"My sensory apparatus reveals it to me. This is fun." - Bomb 20

Yeah I know about the title. I have no intention of actually saying that word out loud unless I refer to this post. There’s another stinker later on too. Shhh.

There’s been quite a few things written about personality, emotion, behaviour and how they apply to “connected things” recently so I thought I’d better chip in while I can. If you don’t know what I’m talking about the thinking is along these lines: if you give some of the oncoming flood of smart products (or “connectables” as I’m starting to call them) personalities, back stories and/or semi lifelike behaviour then people will have an easier time engaging with them and therefore feel less like they’re inviting the spawn of Skynet into their lives. It’s something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a while and I definitely think it’s an important avenue to explore as long as we’re careful.

I think we really need to be thorough if we take this route at all. Unless the behaviours and personalities of these things that compute are designed well enough the things that are not so good about them or unavoidable have the potential to come across as flaws in the object’s character, break the suspension of disbelief and do more harm than good. Running out of batteries, needing a part to be replaced or the system crashing could be seen as getting sick, dying - or worse - the whole thing could be so ridiculous and annoying that it gets thrown out on its ear before long.

I don’t know where I got it from but I keep using the term Reality Clippy to describe how bad something like that could be. We should learn a few things from the problems we’ve had with gameification and establish early on that not everything should pretend to be happy to see you and sad to see you go or demand that you treat it as another person. Russell Davies used the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as an example here and there’s some really good reference points in Ubik.

I agree with Sherry Turkle's current stance on this. It could be terrible. Attention grabbing devices are already invading and disrupting social situations and preventing people from engaging with their environment and people around them. What’s going to happen when the number of devices doubles, triples or increases tenfold?

So. Following the utopicomp (sorry, there it is) ideal of calm computing we’re gonna have to be subtle with this if we’re going anywhere with it, right? Less is more work. We should consider the potential issue of uncanny valley as applied to behaviour and may choose to sidestep it entirely. We could draw inspiration from things like Apple’s design of the sleep light on the Macbook Pro which is so obviously designed to pulsate at the same rate as its breathing would be (if it had lungs) whilst it’s asleep. It’s just enough that it gives the machine a feeling of sentience but what would happen if that speed was ever so slightly increased or decreased based on certain conditions? Would it give the impression that something is wrong? I reckon it might not immediately, but once you get to know the device and its personality you’d be used to its normal behaviour and then really notice when it starts behaving differently. Being a bit offish with you maybe. I’m pretty sure people already do this with computers when their operating system starts to get a bit sluggish or glitchy - I know I do - but maybe we could play with that a bit.

Maybe we should look at the work of Dunne & Raby for inspiration. Their Technological Dream Series always seemed like a transmission from some kind of alternative future but I think its more relevant now than ever before.

So how do you go about designing subtle personality and behaviour for a networked, smart thing? I reckon it’s going to be pretty hard to get it spot on. There’s definitely a lot of mileage to be had from looking at video game character design and how authors or playwrights develop characters for books, theatre and films. There might even be something to be learned from expert RPG game masters. Maybe animators. Maybe puppeteers?

Two recommendations for books about character design I’ve come across are The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Oli and I have even considered the idea of doing some kind of method acting classes over pints in the pub.

If you’ve not seen it, it’s worth checking out New York based agency Breakfast’s Precious project. A self proclaimed “bike with a brain”.

What’s clear, and it’s been said before, is that there’s an opening for a new type of designer. Someone that understands interaction design, product design and can add character to things through behaviour. A light touch. Very subtle in order to make them believable - without them being too ridiculous.

(From my Talking House project)

I really think we should be working on developing new tools for doing this. One idea I’ve had is system/object personas. Interaction designers are used to using personas (research based user archetypes) to describe the types of people that will use the thing they’re designing - their background, their needs and the like but I’m not sure if we’ve ever really explored the use of personas or character documentation to describe the product themselves. What does the object want? How does it feel about it? If it can sense its location and conditions how could that affect its behaviour? This kind of thing could be incredibly powerful and would allow us to develop principles for creating the finer details of the object’s behaviour.

I’ve used a system persona before while designing a website for young photographers. The way we developed it was through focus groups with potential users to establish the personality traits of people they felt closest to, trusted and would turn to for guidance. This research helped is establish the facets of a personality statement that influenced the tone of the copy at certain points along the user journeys and helped the messaging form a coherent whole. It was useful at the time but I genuinely believe this approach can be adapted and extended further.

I think you could develop a persona for every touchpoint of the connected object’s service. Maybe it could be the same persona if the thing is to feel strong and omnipresent but maybe you could use different personas for each touchpoint if you’re trying to bring out the connectedness of everything at a slightly more human level. This all sounds a bit like strategy or planning doesn’t it? A bit like brand principles. We probably need to talk to those guys a bit more too.

How does an object’s character and/or behaviour tie in with communicating its purpose in life, how it looks and how it should be used? I’ve talked about idle mode before but there’s also another interesting function of arcade games called attract mode that’s used primarily to draw attention, but it also helps show people how to play the game before they insert their coins. Definitely another interesting avenue to explore. Idle mode could help communicate an object’s affordances. Again - if it’s subtle.

The behaviours we use as reference might not need to be derived from humans either. The concept of Fractional AI and Matt Jones’ BASAAP (Be As Smart As A Puppy) idea are really important things to consider too. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from Ethology - the study of animal behaviour.

"The problem with the Internet of things are the things" - Rafi Haladijan

I should point out that I’ve drawn this next conclusion by piecing together tweets from the Social Computing Symposium but as far as I can make out one of the things that Rafi Haladjian, the designer of Nabaztag the connected rabbit discovered is that even though it was undoubtably loved some of the behaviour that didn’t fit its rabbitiness were considered a bit unneccesary. For example when it read out RSS news feeds people found it hard to believe what it was saying - which is an issue because reading or playing feeds and podcasts was one of the major features of Nabaztag so maybe making it shaped like a rabbit wasn’t sugh a good idea. I reckon that if the design of an object suggests a set of behaviours the way it behaves should map to the way it looks - and vice versa. Unfortunately rabbits don’t do much.

"If you’re gonna be in somebody’s life every day, you have to be polite." - David Rose

Maybe we can adapt Alan Cooper's 14 principles from The Inmates are Running The Asylum.

  1. A polite thing is interested in me.
  2. A polite thing is deferential to me.
  3. A polite thing is forthcoming.
  4. A polite thing has common sense.
  5. A polite thing anticipates my needs.
  6. A polite thing is responsive.
  7. A polite thing is taciturn about its personal problems.
  8. A polite thing is well informed.
  9. A polite thing is perceptive.
  10. A polite thing is self-confident.
  11. A polite thing stays focused.
  12. A polite thing is fudgable.
  13. A polite thing gives instant gratification.
  14. A polite thing is trustworthy.


Maybe we could add “A polite thing doesn’t demand attention” and “A polite thing plays nicely with others” to the list.

Character probably doesn’t have to be explicit. Maybe it’ll work best when you let people fill in the gaps themselves. I think BERG's video about media surfaces called “The Journey" does a great job of exploring the ways that personality can poke out in unexpected places. I love this shot where the sign is telling you that the station is busier than normal. It might be me, but something about it makes me feel like the display is somehow the voice of the entire station. A bit weary - but still doing it’s job. It’s not over the top, its not demanding attention and it’s not trying to be funny but somehow it’s adding  personality for those that notice things like that.

I think giving things names is probably important. I’m constantly surprised at how few people name their Wi-Fi networks, computers or other devices. These things can all have names but I think it’s just a bit too difficult for people to name things at the moment. Maybe they don’t care but maybe we need to design the naming process a bit better. Maybe things should come pre configured with a unique name.

It’s definitely exciting times. It’s going to be a tough job but great fun and we’ll work it out eventually. I’m sure there’ll be some horrible mistakes but let’s learn from them and press on. 

I know it’s wrong but I really want to see someone do an object persona document for something ridiculous like an alarm clock with a personality of a US Marines drill instructor. This is uncharted territory for us and the only way to learn what works and what doesn’t is going to be trying it out so I thought I’d put it out there and see what comes back. This post is more a question than anything else. How would you go about designing the characters of connected devices, services and appliances?

I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to give me a shout.

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