When Seeming Human Is Creepy

Making your software emulate human behavior isn’t always a good idea

Braxton Perry
Modus
Published in
5 min readJul 19, 2019

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Illustrations courtesy of the author

The other day I was returning from a break when I opened a popular software suite. It greeted me with a large and centered message:

“Welcome back, Braxton.”

I breezed past it, trying to get to work, when I realized what had just happened. Did this productivity suite just try to talk to me?

Glitched text of “Welcome back, fellow human”

It wasn’t the “Welcome” part that unnerved me. It was the “Welcome back.” It was like it was keeping track of me and either wanted or expected me to come back. Of course, the designers of this text probably didn’t intend for the message to be deeply connecting. I imagine it was just meant to be a simple UI element that filled space and greeted users.

But that raises an interesting question: Why does software even give greetings?

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen what I call a “dangling human interaction.” By “dangling” I mean that it isn’t meant to be fully interactive. The interaction is just a one-way street. And come to think of it, I’ve seen this exact type of interaction in many different places. At an increasing rate, we are trying to make applications emulate human behavior toward our users. Why?

“I am software and I deeply care about you.”
What are we trying to convey to our users?

The answer is simple: Humans crave interaction, personalization, and recognition. If we can tap into that, we buy a little more goodwill for our products.

Realistically emulating human interactions in software was barely a consideration in the past, because having software convincingly emulate humans was extremely difficult. But now, with more complex operations, expansive interfaces, and advancements in Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing, we are getting to the point where we can mimic basic human behavior.

In a sense, instead of just user experience (UX), we are now capable of building Human Experience (HX) into our products.

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