As technology companies continue to innovate, the consumer’s relationship to technology becomes more and more ambiguous. On the one hand, consumers are presented with an increasing number of innovations promising to make life easier, more exciting or more connected. On the other hand, consumers have a growing number of concerns with technology. For example, a study by Deloitte and Frey and Osborne from Oxford University claims that 35% of today’s jobs in the UK are at risk of disappearing within the next 10-20 years.
Innovation Researcher Fraser Scarlett examines what the technophobes are worried about and how brands are responding effectively.
Disruptive technology that fits comfortably in your home
One challenge for brands is to introduce technological change into a familiar environment.
Take Google Glass, Google’s wearable, AR computer ‘experiment’. Besides concerns about privacy and safety, of which there were many, the spectacles were straight out of science fiction. Fitted with a camera, touchpad and a liquid crystal silicon display the device makes wearers stick out in any environment. The devices were discontinued in January 2015.
One perennial question customers always ask is: Do I feel comfortable interacting with this particular piece of technology?
Let’s examine how we can apply this question to a growing tech trend: The Internet of Things. The Internet of Things is an ecosystem of connected home appliances communicating with a central piece of hardware, called a hub, to give the homeowner an unprecedented level of control over her kettle or fridge.
Following the demise of Google Glass, Google have unveiled their own Internet of Things hub.
Google Home has a smooth, rounded lower half and a face at an angle so the owner can clearly see what’s happening on the top of the device. The innovative piece of technology could be mistaken for a vase or ornament. Un-intrusive, yet disruptive, the hub can sit on the table and be interacted without feeling like you’re struggling with a piece of alien technology.
The Google Home hub also has seven changeable colours so “you can make Google Home fit with any space and colour”. Recognizing that people don’t want to drastically change their home’s interior, Google have embraced a far more neutral design. Customers do not even have to compromise their home’s aesthetic in order to embrace technological improvement.
Similarly, the new VR Headset, Google Daydream View, is made from fabric and is “inspired by clothes”. The headset, which allows viewers to experience something as amazing as the Rover landing on planet Mars, is even machine washable (just like your favourite sweater!).
By embracing a comforting design whilst using familiar materials, brands can ease a larger demographic of consumers into using their new innovative technology.
Avoiding science-friction – Rolling out customer robots
Gazing into the future, Osbourne and May from Oxford University’s Martin School predict that there is a 95% chance that sales and retail assistants will lose their jobs to automation in the next 10-20 years. As gloomy as this might be, there is no need for retailers to make the immanent future even scarier with poorly designed customer-facing robots. So, what needs to be considered when a brand introduces a robot into its physical stores?
Firstly there is an issue of size- decades of dystopian science-fiction books and films have made people fearful of robots which are large enough to do damage or cause harm. People have speculated that this is one of the reasons why Google are planning to sell Boston Dynamics. One robot they created, for example, was ‘Atlas’: A 6’ 3” tall the humanoid robot can move through rough terrain and recover itself quickly when knocked over. Clearly, whilst the powerful robots they create are impressive, they are not suited for a retail store.
A second concern is the ‘uncanny valley’. First hypothesized by roboticist Masahiro Mori, ‘Uncanny Valley’ refers to the repulsion people experience when presented with a robot, or any digital face, which, although appearing to be human, seems to be lacking something crucial. Putting the theoretical debate about why this phenomenon occurs to one side, brands need to take this into account when designing customer-facing service robots.
One way to avoid this problem is to avoid using robots that attempt to look realistically like humans. Take KFC in Shanghai, who have introduced the new robot ‘Dumi’ created by Chinese Internet search engine Baidu. The robot is capable of ordering groceries, booking flights, reserving tables at restaurants and can use data from user reviews to make intelligent suggestions. Cosmetically, ‘Dumi’ has not been designed to imitate a human and so customers are not confused or disturbed when they see it. Instead of a synthetic human-like face the helpful robot has a digital display. To make the robot as unthreatening as possible they’ve made it so small it needs to be placed on a platform.
Similar principles were put in place by Toyota with their robot ‘Kirobo’. The Japanese car manufacturer’s baby-like high-pitched robot is to be released next year in order to encourage Japanese couples to have human babies of their own. At ¥39,800 ($392), the robot can identify human emotions and respond accordingly. But despite the sophisticated cutting-edge technology, they’ve made it a little over 10cm tall.
By choosing to create robots that are small and easily recognizable as technology, brands can avoid scaring customers away (Happy Halloween!).
Brands that are introducing disruptive technology into the familiar environments of the home and the retail store need to pay close attention to what their customers really want to interact with. Failure to do this will only mean limiting their customer base to loyal, tech-savvy customers.