Uncanny services

Two things trigger this post

This excellent post about uncanny UI design, from Berg

Which led me to this weird footage of a robotic dog – get to 44 seconds and wince as they kick the robotic dog –

An excellent video by Rory Hamilton that looks into the uncanny valley of services

All this reminded me of a paper I wrote about the uncanny in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. How the lead character ends up on the wrong side of town, getting freaked by how it’s still the same city, but obviously isn’t. Hadn’t thought about it much, but it suddenly occurred to me this could sit at the heart of my hatred of:

– Automated “we apologise for the inconvenience this causes to your journey / delay in handling your call” messages

– Interactive Voice Response systems that try to be too smart – ie you speak to it and it tries to respond

– Some of the ‘smart’ online services that try and surprise and delight you

– Avatar FAQ / web chat things – where you type in a message and this odd looking lady speaks back an answer

All these things are aimed at making an automated service more human – the organisation takes out the cost of staff, and replaces it with tech – but all too often it just ends up making us more uncomfortable. On paper it makes sense, but that’s the funny thing about the uncanny – you don’t anticipate it. It tends to creep up on you – like deja vu. It just suddenly doesn’t work – something jars and everyone knows it. I’ve had a personal reaction to these sorts of services, and I’ve had a chat to others as well – seems it’s pretty common.

But in this time of financial cuts, most service providers are looking to cut costs, usually replacing people with technology. Bridging the uncanny valley in services means using that technology sensitively at the right moment and for the right intervention. It’s probably safe to say that transactional services are ok, but those that involve empathetic exchange – apologies, welcomes, thank-you’s – should be handled with care.

Question though – if you really can’t afford to have a human say sorry for you, which is worse: to have a machine do it, or have no apology at all?

Added: spotted this latest advance – The Geminoid. Serving you in a store soon! Yikes. http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?bmb=1&v=uzwK02OYrTk

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2 responses to “Uncanny services

  1. Nice! One could add the ‘uncanny’ effects of stock photography. Have a look at this: http://www.nhs.uk/aboutNHSChoices/aboutnhschoices/Aboutus/Pages/Editorialpolicy.aspx

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