This is part two of a series on designing user interfaces for smart homes. To read part one, click here.
When designing an artificial intelligence for the smart home, the ultimate goal in the collective imagination is a self aware sentient presence that manifests itself in the form of a digital butler. And right now is when we take the most critical steps to get to that ideal state. That’s because right now, we’re rushing toward a confluence of technological advancements necessary to form the basis of such a reality. As a designer, I see this as a chance for everyone involved in creating this future to do so with the lessons we learned from the latest technological revolution; mainly that whatever future we create must be one built to serve human emotions.
The reason why digital assistants today like Siri or Cortana and Amazon Echo’s Alexa feel so disconnected from us emotionally is because we are trying to shape something that is fundamentally not human at all to be human, and that creates an insurmountable gap of uncanniness.
If we try and force a machine to act human, it is still a machine pretending to be human. It is much easier for a human to pretend to be a machine.
As a futurist, I would love to see the day where we as a species can’t tell the difference between artificial and natural intelligence. However, as a proponent of human centered design, I’m here to advocate for lessons we can start applying now to make sure our next steps are productive ones.
Don’t abandon the visual interface
For what it’s worth, GUI’s will still play a vital role in the interface of the future home, whether it’s because it helps people with particular disabilities such as lack of hearing or the ability to speak, or because it’s a good fallback for when you simply don’t feel like talking to a machine. It’s like the Ex you keep running back to when you need comforting. It will always be there for you, waiting, even if it feels a little bit neglected at times as you spend more time with your new fling, the CUI. Eventually, it will become the best friend you go to when you seek specific answers to complex questions, such as when you find yourself digging through the settings menu for a device.
Use metaphors to explain complex ideas
The most popular example of this right now is the widespread use of “cards” in UI design. It’s effective because it condenses abstract concepts of everything from conversation histories to selecting item A or item B down to a pseudo-physical format that we can intrinsically understand as humans. Swipe right!
Feedback loops must reward the user
Otherwise known as “gamification”, this means that even for the most tedious or insignificant of actions, such as tapping a button to open or close a blind, it should feel — gasp — fun! At the very least, it should not feel like a chore. I don’t mean that every action should be met with a “good job!” or that it should unlock an achievement sticker, but rather interactions, whether verbal or visual (through the use of UI) should feel delightful and not like you’re clicking through an Excel spreadsheet. The best way to do this is with subtle and fun animations. However, avoid going overboard.
Don’t force a personality onto your AI (just yet)
What? This seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t this the whole idea of working towards a digital assistant that’s indistinguishable from a real person?
Actually, this is what’s causing the disconnect right now between expectations and reality. The truth is, we’re simply not anywhere near having computers be contextually aware enough to pass as human. When we start to overly personify computers, we start to expect too much of them. We start asking questions beyond the emotional and contextual capability of an artificial neural network.
Adding personality to an A.I. should serve more as an extension of an effective feedback loop that makes the user feel good about using the product, and not as a literal interpretation of a human soul within a machine.
Design the interface to influence particular interactions and use cases
There are a million and one actions to be done in a smart house when you think about it. So it’s easy to make the mistake of creating a button for each and every action, which clutters the interface and makes it hard to use. Instead, think about the most common and primary actions. Now cut out everything that doesn’t help the user achieve that action in three steps or less. Steve Jobs was notorious for enforcing this rule, and for good reason. You don’t have to adhere strictly to the 3 step rule, but it is a great funnel for eliminating clutter. And since we are entering the age of the conversational user interface, theoretically anything can be done in a single step.
Design for a 6 year old
When designing a product, you must think about the people that will use it. Kids born today will grow up in households that are more automated and contextually “smarter” than anything we ever saw on the Jetsons on Saturday mornings. It’s been over 8 years since the introduction of the iPhone, and since then we’ve transitioned from skeumorphic design principals to graphical minimalism and gesture based interactions, and now voice. Whatever interface(s) kids today grow up with will be subject to constant flux, but the one pattern that holds true is the continuing simplification of explicit actions into implicit ones: from physical keyboards to gesture shortcuts, and the infinite complexity of voice commands.
We live in an exciting time, one where we’re exponentially closer to realizing the dream of a hi-tech reality that our parents and grandparents only daydreamed about. Before we get there though, we must build the foundations for such a dream in the immediate future. And right now is definitely the right time to do so.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” — Albert Einstein
This post was written by Jason, lead designer at Josh.ai. Previously, Jason led design for web and mobile apps At The Pool and Yeti. He attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Jason loves cold brew coffee, LEGOs, and recreational shooting. You can follow Jason on Instagram at @jas0n_0n_a_bike.