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My robot gets me: how social design can make new products more human
Diana C., Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, MA, 2021. 304 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-633694-42-2)
Date Reviewed: Nov 23 2021

The subtitle--how social design can make new products more human--is accurate. Most running exemplars are robots, but Alexa and the Roomba robot vacuum and others also show up. We are living in a time when technology can support almost any function devised by a designer, so the critical differentiator for many products will be the way humans interact with it. Agreeable social interaction with a device can increase engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty. So, My robot gets me aims to present a vision for a smart technology that captures the way humans interact with each other. One intended user is the product designer who wants a primer on contemporary ideas on product design. At the other end of the spectrum is the general reader who appreciates thoughtful design.

The basic framework of the exposition is five concentric rings. The innermost ring is “presence,” which is surrounded by “expression,” “interaction,” and “context” rings. The outermost ring is “ecosystems.” Design is done from the innermost ring outward. Presence is basically the product’s physical shape and material, but the concept expands to include ways the device interacts with users. An example is an interface for people with mild dementia: a robot head that lights up to attract the user’s attention, for example, it nods, it offers reminders, and so on. The sufficiently person-like interface communicates through an iPad accessible to users who cannot manipulate a screen or keyboard.

The second innermost ring is expression, that is, communicating. Three modalities are discussed: light, sound, and motion. The early MacBook Pros, when turned off, had a light that pulsed bright and dark--my grandson would say it was snoring; the user thus realized that it was waiting to be turned on. An expression should be economical--no need for a long sentence when a word or two or a few notes (or a pulsing light) will convey the message. The book gives tips on how to make a specific design.

The next ring is interaction, that is, having a back and forth dialogue between the device and the user. An autonomous car, driving along an unfamiliar route, would benefit from a sequence of instructions and might very well indicate when it needs more guidance. Again, design tips are given, such as “body-storming,” having people enact what the product should do, thereby gaining an understanding of the information the robot requires. Extensive prototyping of the signals exchanged is called for, which Arduino has made feasible.

The penultimate ring is context, that is, having the robot act as if it is aware of its physical surroundings and also aware of the human concerns involved. An example is a robot used in a busy hospital to fetch supplies for a nurse. The robot greets the people it passes and if someone gets too close it says “excuse me.” Design with context in mind is complicated and depends on the projected user’s state of mind--a moving target. Suggestions are given.

Ecosystems is the outermost ring: the device is an integrated set of sensors connected to the cloud. A bathroom scale integrated with a heart monitor, a sleep tracking pad, or custom exercise guidance from the cloud could make significant differences to a person’s health. Artificial intelligence (AI) appears to have potential with regards to social design, but it should not be a substitute for thoughtful concern about the human user. In any case, accumulating the data needed for AI presents privacy problems.

The book’s argument is convincing: users should soon expect to have meaningful social interactions with new devices, especially as the enabling technology develops. The examples cited are provocative. The design tips seem reasonable but not startling; no algorithms are presented here. Building social design is a very young field and this book can only raise awareness, which it does with enthusiasm.

More reviews about this item: Amazon

Reviewer:  B. Hazeltine Review #: CR147386
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