In my previous post I set out the question, how do we design for smart, connected things? I’m thinking of ‘things’ that are intelligent, learning, adaptive or evolutionary. Here I ask why this is a question?

I was somewhat surprised to see that this is actually a very old question, but one that appears to be re-emerging as we move ever closer to actualising such ‘things’. Back in the 1950s Licklider attempted to consider how machines and humans could exist in symbiotic relationships. Suggesting that we would need a ‘natural form of interaction’ one that could take place without effort and subconsciously.

Natural interaction as defined by Valli, in terms of experience: is how people naturally communicate through gestures, expressions, movements, and discover the world by looking around and manipulating physical stuff.

How we interact with humans differs to animals, technologies, tools and ‘connected things’. We’ve been relatively successful at designing traditional tools, and domesticating and interacting with animals as well as (non sentient) technologies.

Consider the hammer, its affordances are well known and understood, most humans can immediately begin using it. As Norman points out with animals, such as a horse, it takes time to train both horse and rider, and all interactions are arguably unpredictable. Beginning to ride a new horse, trained by a different trainer, is challenging, but once the rider has learned the nuances of the new horse things generally go smoothly.

A person learning to drive a car, needs to learn how it works, and after a time this becomes almost unconscious, moving to a new car requires the driver to adapt. An older style car is notably less likely to misbehave, than a newer more adaptive, smart car. It is this difference that we need to design for.

From this it can be seen that one of the challenges for designing for smart connected things will be that of building relationships, and expecting change from the ‘things’ we live with. ‘Things’ that talk back, have opinions, make mistakes, adapt, learn, and perhaps judge. Sounds like living with a human really, but is, (in the near term at least) a social actor that is logical and non-emotional.

Despite technology being logical and non emotional, some suggest that we already perceive and react to technologies as social actors. How often have you expressed frustration at your computer? Pretty sure you’ve spoken to it on occasion, if only to tell it to go away, in not so polite terms (no? just me then*).

In ‘The Media Equation’ – ‘Media = Real life’ Reeves and Nass (despite criticism) make arguments as to how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Their research undermines many commonly held assumptions about technology, but lets see what they have to say.

Their findings indicated that humans ‘responded socially and naturally to media even though they believe that it is not reasonable to do so.‘ They were also not necessarily aware that they did so, because the responses were not conscious. (This is why you do protest*)

Reeves and Nass offered the following suggestion as to why this is so; ‘…people are not evolved to twentieth-century technology. The human brain evolved in a world in which only humans exhibited rich social behaviours, and a world in which all perceived objects were real physical objects. Anything that seemed to be a real person or place was real.’

Though we know that a technology is just that, a technology we expect it to obey a wide range of social and natural rules. We tend to design and build systems and ‘things’ with these rules in mind, and because most of us cannot begin to comprehend how technologies function, we use the rules we understand best to interact with it.

‘Because people have a strong positive bias towards social relationships and predictable environments, the more a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, the more enjoyable the technology will be to use.’ (Reeves & Nass) (I think this argument is simplistic)

Reeves and Nass further suggest that ‘Conforming to human expectations means that there is instant expertise just because we’re human, and there are positive responses, including feelings of accomplishment, competence, and empowerment.’

Again this suggests validity in considering imbuing ‘connected things’ with emotions, personality or otherwise social and physical rules. But what are these rules? And do they always apply? (See next blog post)

Further reading:
Natural Interaction Whitepaper
Robot abuse – against the media equation (Surely there is a HUGE problem with this experiment?)
The Media Equation


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