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Rule for Robot Overlords: Trust and Robotics in Customer Experience

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The following is a guest blog written by Benjamin Little, Director of Design Strategy, Sutherland Labs. Learn more about Sutherland Global Services by visiting their website.

The service environment is evolving. As technology becomes more intelligent we see consumer demand, competitive pressure, and economic sense all pressing us to bring robots into the customer experience. If you are an aspiring human handler of our robotic workforce, it is important to consider the tentative trusting relationship humans have with robots.

Before my smart phone, before my Roomba, there was my my first GPS navigation system. I happily followed its instructions and my wife made fun of how quickly I lost the ability to get anywhere on my own. I was very happy to shut off that part of my brain that used to visualize the system of streets and remember the requisite steps to reach my destination. I’d outsourced that cognitive process of navigating and could now focus my energy on something more fun. A generation later and my daughter will likely consider navigation by paper map akin to penmanship and butter churning: vintage skills that were once ubiquitous.

What happened to me relates to what experts call “transactive memory.”[1] Transactive memory is, in essence, the externalization of information. For anyone familiar with how software works, think of it as a pointer and then get a little creeped out by how memory allocation rules apply the same to both biology and silicon. Since the advent of Google, society has largely talked about outsourcing human memory to the internet, and transactive memory has begun dominating how the average consumer thinks. We are really good at remembering how to find information, but increasingly we are not storing that information in our brains quite as readily.

Which brings us to robots. Memory is one thing, but modern robotics is giving us new opportunities to outsource cognition. Navigating was one of the earliest versions of this, but recent research from Georgia Tech [2] shows that we over-trust our mechanical sidekicks for more than just memory. The study focused on human propensity to keep following a robot out of a burning building, even when it had proved itself unreliable. Despite repeated warnings from just about every science fiction story to do with robots, we still trust them. While this situation has more dire implications than my phone trying to send me the wrong way up a one-way street, we are seeing more and more service opportunities for robotic workers to merrily lead our customers in the undesirable outcomes.

The lesson for business about how we consumers think is that we consumers don’t necessarily care about how amazing the technology is behind the interface. From a UX perspective, asking Google to tell me the capital of Ecuador (Quito, by the way) is not tremendously different than asking a policy question about my healthcare coverage. It is a matter of adoption and comfort with robotics that takes us from there to walking into a SoftBank store and asking a robot which phone I should buy. Now, I individually care that the technology behind each of those interactions is different, impressive, and complex, but at the point of service there is an expectation that everything just work. Continue reading