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#66 Talking to machines
Bossy software and angry cars
This week we’re exploring the strange ways we relate to machines. From a funny video that contains an essential truth about human/computer interactions to cars that are designed deliberately to look angry. 🤖
PS Wishing all my readers in the UK a great bank holiday!
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Question: Why does interacting with technology often feel so personal?
I discovered this hilarious video a few weeks ago. It was made by the comedians Stevie Martin and Lola-Rose Maxwell and perfectly captures how infuriating it can feel to have to prove to you are not a robot when logging into an online account. When this goes wrong, it can feel like the interface is deliberately making life hard for you, even that it doesn’t like you. A curiously personal psychological reaction to what is ultimately a bunch of automated screens and text.
I read a book a few years ago called The Man Who Lied to his Laptop by a neuroscientist called Clifford Nass. In it, he makes the argument that our brains fundamentally can’t distinguish between machines and people, ascribing intentions and feelings to the machines we interact with based on just a few cues. It’s no wonder then that the video strikes such a chord.
We will protect a computer’s feelings, feel flattered by a brown-nosing piece of software and even do favors for technology that has been “nice” to us. All without even realising it.
—from The Man Who Lied to his Laptop by Clifford Nass.
In his book, Clifford tries to reverse engineer rules for human relationships based on what he has observed working best when humans and machines interact. From a design perspective, I think it offers a helpful framework for designing interactions. We should make sure software always feels like dealing with another pleasant human, not a scoundrel like in the video!
Design takeaway: What would your design be like if it was a person?
▶️ If you enjoyed this video by Stevie Martin, you’ll love her other ones too.
Object: Angry-faced car
Have you ever looked at car and thought that from the front of it strongly resembles a face? You’re not crazy. The phenomenon, known as pareidolia, is the tendency for our perception to see meaning or patterns in visual stimuli when there is none. Most commonly, this manifests as faces, which have been spotted everywhere from toast to the the surfaces of other planets.
Designers in the automotive industry have been exploiting this neurological phenomenon to make their cars seemed more desirable. It emerged about fifteen years ago that car purchasers in the US tended to prefer cars whose “face” looked a bit angry, compared to those that looked friendlier. The reasons for this are mysterious but it has been speculated an angry face communicates masculinity or allows the driver to feel more protected within their “angry” machine.
Design takeaway: Could you be more intentional about the “face” of your design?
Quote: “Objects should explain themselves.”
– Ken Kocienda, author of Creative Selection.
Ken was a designer and engineer at Apple under Steve Jobs and was responsible for the software that drove the original iPhone’s keyboard. I wrote about his thinking on “taste” earlier this year in Design Lobster #52. I like this short quote because I think captures more accurately what we mean when we use adjectives like intuitive or user-friendly.
Whatever you do, keep discovering.
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