Mitigating The ‘Creepiness’ Of Smart Home Technologies

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In the ever-evolving world of smart home technology, the charm of assistant devices like Amazon
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Echo, Apple’s
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HomePod, or Google
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Home is undeniable. For a while now, these digital assistants have seamlessly woven themselves as small helpers into the fabric of our lives, offering an array of convenient features and functions. However, amid their conveniences, they’ve also earned a somewhat sinister reputation for sometimes being, well, a tad on the creepy side.

The popular ‘*Privacy Not Included buyer’s guide’ by the Mozilla Foundation, which invites consumers to evaluate smart technologies based on their concerns, categorizes Smart Home Assistants (SHAs) as some of the creepier options on the market. Take, for example, the Amazon Echo Dot, which is rated as creepy or super creepy by more than 70% of the 11,000+ voters. Reports of SHAs exhibiting eerie behaviors during the last years have only fueled this perception, causing users to question their role in our homes. For instance, the Financial Times reports about cases where these devices have startled residents with eerie, witch-like laughter in the middle of the night, or inexplicably activated themselves to list the names of nearby funeral homes, as reported by TIME. Even more disturbing are instances where SHAs surreptitiously recorded private conversations and transmitted them to unintended contacts, according to the Washington Post.

Furthermore, recent developments, such as the introduction of an Amazon Echo kids edition (rated creepy or super creepy by almost 90% in the Mozilla’s guide!) or the integration of Chat GPT into these devices by Amazon, as reported by WIRED, have left many with the unsettling feeling that they are witnessing a technological nightmare rather than a groundbreaking innovation. But now, let’s imagine a future where OpenAI’s newly announced custom chatbot feature will allow people to integrate their very own chatbot into their SHA. The prospect of this customizable technology is undeniably intriguing, but it also comes with a chilling potential for creepy moments. It’s fair to admit that already today most of us have experienced instances where smart technology sent shivers down our spines or led to disconcerting interactions. The fine line between innovation and unease in the tech world continues to blur, leaving us with both excitement and trepidation about what the future holds.

In a recently published paper by Raff and colleagues in the International Journal of Information Management, the scholars dissect the very concept of perceived creepiness in the context of SHAs as well as its triggers and implications. Their findings reveal that perceived creepiness acts as a substantial roadblock to consumer acceptance and utilization of these devices. However, there is also good news – the paper uncovers two pivotal design takeaways on the software and the hardware side that can help vendors diminish perceived creepiness and boost consumer adoption of SHAs.

Create Algorithmic Transparency

One of the authors’ key findings centers on the importance of transparency on the software-side of SHA design. In an age where devices are black box-like and algorithms often operate in the shadows, users crave insight into how these systems function. The paper’s findings strongly support the notion that a lack of transparency can breed perceived creepiness and resistance toward SHAs, which is in line with existing research in consumer-oriented digital and AI-based technologies.

For vendors, the takeaway is crystal clear: prioritize algorithmic transparency, grant access to recommendation algorithms and demystify the inner workings of SHAs. By offering ‘human-in-the-loop’ systems such as user-friendly apps and dashboards that understandably explain algorithmic decision processes, vendors can establish trust and alleviate any perceived sense of creepiness. In addition, Raff states “Our data shows that certification by yet-to-be-established independent oversight authorities would further help to underscore a strong dedication to user-centric algorithm programming, ultimately enhancing user confidence in smart technology and its underlying algorithms.”

Design Materialized Touchpoints

Moreover, the authors highlight the importance of the materiality of these devices. The absence of tangible elements can trigger negative perceptions and hinder acceptance. This idea aligns with prior research in the realms of service and innovation, which highlights how the lack of concrete, tangible components can have a negative impact on how individuals perceive a company’s offerings. This phenomenon is especially pronounced when it comes to services that engage with people in more personal and intimate ways. SHAs are obviously no exception to this pattern, as they play an important role in the most intimate areas of our lives – our living rooms.

“We suggest that SHA vendors should integrate materialized features and touchpoints into their designs, even if the devices are integrated into the structural elements of a room or other products like mirrors (e.g., smart mirror by ICON.AI) or ovens (e.g., Amazon’s Smart Oven)” explains Raff. Providing visual and auditory status cues through screens or physical interfaces, such as traditional buttons, can help to heighten perceived materiality. Consequently, this strengthens users’ connection with the device and fosters increased emotional engagement. Users are more inclined to embrace and incorporate SHAs into their daily lives when they experience a profound sense of spatial presence and actively engage with the devices.

Driving Smart Technology Usage by Mastering the ‘Creepy’

In today’s ever evolving landscape of smart home technology, the challenge of perceived creepiness in smart technologies stands as a significant obstacle to overcome for widespread acceptance. To surmount this challenge, vendors must offer users insights into the inner workings of SHAs cultivating trust and erasing the stigma of ‘creepiness’. The role of materiality is equally important; integrating tangible features into SHA designs strengthens the user’s connection with and acceptance of the devices ultimately decreasing perceptions of creepiness. Raff concludes “As AI and smart technologies evolve in an ever-faster pace, challenging user perceptions and processing power, we must remain mindful of the emotional and perceptual dimensions – Mastering the ‘creepiness factor’ becomes one pivotal element in building trust and fostering broad acceptance.” Vendors hold the keys to shaping a future where smart technologies seamlessly blend into our lives without inducing creepy feelings.

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