What my mobile can learn from my BFF

Aynne Valencia

“People are getting better with computers, but computers aren’t getting better with people.”

This is a paraphrase of something I heard someone say recently. I can’t remember who or where because I lack a keyword search field. Which begs the obvious statement:

I am a human, not a computer.

Despite the fact that our “computers” are now always with us in the form of smart phones and sensor devices, they still require that we act like them, instead of them acting more like us. This isn’t such a great deal, considering the promise of just how “smart” computers are supposed to be.

I ask you, would you hang around with someone who behaved like your smart phone? Do you really want to spend time with someone who constantly interrupts with and never remembers your favorite things? My best friend forever (BFF) would never do such a thing.

How can we make the pocket sized computers we carry around with us everyday more like our BFF and less like a computer?

My BFF and I are embodied with some of the following traits that my smart phone would do well to emulate:

1. Spacial pattern awareness through size, color, expression and sound

As a human, I am a born pattern recognizing expert. This is an instinct that has enabled us to survive as a species. I can tell at a glance approximately how near or far something is. The color red indicates a warning that needs my attention. I can tell by subtle cues on a persons face if they are friend or foe and I know if the bear that approaches me intends to make me dinner or just wants to say hello. People use sound and gestures to indicate approval or to proceed with caution.

Designers can use visual and auditory cues to exploit this human trait. 


What if when I ask Siri to find a location I get a little “whoooooosh” or a “tsk”–a subtle audio cue to warn me that something is too far for me to walk to? If the same person has called me several times, what if a badge on my phone changes color or gets bigger? What if my phone can alert me to potential dangers or provide a subtle cue that something I like might be nearby?

2. Listening 

Over the course of our friendship, my BFF and I have learned our mutual likes and dislikes. I know he is a foodie who likes a nice premium cocktail, and he knows I am a veggie who can’t stand the smell of seafood. We both like off-the-beaten-path places, yet neither of us would go to a seedy part of town too late at night. We know this because humans listen to each other and make a mental note of such preferences.





What if my mobile asked me once what my preferences are, and then did its best to infer more subjective, human information to suggest things that meet that criteria? What if when I look up a generic search like “restaurant” my preferences have already been stored, and I never have to see (or smell) Joe’s Fish Fry ever again?

3. Awareness of my surroundings and empathy

If I was in a work meeting, my BFF would never drop by, barge in the room, ring a bell and hold up a sign saying “Shoe sale! Get the lowest prices on new looks for Spring!”, even though he knows I have a weakness for a good shoe sale.

My BFF would know to weigh the information that he receives, and never interrupt me when I am “busy.” But he would also know that there are varying degrees of “busy,” and that an interruption is warranted if there is a true emergency, or if I have indicated that I want to be notified if a specific person is trying to reach me.

I am human, and I am hard-wired to respond to things that I perceive as needing nurturing. When my phone bings or bleeps at me, or a number shows up on a badge on my iPhone, I am going to pay attention to it, even if I don’t really want to, because I am human and that’s what we do. This is why things like Farmville and Draw Something are so darned compelling. It’s also why we obsessively check email. Each little notification gives us a little moment of excitement and provokes a desire to take care of something. Nurturing is an important motivator, but should be used judiciously. My smart phone doesn’t make the distinction of what or why I am receiving an inbound communication. From its tiny computer point of view, everything is weighted equally. Instead, what if my phone knows that when I have a calendar item marked “busy,” or if my phone is on “silent,” it would then pause all notifications from coming in so that I can concentrate on what I am doing?

Be a (hu)man about it
So as we begin to explore design for new computer systems, what if we pause to ask ourselves:
How can I make this system more like my BFF?
How can I endow this system with the good human qualities of using sound, color, and size to give context to patterns, make it listen more to the important details I tell it everyday, and help it to be more aware of my surroundings and to respond appropriately?

If we start from this place of making the things we carry more lovable, not just because they are pretty objects, but because they love us back through attention and respect, I think we will find some very creative and unexpected solutions. So the challenge is, now that we have the toolset to do it, lets see how we can make human computer interaction, well, more human.
If we do, your new BFF might just be your smartphone.



Drink and Salad Images Credit: The Noun Project collection.
Other Images: Aynne Valencia

Aynne Valencia

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