3 things you need to know about people and technology

Johan Verhaegen

UX Strategist

Will you fall in love with your computer?

In the fascinating movie ‘Her’, the solitary writer Theodore Twombly finds himself in the middle of a painful divorce. The time is a not so distant future where computers have become fully integrated in people’s lives.

On another depressing day, Theodore downloads a new operating system on his computer. OS1 predominantly uses conversation instead of a typical point-and-click user interface, and from that moment onwards his life will never be the same again.

To talk with his computer he chooses the sensual and warm-hearted voice of Samantha. It is the start of an overwhelming and immersive experience in which they fall in love with each other and engage in an intriguing relationship. Do watch it, it’s a fascinating movie.


But what with the slowly evolving homo sapiens?

‘Her’ was released in 2013 as science fiction, but it is already eerily recognizable in the present. A lot of companies have Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Genetic Engineering somewhere on their roadmap right now. It seems the sensible thing to do if you don’t want to get left behind.

However, it’s not only companies that risk being left behind, it’s people too. While technology evolves at an exponential rate, we poor human beings evolve in a much slower, linear way. Every day tech visionaries picture a new, mixed digital-physical world where automation sets the pace. But we, the people, seem to be put into the passenger seat of our own evolution.

That’s slightly disconcerting, both from a human and a business perspective. But it doesn't have to be.

In the coming years, it will be both a challenge and an opportunity for companies to create technology that people value, trust and understand without feeling neglected, overwhelmed and confused. That's a huge undertaking in which time is not on your side. But it is doable when you put people first.
Homo Sapiens is an incredibly complex species, so it can be very intimidating to try to understand how people think and behave. On the other hand, there’s already a massive amount of research out there, so you don’t need to start from scratch.

For example, here are 3 typical things that are essential for people interacting with technology:

  1. People go for value
  2. People need trust
  3. People want to be in control


People go for value

Last year, my wife and I went on a city trip to Shoreditch, London. Typical 21st century travellers as we are, we didn’t put much effort in preparing the trip, having faith in our smartphones to help us out as they always do.
But because Shoreditch isn’t the most obvious tourist destination, we started worrying on our way to the UK about finding authentic local things to do and see while avoiding tourist traps. “It’s a shame we didn’t bring a map of the area”, my wife said. ‘Don’t worry,” I replied, “we’ll ask for one at the reception desk of the hotel”.
But we didn’t have too. The moment we entered the hotel we were welcomed in an extremely friendly way by the receptionist: “Hi guys, welcome to Shoreditch! How was your trip? Any special things you’d like to do in our vibrant neighborhood? Here’s a map, let me help you with what you’d like to see and do.”

In case you’re wondering, this is the hotel where you get such great service

This is a good example of ‘omotenashi’, a Japanese word meaning ‘superior hospitality and customer service’. You experience value without you having to do something, it just happens because someone empathically offers you a service based on the context.
Technology can do this as well. In a couple of weeks we’ll be off for a city trip to Paris, booked via Airbnb. Thanks to the recently launched Airbnb Trips, we get the same personalized service, fully automated and propelled by technology. So we’ll hopefully enjoy a great time cruising through secret gardens and cafes with a guy named Anto.

Anto and his bike


People need trust

This is Luigi, the Robot:

© 2016 - The Observer

Luigi is not a humanoid like you see in sci-fi movies, and he certainly hasn’t the most glamorous job in the world: he collects sewage. He does this to analyze what you and I are leaving behind after a visit to the bathroom. Luigi’s purpose is to predict the spread of diseases and paint a picture of a community's collective health. Great, but still: it’s all done without us being even aware that this is done.

Luigi’s intentions might be benign, but every other day a new tech company pops up with a business model that comes down to hovering up your personal data and try making money out of it. Problem is, in most cases you don’t know what they gather from you, and you don’t know what they’re planning do with it in the long term.

But what we do know, is that it happens all the time, and it makes us suspicious and wary. This distrust in turn punishes companies who do have noble intentions and need some of our personal data to deliver an optimal service. So if you’re a company with good intentions, what should you do?
First, be as transparent as you can on the use of the your customers’ personal data. Some companies state categorically “We won’t sell your personal data to advertisers or third parties. Ever.” That's a good start.
Second, if your product is designed for ease-of-use really well, it will be regarded as trustworthy by your customers. There is quite some research on this, and as a general rule you gain more trust by designing your service as simple as possible:

  • That which is easy to use and understand, we trust. We distrust complexity” – Gerry McGovern, Transform
  • [The intuitive and quick thinking mode] System 1 senses when something is familiar and easy to understand and then decides that it’s trustworthy and true.” – Susan Weinschenk, 100 More Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People


People want to be in control

John Deere has a problem. The manufacturer of large tractors is being hacked increasingly, by its own customers. The reason is that farmers – who have a firmly ingrained habit of repairing everything themselves - aren’t allowed to do that anymore.

John Deere’s license agreement prohibits any alterations by another party. Worse, the software that is installed in the machine’s belly simply doesn’t allow any change whatsoever. So farmers turn in droves to Polish and Ukrainian hackers to hack their mechanical beasts.

This is what happens when you take control away from users who expect to remain in control. However noble your intentions might be, it is of utter importance that you find the right balance between optimizing your business and letting your users keep control over the things they cherish.

At Human Interface Group, we’re very familiar with this double-edged sword situation. We recently completed the design of an innovative floor-heating thermostat for Pentair, where we took automation to the next level, without leaving the user out in the cold. We aimed for the ideal balance between automation and being in control. In plain speak: the device takes care of the everyday routine without spying on you, and you intervene whenever you like via a superb user interface.


Want to know more about people and technology?

As you can see, when you take into account these 3 principles, you will create better experiences. But there are a lot more things to know about people and technology. Every context is different and the specifics of your technology most possibly require other characteristics to focus on.

Do you wonder what you need to know about people for the technology you build and sell? Get in touch and let’s talk!

Johan Verhaegen
UX Strategist



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