28 Oct, 2016
Why human-centered design is the key to building better robots
For lots of reasons, new ideas and unfamiliar technologies are met with suspicion. In some cases, great ideas can be rejected by people simply because the benefit of the solution was lost in overly-rich feature sets or overly-complicated use models. That’s why we think it’s a designer’s job to act as an “interpreter of technology” for users.
Putting humans at the center of technology-driven robot design projects changes the way we define success—and what is expected from the designer.
Designers need to act as user advocates. It’s our responsibility to focus on the users’ needs in order to create a compelling solution. That typically means:
- downplaying the technology story,
- understanding what users truly value,
- focusing on usability, and
- helping people see the benefit on their terms.
Envisioning alternate futuresDesigners are also trained to think in creatively about new possibilities—and this positions designers well for the role of “future explorer.” Science fiction writers tend to lead the charge, painting pictures with words so readers can imagine future worlds. When Hollywood engages writers on films, they also engage designers to interpret the authors’ and directors’ visions, and to create extremely detailed and plausible future products and environments.
If you watch sci-fi themes evolve over time, you can see how technology is presented in different ways. For example, consider the level of technology capability that is embedded in the environments themselves. In many sci-fi movies, we see characters interact with smart devices, smart environments and often some kind of robot that interacts seamlessly with everyone and everything—supporting and challenging their human collaborators in surprising ways.
At Essential Design, our vision of the future with robots is not too dissimilar, although we find ourselves addressing a lot of technical and regulatory issues that a film can avoid.
But the subject we find ourselves discussing most is what constitutes appropriate and understandable human-robot interactions.
We’re thinking in terms of the relationships we want our users to have with their robots. And we see our roles as designers evolving from form-creator, through user experience designer, to human-to-robot “relationship designer.” We think the designers who think this way will be the ones who make the most important design contributions in the coming years.
Robots at homeOne area of human-robot interaction to consider: our relationship with robots in our homes. As the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly connects our smart devices, we’re creating an appetite for features and capabilities that go far beyond the floor cleaning and artificially intelligent web searching/shopping tools available today. Interactive robotic toys and social robots are starting to hit the market—promising richer and more natural communications and links to information and content.
We see an exciting future for social robots with the dynamic mobility needed to play and learn as a playmate might. Now we must design the way the playmate reacts to inputs, the way it recognizes people, and how it behaves when it doesn’t understand. We must ask, “How satisfying can this experience be” and “What is a realistic relationship expectation?”
The physical environment in many homes is obstacle-ridden so robots that can climb stairs, reach things, open doors, and go outside will be very desirable. We see the work being done in quadruped design evolving to in-home applications where robots act as active monitors—keeping track of things while you are away and assisting you by finding things when you are home. They will also act as the interface to other control systems in the home, controlling thermostats, managing lights and locks, helping families with tasks and even offering a level of companionship to your (biologic) pets.
But these robots won’t really know what everyone is expecting from them, so as designers we’re going to have to establish a new kind of communication protocol so these interactions and relationships are as successful as possible.