6 July 2018

Robot-centred design 

How designing better experiences for people will mean designing with empathy for the robots that serve them

“Hey, Siri. Cook my favourite Italian dish for dinner tonight.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

While it would be safe to assume it will be a long time before our AI assistants can coordinate all of the necessary sub-steps involved in the execution of a spaghetti carbonara – that is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

If we continue to dream-up connected appliances, like refrigerators that can restock themselves, and pair them with AI assistants wielding intimate knowledge of your preferred prosciutto thickness, I can imagine a fleeting moment in our history (before Skynet comes online) that we may all live like a modern-day Marie Antoinette. Our every whim attended to by ubiquitous, high-functioning robots that can cook like Gordon Ramsay, and tend to your home vegetable garden like Martha Stewart.

There is an immense opportunity here. As the world inches toward an AI-powered utopia, brands that add robot-centred design to their competencies will be primed to seize a significant competitive advantage. This is true whether they’re an app that coordinates autonomous car services, or an FMCG brand that produces cat food.

This year at Cannes Lions, Steven Li, Yum! China's CMO, described KFC as a “technology company disguised as a fried chicken business”. This is the type of reframing that all companies will need to consider in order to get on the fast-track toward this growth opportunity. 

The danger for many brands lies in thinking they’re already ahead of the curve, having worked hard the past few years to drive more customer centricity into their operations, or even putting human-centred design at the heart of how they innovate their products and services. While these are certainly value-creating business practices, the oversight is that your human customer isn’t your only customer anymore.

She has a robot intermediary that acts as a filter for everything she does; a proxy for how she experiences your brand. This robot has limitations, and preferences that you need to consider if you still want to have a role in her life. Brands must get to know their new, non-human stakeholders as well as they know their traditional customers. 

Let’s consider a thought experiment using the persona of a loyal customer. We’ll call her Lucy. Lucy is the type of customer you don’t want to lose. She’s a regular weekly customer of your pizza chain – two large Hawaiian pizzas with double ham every Thursday night for her Grey’s Anatomy viewing party, like clockwork.

Last week for her birthday, Lucy’s thoughtful sister bought her an Amazon Echo. She even helped her set it up in the kitchen – explaining that Lucy can easily add skills, like ordering pizza, and ask Alexa to handle it from now on. This is the moment you lost her. Sadly, your services aren’t set up as an Alexa skill yet, and Lucy’s AI intermediary will be ordering from another restaurant on Lucy’s behalf from now on. Goodbye Lucy. Perhaps not forever, but the cost of reacquiring her will be an added sting on top of the lost revenue.

This basic example is likely happening countless times a day, across numerous categories as early-majority users wake up to the new possibilities of AI assistants. 

At increasing speeds, more complex tasks across every industry are being outsourced to AI. That is, until the far-off future where our AI assistants will be fully-sentient and anatomically capable avatars of ourselves, able to draw on a complete model of our thought processes to make decisions on our behalf. Until then, there will be countless incremental milestones in AI development, and any minor shift in these AI assistants’ capabilities has the potential to impact your customers’ buying behaviours in ways that could devastate your business model.

Let’s consider some of the obvious questions that come to mind when considering category shifts already on the horizon.

In the very near future AI will be autonomously driving and parking our cars for us. How should that impact the way that we design cities? Will parking structures in areas of high-value real estate be necessary? Should we create lanes with faster speed limits for the more capable machines to help us get around faster?

When robot chefs become standard at home, how will we need to redesign our kitchens, utensils, ingredient containers and appliances to accommodate them?

When our home and office furniture are AI controlled, shifting positions dynamically to better suit our changing needs throughout the day, such as hosting a dinner party, or an all-staff meeting, how will we need to design the layouts of our spaces to allow these robots to serve us better?

Over time, AI assistants will become our travel agents, workout buddies, personal shoppers, chefs, interior designers, lawyers, and probably even romantic partners. Brands will need to rethink their approach to customer experience design to stay “top-of-motherboard” when our new AI stakeholders take charge of our lives and our wallets.

Alex Paquin is the CEO of Nomads, a global creative transformation company based in Amsterdam with offices in London, Dubai and Singapore.