My Robot Gets Me – How Social Design Can Make New Products More Human

by Carla Diana

Harvard Business Review Press

When you really think about it, a smart home really isn’t very smart. You tell Alexa “turn on the light” and the light in the room you are in turns on. You press a button on a wall-mounted keypad, and a pre-programmed scene is displayed with specific lights turning on to specific levels. You leave your house, and the GPS in your smart phone acts as a presence sensor turning off all the lights in your home when you travel a specific distance away from your home.

All of these are typical functions of a smart home, but they are fraught with problems. If you have multiple Alexa devices in your home, then the wrong one may “hear” your command and turn on the light in the wrong room. Depending on the time of day and how much the sun is shining into the windows in the room, the light scene may or may not provide the right amount of light in the room.

If you go to your neighbor’s house for dinner, then you probably won’t travel far enough away from your home for your smart phone to tell the smart home processor/hub in your house that you have left so the lights are left on. Or, you simply forget your smart phone at home, and it doesn’t matter how far you travel away from your home, the lights are never going to turn off.

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The simplistic design of today’s smart homes leaves consumers, even those that spend large amounts of money for a professionally installed smart home, less than satisfied.

On the other hand, some individual smart products are incredibly popular with consumers. Some examples are smart speakers, robotic vacuums, and smart alarm systems.

My Robot Gets Me: Creating a Better Human/Machine Link

What separates these best-selling products from an all-encompassing smart home is a focus on social design. This is a topic that is explored in a new book by Carla Diana titled, “My Robot Gets Me – How Social Design Can Make New Products More Human” (Harvard Business Review Press).

Social design of smart home products integrates human social interaction with the design of a smart home product. This can create a better human/machine link, which can increase customer satisfaction. This link can best be seen when people say thank you to an Alexa smart speaker for taking an action in response to a verbal request or when they affectionately nickname their robotic vacuum Jeeves or Hazel.

“My Robot Gets Me” explains how people’s link to a product is not possible without a product that is truly intelligent, including how it interacts with people or a design that truly solves a problem for a person.

How a Product Fails

An example of how a product fails on both these counts can be seen in an occupancy sensor that turns off a light when it hasn’t sensed motion for a period of time. Anyone who has sat down to read a book and had a light turned out by an occupancy sensor is all too familiar with the frustration caused by a product that only has limited intelligence and is so singularly focused on energy savings that it causes other problems.

Smart home integrators who leverage Alexa smart speakers as voice control points in a smart home are well aware of the limitations of these devices, as well. Integrators go beyond Alexa’s basic ability to turn lights on/off, make a room warmer, etc. by creating routines that are triggered through custom voice commands. Unfortunately, creating a voice command that is easy to understand and links the homeowner emotionally with their smart home through a complicated technical task is very challenging.

“Alexa, Turn on the whole-house air cleaner” may be simple and easy to understand but doesn’t do anything except replace a dumb switch on the wall with a voice command. “Alexa, make the air quality better” or “Alexa, make my home healthier” are alternatives that focus on the true need of the homeowner and link them emotionally with their smart home.

Link to Integrators in ‘My Robot Gets Me’

While the ideas in “My Robot Gets Me” are focused on the design of an individual product, they are just as relevant in how smart home integrators link products together and program a system to create an overall smart home product for their customer.

As Ms. Diana says in the book, “At this moment in history, we’re on the brink of an important new change in product design. No longer are we just making devices for the highly motivated one percent who are technically savvy and prepared to learn the ins and outs of complex systems, however tedious that might be.”

This is absolutely true of professionally installed smart home systems that have become more affordable and open to a much wider portion of the population. This broadening of potential customers requires a more social design for non-technical people to be satisfied smart-home owners.

There are many lessons as “My Robot Gets Me” walks the reader through the five stages of social design, leveraging easy-to-understand examples. The last stage of the design process, “Ecosystems,” is one that is especially important for the smart home integrator to understand. This is where products are linked together to provide added value to a user in the same way an integrator ties together disparate smart home products in a smart home. Although Ms. Diana writes only about integration through the cloud, the same lessons can be applied to a smart home processor/hub that is installed in a customer’s home.

It is impossible to lay out all the lessons in “My Robot Gets Me” in a single article. I simply recommend that you pick up a copy and take the smart home design of your own home, or the design you offer customers, to the next level.

 

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