What I’m about to posit may get me some blowback, but, as my peers and colleagues know, I’m not one for complacency.  So, here it goes: Behind every good robot lies an even better human.

As technology continues to impact even the most fundamental aspects of our daily lives – getting our annual medical checkup, watching TV, communicating with our parents and children, applying for a job – we’re demanding more from the products we love.  No longer are we satisfied with how a product looks and feels; we expect it to enhance our lives in a significant, memorable way.

Take Amazon’s Echo, whose success lies in its ability to make users feel in control of fulfilling their wishes through the power of their own voice.  Alexa’s ability to warm up your car while you make a cup of joe is a perfect example of the brilliant intersection of product and service design. Service design has become king – and queen – and I would argue that a company that launches a tech product without supporting that car, phone, hotel, school, political candidate even, with a digital ecosystem is sure to lose money.

Here’s why:

  • People want to be involved – and have other people involved – in their product experiences. Not everyone wants to literally kiss their gadgets, but users want to interact with their brands on both an emotional and functional level. Engineers, designers and marketers of products – and their attendant services – need to be mindful of who is purchasing that product: a human, not an automaton. Mutual respect and trust must be forged between user and producer to facilitate brand bonding.While watching the series finale of the seminal millennial relationship story Girls, I was struck with the closing scene, in which the protagonist successfully latches with her baby. Isn’t that a metaphor of the iGeneration, who intuitively “latched” onto their phones? When a user is at one with a product, the manufacturer knows it’s created a hit, and probably a lucrative one.Conversely, when consumers sense the lack of human involvement, brand loyalists grow wary. If someone intuits there’s no heart in a product experience, they opt out.  I call this the “zombie phenomenon:” No matter how great the technology, people will fall out of love with a product that doesn’t feel sensible or feels too robotic.For example, when even the most trusting, adventurous of passengers deduces there’s no one behind the steering wheel – or behind the algorithm – of a driverless car, they won’t get in! Deep learning is where companies at the forefront of innovation can literally lose customers, even when making great technological advances.  Ah, there lies the conundrum. Net-net: AI without human management is a gray area in which more attention to good service design is essential.
  • People want to be knowledgeable. Companies that help customers become, or at least seem, smarter are poised for growth.  A California charter school, Summit Public Schools, is franchising its personalized learning platform in order to boost performance and increase “knowledge share” nationwide.  Summit students learn via a combination of online and in-class instruction, working collaboratively as well as individually.  The beauty of the system is that the technology professes to succeed only if the teacher is onboard with the program. No human, no success.One school road-testing the personalized learning approach reported parental concern about teachers “parking children in front of screens.”  Voila: the perfect teaching moment for Summit. The way in which a product is managed and interacted with by its users – in this case, the parents and the teachers – can make or break its ability to go viral.  Summit seems to be weathering its growing pains by supporting the emotional concerns of the parents. Service design grade for Summit? So far, an A.

    YouTube, on the other hand, gets more like a C- for its recent algorithmic reconfiguration that left the independent radio show host David Pakman scrambling for ad funding to keep his popular grassroots programming on the air. Again, like deep learning, this could be perceived as a Big Brother, or negative, aspect of AI, in which First Amendment rights are questioned. Who decides which topics get advertising support and which don’t?  YouTube aka Google?  Maybe. And perhaps all would have been OK if the tech giant had anticipated the fallout of its decisions and attended to its users. If companies remember that the driver of any online experience is a human being who wants to be enhanced or improved in some way, be it becoming more politically savvy by listening to Pakman or test-savvy by attending a Summit Basecamp, then they’ll always score 100%.

  • People want to love their product.  The good news is, once you hook someone, it’s easy to keep them coming back for more. As long as a company reliably churns out cutting-edge and lovely products that have a seamless service ecosystem, it can almost own a category. Apple is exemplary in this sense.  It never forgets its users, and when it does, it tries to remedy the situation as swiftly and expertly as possible. Yes, there’s competition in its marketplace, but for the most part, Apple people are brand loyalists.  They know the company will continue evolving, innovating and attending to their needs.  In this regard, Apple keeps an eye on the health of the human relationship while invisibly integrating the bot side of the UX.

Humans and AI: Two Sides of a Coin

But what happens when a brand lets its users down? Similar to the AI example above, of how deep learning requires human monitoring to provide users the security and reliability they expect from the brands they love, Facebook got more questions of morality and responsibility than likes concerning the Cleveland, Ohio, murder footage.

So, while AI, augmented reality and virtual reality are essential to the technological advancement of product design and development, we can’t forget that the “human touch” must be behind or at least present in a brand’s relationship with its clients. Even low-touch humans want to feel important, valued by and trusting of the companies whose products or experiences they opt into.

Winning brands understand that a well-thought-out approach to service design is critical to creating products that customers rely on to improve and/or simplify their lives. The bar continues to rise as bot-brains become ubiquitous.  Like the Wizard of Oz, we need to keep human involvement behind the curtain of innovation and brand evolution.

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath is Global Vice President of Digital Transformation at Cognizant. With more than fifteen years’ experience as an innovator in global... Read more