The way we interact with our devices is dramatically changing. Instead of stroking screens, we are chatting with digital assistants. Instead of searching for information, we are seeking advice. Instead of looking to be entertained, we are expecting to be understood.
As we seamlessly transition from screen-based interfaces to voice-first interactions, we have begun to identify the products we use in our daily lives by name instead of by brand. In turn, we are increasingly expecting not just utility and performance, but also trust and emotion. This fundamental change in behavior is forcing us to reimagine the possibilities for every product we build today.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the primary driver of this transformation, more specifically machine learning (ML), Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU). Thanks to NLP and NLU, we are seeing growing experimentation in conversational interfaces, making it easier than ever to communicate more naturally with machines. Meanwhile, ML is helping translate information about our behaviors into deep insight and advice.
The Woebot: A Digital Therapist?
A beautiful example of this trend is Woebot, a digital therapist designed to help people deal with anxiety and depression via the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy. While my own two-week experience began with natural skepticism, Woebot gradually won me over. Not only did she offer tools that helped me better understand my thought patterns, she provided a safe harbor to confess my deepest secrets (should I so choose). Throughout it all, she handled our conversations delicately, asking permission to inquire further or check back with me in the future.
We teach our children not to interrupt us because this is a basic skill in socialization, yet we allow our apps to constantly harass us with their neediness! With Woebot, it was refreshing to simply to be asked permission for interaction. In this action alone, she made me feel that she could, quite possibly, possess real emotional intelligence.
The holy grail for AI (and the denouement of any science fiction film) is when machines come to truly “understand” us—and Woebot ultimately failed at this task. Even though I was delighted by her quirky sense of humor and overzealous use of emojis, she was unable to read my voice, body language, or facial expression to understand how I really felt.
While the experience fell short of compassion, it did inspire a powerful insight. With Woebot, I had entered into a new kind of relationship: She wasn’t just a digital tool—she had become my digital companion. For decades, we have created digital tools to streamline our lives; now we must think of these tools as companions, coaches and advocates.
The New Role of UX
Products will always need to solve real user problems, but our designs must also consider the type of relationship we want users to have with them. The first step to building digital companions is to infuse emotional thinking into our design practices. This doesn’t imply we will all have emotional affairs with our AI assistants, or that we should anthropomorphize every app and experience. We only really need one Alexa to rule our lives. It does mean, however, that we must carefully consider the emotional triggers and implications of the products we create.
The core of design thinking is the creation of products that solve real frictions and address real user needs. That won’t change, but as intelligent products enter the most intimate spaces of our lives, this is no longer enough. We need to set the parameters for the relationship users will have with them. In this way, emotional thinking requires a new vocabulary. Instead of beginning with a problem statement, we must begin with a relationship and value map which defines the type of relationship we want to create.
This process also serves to map the individual and business values side-by-side. Instead of shaping the core user experience around a feature set, we shape it around the goal of building trust—the foundation of every relationship. Creating and maintaining trust must shape every product decision. Instead of beginning with user goals, we begin with user values. Instead of testing for usability alone we must also test for relatability. This means designing for emotional response as much as for beauty and utility.
Design-Based Emotional Thinking
Let’s imagine we are tasked with solving the friction of low trust in the medical system in China. For more serious diagnoses, such as cancer, this can often lead Chinese patients to seek a or third opinions, a process which often leaves them feeling hopeless, confused and frustrated.
If we set out to design the product placing core features and user goals first, its primary functionality would be to help users confirm their diagnoses. However, if we begin our design exploration with the goal to solve for intent and trust, we begin by asking, “What type of relationship do we want patients to have with our product?” We may realize that what patients really want is an advocate. With this in mind, we could create a very different user experience in which the value proposition moves beyond answering a specific query to helping patients make informed decisions about their treatment options.
The New Vocabulary of Product Design
As digital products bleed into the most intimate spaces of our lives, we must design products led by the heart. With this framework, a rich new vocabulary emerges. “Users” become “members of a tribe” and “notifications” are replaced by “opportunities to connect.”
Engaging with emotional thinking means prioritizing trust, treating our tribe with respect and creating spaces for communication and connection. It means embedding emotional intelligence not only into our products, but in the processes that create them. We slowly transition from designing a singular, streamlined experience to crafting the rules of engagement for an experience that is continuously evolving (and one that we cannot control).