after it fulfills a request.

That last example in particular informs My Robot Gets Me because it speaks not only to the device’s ability to respond in a human way but, crucially, to the fact that in general we want it to respond that way. The book, by technology designer Carla Diana, argues that humans’ evolutionarily ingrained bias toward sociability does not magically switch off when we deal with “things,” especially if those things are exhibiting responsive, social, or humanlike behavior.

Put another way, if people are going to instinctively name their Roombas or thank their digital assistant anyway, designers may as well intentionally include other social qualities. “The best products,” Diana writes, “come from working with people’s preferences, tendencies and limitations.”

My Robot Gets Me sets out to explain designers’ multilayered approach to accomplishing this type of design. It begins with the core notion of a product’s physical presence (what it looks and feels like), followed by its expression (how, what, and when it communicates) and its interaction (ability to sense and respond to people).

turquoise blue cover with black text
(Courtesy of Harvard Business Review Press)

Two additional layers are the most complex: Context aims for tech to take into account what is going on around it at the time that it is being used (for example, a hospital robot adjusting its interactions with people in response to their stress levels at any precise moment, or an exercise bicycle that knows its user’s most recent weigh-in was a little higher than the previous one and, as a result, suggesting a tougher workout to try to combat that weight gain). This last example also hints at the final layer: the ecosystem, wherein the power of individual devices is multiplied by allowing additional data and social connections between devices as well as between other people.

Done well, the sum total of this approach is to create friendly devices that are also considered inherently more user-friendly than smart devices that are not designed with people’s behavior in mind. (An example of the latter would be automated lights that turn off if a person sits still for too long — a familiar experience to many office workers).

If you’ve ever marveled at how and why your devices “just know” things or, conversely, why Alexa keeps doing that one thing that frustrates you as an individual so much, My Robot Gets Me is a worthwhile read.


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