Robot-Centered Design

The future of user-centered design with a new kind of stakeholder

You’re a designer. You create products, experiences, services, buildings, and more. Each time you begin the design process, you consider the multitude of touchpoints and features of your design and how they engage with your intended user. This is the logic of the Human-Centered Design process; keep people, their values, and their desires at the center of your approach. Start and end every action by thinking, “how would a human use my design?”

You have a new stakeholder. Your experiences and buildings are becoming littered with them. Each time you begin the design process, asking “what would a human want” is no longer good enough. The Human-Centered Design process is table stakes and if you haven’t already started thinking about how to create designs intended for multi-user scenarios, you’re designing a world intended for the past.

In the future of design robots will be a critical user to consider. The design process will no longer simply be a human-focused activity, but instead a complex, multi-stakeholder dance, balancing the values and constraints of man and machine. Human-Centered Design will be only half the equation. The other half is Robot-Centered Design.

Know Your History

Human-centered or user-centered design (HCD/UCD) is a process for creating a given product, service, or experience in which the user values or characteristics are given close attention at each stage. Originally coined and crafted during the early days of software and user-interface development, HCD has now become a universal design and business framework for tackling problems with a constant view to the human perspective in all stages. The process is iterative, involves a variety of different skills and perspectives, and is driven by constant involvement of users throughout.

HCD is often critiqued for being poor at specific subgroups of people. Part of the challenge is that since all designers are human, we often inject our own values and biases within our designs and lose sight of our intended user, particularly if their values and desires differ greatly from our own. Essentially, we’re so self-centered that sometimes we can’t see past ourselves when attempting to design for a specific user.

To Know Your Future

If we look to the future of robotic development, it is fairly easy to envision a scenario where robots outnumber people (assuming they already don’t). With robots of all shapes and sizes wandering our hallways and engaging with the world around them, we should assume that it will be a different world that they engage with. Though we will design aspects of our robots to operate like humans, they will not be human, but instead, something distinctly different. In some ways, they’ll be like us – we’ll likely anthropomorphize some robots in terms of a rough humanoid design – but in other ways, they will be nearly alien in nature.

They’ll have cameras for eyes, microphones for ears, grippers for hands, wheels for feet, and a mind that, try as we may, seems to be diverging from the human brain, not converging on it. They’ll search for tiny codes on walls, floors, and objects to help identify and orient themselves and the object. They’ll maneuver through ramps and lifts to get from A to B, avoiding battery and labour intensive staircases. They’ll cycle through a series of purpose-built manipulators to engage with the different doors, computer interfaces, and people they encounter.

Think of some of what we consider more “simple” tasks and the difficulty in designing a system to fully accomplish that task. Completing a package delivery in an office breaks down into a series of steps that, while at first glance seem simple, become a bit more complicated when roboticized. First we need to ensure that the box is grabbable. The pathway needs either a steady ramp and elevators to pilot the whole way or a system that can negotiate stairs. The walls and floors need to be visually distinct to help model and navigate them. Any door handles or elevator buttons must be recognizable and manipulable by our robotic system. We have to see and avoid objects and know where to appropriately place the package. And finally, we have to interact with our intended recipient to ensure that they are happy with our actions and have no further need of help.

Make Them Come to Us?

The easy (though not very empathetic) answer is to make the robots play by our rules; have them interact and engage with a human world. And while this seems reasonable enough – we were here first, afterall – it doesn’t do us roboticists much of a favour. Many of the problems currently plaguing modern roboticists are complex and nasty ones. However, through simple design tricks and adaptations – often ones that humans wouldn’t even notice – we can embed design features into the world around us to make life infinitely easier. If we instead choose to leave the world as-is, we’re essentially telling roboticists that they need to replicate a perfect mechanical human, which as you can imagine is not an easy task.

So instead of designing mechanical systems with crotch-height lubricant discharge valves, what kinds of consolations should we be making for our robot buddies?

Floors & Walls

In those hilarious moments where you’re looking at five different samples of grey carpet or paint that look identical, many have wondered whether or not we were simply the center of a cruel joke to pass identical options off as an important choice. To you, it may mean nothing, however, to a robot, that Ashen Cloud grey might be impossible to differentiate against the Light Charcoal walls you’ve picked, and that’s just mean. You’d be amazed how quickly vision recognition systems could tell you their favourite pantones.

Robotic Feng-Shui

If we’ll go so far as to micro-adjust the layout of our household objects to improve the flow of energy, could we at least move the coffee table five centimeters to the left so that there’s a wide enough birth for the cleaning-bot? Yet beyond simple clearance, how could the clever positioning of objects and features around us make life easier for both man and machine?

Mechanical Segregation

Since the last thing that 99% of us want to do with a robot is hurt someone, the problem of world navigation becomes much more complex when you’re literally worried about stepping on someone’s toes. This means that robots have to move slowly, cautiously, and constantly ready to stop and give-way to unpredictable, scattered humans. Could the loss in speed and efficiency provide sufficient justification to operate independent robot ‘lanes’ or routes, free of human interference?

Stairs Suck

Take it from a guy who worked on this problem for a year, climbing stairs sucks.

Cheat Codes

Until our vision and navigation systems are perfect, everyone could use a helping hand. And while we could continue to exclusively design city and building signs to use these computationally difficult signs and symbols we like to call “letters” and “icons”, the potential to convey much more information, more accurately, and in less space is possible by leveraging barcodes, QR codes, and other machine vision platforms. It simply takes one or two unnecessary steps out of the process of reading and ensures vastly improved comprehension.

Standardized Grips

Looking at the world of product design, you would be hard-pressed to believe that a field called “ergonomics” exists when you consider the broad spectrum of grip and touch interactions we’re expected to do. Fortunately for us, our hands are quite versatile. For robots, this is less the case. I’m not saying that I believe we can make one glove size for the whole world, but if we could at least reduce the spectrum to a non-infinite set of options, your robots would thank you dearly.

Connected Everything

On second thought, we can remove the need to physically interact with objects entirely if they all become connected and robots are given the ability to control them over wireless. At an extreme, this does have the potential to create Skynet and give all robots the perceived power of telekinesis, however, it will be a ton easier to make a cup of coffee.

The robots are coming and you as a designer have the ability to either slow or accelerate this new wave of technology. If we continue to march down the path of Human-Centered Design, we will continue to create complicated worlds that ostracize and befuddle robots. Alternatively, if we adopt the principles of Robot-Centered Design alongside Human-Centered Design, we have the potential to start creating modern environments that enable and empower the future of human-machine collaboration.

On the one hand, this is simply good design. If you know that the future of your designs is to have multiple key stakeholders, why would you ignore half of them? Any responsible designer should be considering any potential user of their design and how to optimize it for everyone. On the other hand, Robot-Centered Design shows humanity at its most human. We have the opportunity to demonstrate that our empathy encompasses considerations even beyond our own species and can extend into our own creations. So give a robot a helping hand – roboticists will thank you for making our lives easier and we promise we’ll program our robots to thank you too.