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Nov 2009

The Risks of Socially Embodied Technology

In the design of social media, our task is to provide a medium and context for human interaction.  With this power, the behaviour of our interfaces can be interpreted as the behaviour of our human colleagues, friends and family.  Considering this fact, we run the risk of creating unnatural, awkward or even hurtful social situations for our users – in other words, a terrible experience.

An example.  I was recently conducting business out of town when a peer and I agreed to keep contact via text-messaging.  At the time, I hadn’t yet realized that my network provider was not stable in this part of the world.  As it turns out, everytime I tried to send a text message, my phone was sending numerous duplicates.  Not only was the service assaulting the receipient with messages, but it was also giving me errors saying that it couldn’t complete message delivery.  So there I was, trying to re-send a message which had actually already been delivered twice; my recipient ended up receiving almost 10 identical text messages.  Needless to say, she was frustrated and annoyed, but most importantly, she was attributing the technical errors to me and drawing social conclusions (when we discussed this error later, she said I had seemed overeager and tactless).

As another example, consider a recent addition to Facebook which displays those friends you haven’t interacted with lately, reminding you to send them a message.  Unfortunately, this feature has been the target of a recent wave of complaints from users who automatically recevied such requests from recently deceased friends or family.  This is a clear example of an emotionally hurtful user experience directly resulting from Facebook’s attempt to socially-integrate their interface.

Embodying an interface within human social norms also allows users to understand and interact as if it were a social being.  If you’ve ever used voice response systems which attempt to use human language to engage in a natural conversation (“at the tone, please tell me what you’re calling about”), then you’ve likely felt a little frustrated, uncomfortable or confused.  In some cases, these interfaces greatly simplify the process, yet in others they are frustrating and strange.  In such novel interfaces, we move closer to the re-emergence of a principle introduced in the field of robotics by Masahiro Mori known as the “uncanny valley”.  Mori used early philosophical work on the ‘uncanny’ to demonstrate that overly realistic robots can result in a negative reaction from human observers.  The implication here is that while modest social embodiment of our interfaces can improve the user experience, we should be careful in more extreme applications of this principle, as we run the risk of making our users feel uneasy.

Considering the social role of your technological designs is a valuable technique.  However, designing for a more intimate realm of human experience also introduces new risks.  Our penetration into the emotional lives of our users has also opened possibilities for increasingly detrimental consequences of design errors.  Any designer should take heed of the lessons learned within these examples and consider the added risks when working on socially embodied technology.

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