The Uncanny Valley of Digital Service Design

The paranoia induced by perfect service design is discussed in this Medium article by Scott Smith. The feeling that the great mix of people and places that AirBNB is aiming at and optimising for is actually a bit disturbing.

Airbnb is very interested in exploring how the physical environment of a rental property can be recorded and tested for maximum effect. So much so that they have annoyed a French couple by rebuilding their living room in the AirBnb head office.

Image from Buzzfeed article

What this reminds me of is the problem of perceivability of service delivery.

Think about the 18th Century Mechanical Turk. A old story of a chess machine that seemed impossibly capable in a period before computers. It was, finally, revealed to be a trick: a human being was hidden behind all the clockwork and cogs.

Mechanical Turk etching of interior

The revelation of the con was a relief for many people. The impossibility of such a machine was terrifying for many: both in the practical sense of its design and construction and in the philosophical sense of its capacity to beat humans.

The algorithmic service delivery of today is similarly terrifying (and remains in part a con too). Yet it’s the future of perfected personalised service delivery that interests me.

Scott Smith’s article raises the unnerving feeling of being tracked and tested in real life as part of a service optimisation exercise by AirBnB.

This reminds me of The Matrix and the failure of the first version of the oppressive system. The computerised overlords presented perfection and humans rebelled. The slick utopia was wrong.

The drop off in satisfaction that suddenly occurs as the customer becomes aware of the somewhat unnerving capacity of an unseen system to deliver what they want. A disruption in the rising graph of increasing satisfaction and happiness when the user cannot perceive or understand how the service provider is making decisions and adjusting delivery to meet needs.

What might recover the drop off and might be the long term solution to the algorithmic utopia problem is people.

The visibility of people, the interactions with people and the society of people matter.

Consider Downton Abbey. The servants deliver the expansive luxury of the aristocracy’s lifestyle. Yet the delivery is a mixture of hidden (downstairs) and overt (upstairs) human staffing.

The presence of people make the service delivery clear.

It is in our humanity and our physicality that algorithmic service delivery becomes successful. The belief that we can design out human failure through robots and autonomous devices is foolish.

We need people to make sense of life because we are people.

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX