Being Human in an Automated World by Rachel Jones

R/GA London’s Experience Designer

Over the past few years, we have come to expect that technology makes things happen faster, easier and on-demand. From apps and websites to AI and machine learning, the most disruptive innovations have successfully created shortcuts for all manner of activity within our everyday lives. However, they are yet to have real, large-scale impact on the places we live.

Creating digital shortcuts

The term shortcut originated in the 1600s as a “path not as long as the ordinary way.” This is exactly what Amazon has created with features like one-click ordering and instant delivery. Putting aside the fact that users no longer need to visit the store themselves, the ecommerce giant has constructed a path that bypasses all the usual pain-points of online ordering — remembering your password, entering delivery details, finding your card details — saving time and making the process easier.

Retail isn’t the only industry utilising digital shortcuts. In the transportation industry, the introduction of Oyster cards in London has made paying for travel throughout the city one seamless network. Queuing at barriers or waiting for bus drivers to give change are now stresses of the past. Uber has moved things even further forward, making the transport come to you at the push of a button, banishing taxi-rank queues and cash point stop-offs, connecting the city more than ever before. 

A new ‘ordinary’

All these shortcuts have created a new ‘ordinary way’ of doing things. As a result, we are now a society of impatient, expectant consumers and we presume that will translate into the physical world. We get frustrated when we can’t find things in stores or have to queue to checkout. We hate it when we get off a train on the opposite end of the platform to the exit. Our average attention span has fallen to just 8 seconds according to a 2013 Microsoft study — less than that of a goldfish. It’s no wonder every second spent not doing what we want to be doing, or not being where we want to be, feels like time wasted.

At the moment, most of the shortcuts that affect how we do things are created in a digital world parallel to the physical places we live. Experiences remain personal or individually focused. How can I get this product now? Or how can we get all these people through the barrier and onto the platform quicker? Interactions are linear and task-focused, making something happen quicker for one person at a time.


Bjarke Ingels City

As technology continues to disrupt society it is only going to infiltrate the physical worlds of industries like retail and transport more and more. The prospect of driverless cars is already promising to do this; not only serving the needs of an individual but revolutionising an entire city’s transport system and shaping the built environment around it. The future city, as re-imagined by Bjarke Ingels for Audi, makes digital, transport and architecture no longer discernible spaces.

“Infusing the surface of the city with information, energy, and light”

On a smaller scale, similar leaps can be made in retail as we are starting to see with demo store Amazon Go and products like the Oak Mirror — an interactive fitting-room experience. Why stop there? If we know what customers have been looking at online, why not populate changing rooms with these items and allow purchase straight from there. No need to navigate queues and hordes of people looking for the same things in different sizes. No need to waste store footprint with rails of clothes, or spend valuable time searching for shop assistants or the checkout.


B+W Smartcity

Humans aren’t linear

While this kind of task-focused experience might suit certain people at a particular time, it is not conducive to the way society as a whole behaves. As humans, we act on impulses, we get inspired by the things we see, touch, hear and smell. We empathize with and trust other humans, often in relation to the place we are in. And we are all different—from each other and from one moment to the next as our moods and mindsets shift.

We cannot exclusively assign linear paths to everything we do. In transportation, people like to wander, stumbling across hidden gems along lost paths. In retail, people like to browse, spotting things they wouldn’t normally be drawn to and daring to try it — a principle both Amazon and OakLabs have maintained within their respective in-store experiences. This is what makes us human.

Cities, shops and homes have evolved to facilitate and stimulate our human behaviors. Some of the most successful innovations in these spaces have not only respected human nature but intentionally played on its unpredictability to short-cut regular tasks. Latch allows homeowners the flexibility of giving anyone they trust a temporary access code to their front door at short notice. Now, you don’t have to wait around all day for the plumber to show up or for a package to be delivered.

Latch Smart Access System

Latch Smart Access System

As we continue to design for connected spaces and IoT, it is important we, as experience designers, remember that it is not the job of our shortcuts to define or dictate all human behavior. We must start by observing the intricacies of how people act in relation to the place they are in, and identify which aspects of that behavior are task-orientated and which are ‘wandering’ — a manifestation of our human essence. Only then can we ensure that the new digital shortcuts we create streamline tasks without compromising or eliminating wandering behavior. When it comes to our interactions with the physical world, our biggest challenge is to find balance between digital automation and what makes us human.

Rachel Jones R/GA London’s Experience Designer

Rachel Jones: R/GA London’s Experience Designer

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