Machine Etiquette

Recently, while working at IDEO, I’ve been involved in a project that began to explore the potential impact of smart devices. With ever cheapening hardware and the widespread adoption of smart phones we are approaching a time when all kinds of devices will find a voice. Not only will they talk to us but they’ll talk to each other, all the time. So what does it mean?

Send in the robots

Most people that i’ve spoken to tend to jump to a worst case scenario (“why would i want to talk to my dish washer”) imagining a world where we not only have to deal with the complexity of relationships with people but also devices. Of course this is not such a stretch of the imagination and now we have social networks that simultaneously support human and robots (and every permutation of connection between the two) then we have a strangely level playing field upon which these games can take place.

Ultimately this becomes of a question of new rules of etiquette, after all the need to maintain a more active realtionship with a device hasn’t really existed before now. So who will define these new rules?

A home full of devices talking to each other

I’m a graphic/interaction designer and while this emergine need for machine etiquette is very clear to me, it’s not clear who’s remit this falls under. Is it the product designer? the UX specialist? the interface designer? Or perhaps there’s a new field needed here, the Device Behaviorist (or something along those lines, Behaviour Designer?). Someone is needed to give these dumb devices smart voices, and a sense of appropriateness. It certainly become an expansive challlenge when you conside the range of situations and locations that a device may find itself in and then need to communicate. The nuance of social interactions takes a lifetime to perfect, so how will my toaster fare?

Good news

On the plus side there are some distinct advantages that come with smarter appliances, when you consider that they can also communicate with other smarter robots via the internet. Suddenly the isolated coffee machine can track stock, record energy use, download new firmware, store favourites, suggest tips, diagnose its own faults and who know how many other menial tasks that you’d probably not spend your days doing.

Making use of the data collected

Its easy to imagine any number of scenarios like this in the short term, but more interestingly in the longer term the machine can also retrieve data over a longer period and build up enough data to make some pretty smart sugestions.

And who’s better placed to monitor how much energy you waste each time you boild the kettle than the kettle itself?

So i’m generally open to the idea of new smart devices, but only if they’ve learnt some manners first.