One might concisely define AI as human mimicry, so it is no wonder that designers tend to represent AIs as virtual beings that have avatars, names and even voices. Embodiment is the act of giving AI such tangible human-like features, though this carries both opportunities as well as drawbacks. The quantity and pervasiveness of embodied technologies is increasing rapidly, with the proliferation of voice assistants, chat-bots, and even anthropomorphic robots. However, AI by no means requires, or even benefits from, embodiment. Instead, embodiment should be seen as a deliberate choice where benefits are weighed against a host of complex design challenges.
The Human Touch
Our society has a mythology around machines imitating humans in order to create interactions and experiences that are more approachable (or at least, more futuristic). Moreover, designers of all stripes are naturally inclined to use human-relative terms when describing improvements to technology—friendly, empathetic, inviting, trustworthy. Many of us want our everyday systems and services, too, to have this ‘human touch’, so that everything from our HR department to our local sandwich shop can make every interaction as wonderful as possible.
However, we should not mistake these desires for a more humane world as desires for a world with more human-like machines. A virtual avatar does not make every technology more friendly, no matter how cute or playful it looks. After all, that virtual avatar will still have to represent a product that antagonizes users.
Products Versus Services
Are you designing a product, or a service? Embodiment often blurs this line. In a product, users expect a standard thing, whereas in a service, users expect a customized and individualized solution. Services often require interfacing with a human who can answer questions or handle exceptions. Unfortunately, an embodied interface can make a product feel like a service, creating highly mismatched expectations for users. When the service delivers a pre-scripted behavior, users can become distrustful or confused. Some products even attempt to weave in a service experience by having a human agent magically replace the ‘bot’. However, designers should make sure that users receive an interaction that matches their expectations, or at least know when they are talking to a real human.
When Embodiment Works
Embodiment works when it makes user interaction more seamless and accessible by reducing rather than erecting barriers. Voice assistants have done this with some success. Unlike touching a rectangular pane of glass, human interaction is natural and intuitive. For a first-time phone user, listening to music involves having to first learn a variety of concepts, deciphering unfamiliar shapes and UIs. Instead, voice assistants allow users to make requests more naturally, without tapping or swiping through a new technology. Gesture-recognition may take this even further by opening the interface up to foreign speakers or sign-language users. Embodiment works when natural actions yield expected results that conform to our personal experiences.
Clarity and Obfuscation
Unfortunately, embodiment often undermines its intended design. We hold a variety of expectations from other people, and we carry those expectations roughly to embodied technologies as well. Selecting features for your embodied technology may require some challenging decisions about age, gender, and personality. It will encourage potentially awkward and embarassing behaviors—one of the most commonly uttered phrases to chatbots is “I love you”. We expect anything speaking to us in natural language to have a wide range of conversational abilities, such as opinions on various subjects, a sense of humor, and even individual quirks. When those features do not exist, the interface ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and we stop interacting in a natural way. Without clear boundaries of what these systems are capable of, they will inevitably undermine our expectations and dissuade us from interacting.
The Unfriendly Valley
Unlike graphical user interfaces, conversational interfaces often lack a clarity of purpose. Users often remain unaware of the majority of the system’s capabilities. GUIs typically contain a button or other interactive element that relates every capability to the user. In a conversational setting, I may have to use a query such as “what can you do?” or “how do you do X?” to find the system’s uses. In designing a conversational agent, consider ways of conveying capabilities to a user, such as visual aids, tutorials, or other indicators (see Prototyping AI with Humans).
Perhaps a common cause of the overuse of embodiment is the designer’s expectation that AI will ‘eventually’ begin to mimic humans extremely well. The media has further muddied this water by reporting optimistically that every new technology may finally replace human interaction.
However, consider whether your product even needs to be packaged in a human-like way at all. We call this design bias the myth of individuality. Take the simple example of booking a hotel room. Perhaps you may design a hotel-booking service as a virtual clerk who fields questions and concerns from the user. Of course, such a service may also be represented as an input form, where users can select dates and pick from available options as a list with checkboxes. Many user behaviors enabled by the simple form become laborious with a virtual clerk. People often spend inordinate amounts of time fiddling with forms, finding date ranges and then narrowing in on their final choice. This would be equivalent to asking the clerk hundreds of questions, repeating yourself over and over, and changing your mind mid-conversation. Ironically, the self-service form with checkboxes might be the more human-centered approach.
Agents should be regarded as a separate kind of interface rather than a replacement for an in-person experience.
Beware of default behaviors for agents, as they will appear highly disproportionately to any other behavior.
Self-Service vs. Counter Service
Determine whether your users would prefer ‘self-service’ or ‘counter-service’ interactions.
Embodiment creates vast expectations for capabilities, as well as running the risk of uncanniness.
It often helps to have an interface provide prompts through an ‘internal voice’ to avoid the design challenges of embodiment.
Agentive tools can mistakenly turn a product experience into a service experience, where users expect the product to be delivered as a customized solution.
- Designing Agentive Technology by Chris Noessel