We’ve all done it. You walk into an elevator at the ground floor. You press 5. You wait a couple of seconds. Someone else walks in. They press 7. You quickly glance at one another. You press 5 again. A few seconds go by. You check your watch and with a sigh, you press 5 a couple more times. After a brief pause, the elevator finally complies. The doors close.
When you press an elevator button, the elevator talks back — sometimes. The button lights up. The elevator says “Ok. I’ll stop at 5 for you.” But the dialog ends there. Other people will get on and they can say their piece as well. But that’s it.
We talk to machines all the time. And they are getting more and more sophisticated in terms of the tasks they’re capable of completing. But where machines still fall short is in the breadth of dialogue they’re willing to embark upon with us. Better yet, why can’t machines pay more attention in general?
Consider the following questions:
- Why can’t the elevator realize that after a minute or so of me pressing the same floor and nobody else coming on and pressing any other floors that it’s time to go?
- Why can’t the button illuminate a bit brighter each time I press it, thus signaling to me that it is listening?
- Why can’t the elevator keep track of the patterns of the typical work day (the same way trains and buses do with schedules)? “Rush hour” happens in the morning and late afternoon so it should behave differently at those times. At 3AM, it should immediately respond to a single request.
The technology to do all this is not only there but pretty bare-bones. This logic can all sit on a single chip. The hurdles are clearly not technical but rather conceptual. Thinking about machines as beings that pay attention isn’t typically baked into your typical elevator business requirements. The weight of the payload. The time of the day. The days of the week (weekends vs. weekdays). The patterns of use. And of course, the odd patterns and habits of passengers as they click away at those buttons. 5. Door Close. 5. 5. Door Close.
As people on the other end of this dialogue, we can’t help but feel like we are talking to this machine – and that it’s listening. What we should do, as technologists and product designers, is aid these machines with the ability to listen, pay attention and let people know that they are paying attention.
Ever walk into a shop and buy some gum or soda and the shopkeeper doesn’t even acknowledge you or make eye contact? Instead of handing you the change, he tosses it on the counter and says nothing. Now you may not be trying to make friends, but it’s not a very good feeling. We love to be acknowledged and recognized. The more interactive machines are, the more of an affinity and loyalty we’re willing to build towards them. Is there a business case for smarter elevators? Possibly. But there’s a value to all this that is beyond efficiency and algorithms.
Ultimately, interaction design is about people. Today, people’s lives are filled with stress and anxiety. In our work lives, we’re often subjected to these impersonal routines that can eat away at us. This isn’t about improving the IQ of elevators. There are plenty of really smart people with high IQ’s that are really rude.
This is about making elevators a little smarter…and a little more thoughtful.