What’s the role of designers within social robotics?

As part of her Honours Programme Master project, IDE alumna Josephine Scholtes researched the user adoption of social robotics and the important role of designers within this field.

There was a time when you needed to be very precise when using an online search engine. This shifted over time, as more complex algorithms enabled us to ask whole questions and use a looser combination of key words when looking for information. As a consequence, our online behavior changed as well and we are now seeing this development seep into our daily interactions with the rise of social bots.

Since a few years now robotics has been a hot topic, especially social robotics. The field of social robotics consists of social robots, which can move on their own, and social bots which cannot move on their own. Especially the latter kind has seen an tremendous increase in market penetration. A good example of successful social bots are the Google Home and Amazon Alexa. As an industrial design student I noticed the increasing popularity of these social bots and wondered how is such a technically advanced product going to interact with the ‘ordinary’ consumer? Therefore, I decided to dedicate my Honours Programme Master research to the user adoption of social bots and specifically conversational assistants. Based on qualitative research interviews with consumers who regularly use their Google Home or Amazon Echo, it became clear that there is still a lot to improve and that industrial designers can play a crucial role in this. In order for social bots to truly add value to our lives, we as designers must connect the possibilities of this technology with end-user needs. Even though this sounds logical, there are actually a lot of organizations that design features for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, and do not follow a user-centric approach.

Research shows that the degree of adoption of social bots depends on the use context. At the moment, Amazon and Google are mainly focusing on households. However, my research indicates that the household context is not for every consumer the best use context to introduce a conversational assistant in. Not even for innovators and early adopters. For some consumers it is, for example, more useful to have a conversational assistant in the car, as that is a hands-free context. In addition, it became clear that companies have the tendency to integrate a lot of features into one conversational assistant, thinking it adds value for the user. But this phenomenon, also known as feature creep, has a counterproductive effect on the perceived usability as conversational assistants mainly interact voice commands. So, more features in a conversational UI actually confuse the user as they lose overview of what the conversational assistant can do for them.

The household is a place where a lot of devices come together. Therefore, introducing conversational assistants into a household can integrate many of these systems. This can make the daily life of people more convenient. However, there are also several ethical issues which arise when people interact with a conversational interfaces within their household. First, it should be questioned whether we as consumers are not giving too much personal information to big corporations. Second, introducing conversational assistants within a household can also influence the interaction between people within that one household. For instance, there once was a toddler whos parents bought an Amazon Alexa. As a consequence, the toddler learned to interact with the conversational assistant by giving commands, such as “Alexa, what time is it?”. Consequently, the child adopted this behavior and also started using commands in his daily interaction. This resulted in the toddler saying “Pencil, write down ‘dog’.” This example demonstrates that interacting through voice can influence the interaction between people and their environment. And thus, it could be interesting to further think about, and design for, the ethical issues that arise with these conversational assistants.

While companies mainly focus on the technological possibilities of conversational assistants, adoption is mainly driven by user needs. That is why, in my opinion, the field of social robotics yearns for designers, who naturally look at technology with a user-centric perspective. This is necessary because user experience is very situation-dependent and thus complex. With this article I hope to inspire industrial design students to enter the field of social robotics and add value by applying their creativity and user-centric thinking.

This article was published in the TU Delft IDE Faculty magazine ‘Turn the Page’
Authors: Marc de Kool & Josephine Scholtes
Published: February 2019