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If Businesses Are Trying To 'Humanise', Why Are They Doing It With Robots?

What would you expect from the corporate machine?

17/03/2017 3:43 PM AEDT | Updated 17/03/2017 3:43 PM AEDT
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"I'm guessing a few of you have already identified a key flaw (or at least a somewhat ironic detail) in this 'humanising' trend."

So SXSW is on this week -- oh, you knew? Let me guess: smashed-avocado-loving, millennial start-up tycoon, right?

For the rest of us, SXSW is where the world's hippest, most creative, and tech-advanced people gather to stroke each other's egos as they inspire each other with what's next. This tech love-fest is happening in Austin, Texas, right now, and guess what the biggest trend of the year is: 'humanising businesses'. That's right -- businesses are trying to become more human.

Back in Australia, in my day job as an advertising practitioner, over the past few months I've heard banks talk about wanting to 'humanise banking', energy companies wanting to 'humanise energy', telcos wanting to 'humanise telcos', and of course insurance giants talk of 'humanising insurance'.

But it doesn't stop there.

Go into any design or branding agency and they're busily asking their clients to buy into 'human-centred design', which my design-geek buddies tell me is 'putting the human at the heart of the design process and designing around their needs -- not those of the companies.

Isn't it an admission that you've been doing it wrong all of these years? Doesn't it mean you've put your business interests ahead of the human's interest for years?

Now, I'm guessing a few of you have already identified a key flaw (or at least a somewhat ironic detail) in this 'humanising' trend, in that it's happening at exactly the same time that many companies are looking at ways of stripping humans out of their internal processes and delivery mechanisms and replacing them with 'non-human alternatives' such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and chat-bots (computer programs that simulate a conversation so it feels like you're talking to a (somewhat demented) human, whereas you're actually just talking to an algorithm.

However, I have two further and equally important gripes with businesses humanising themselves. Firstly, isn't it an admission that you've been doing it wrong all of these years? Doesn't it mean you've put your business interests ahead of the human's interest for years?

Many industries have had it safe for so long, and now with new tech-enabled competitors they realise they've been greedy and lethargic for a long time (now that's human!).

If you truly were humanising your business, or focused on human-centred design, then sometimes it would mean you would choose to leave the consumer alone, and not offer them anything.

In many categories, businesses that have gorged in the trough of regulated markets, cosy oligopolies, or taken advantage of consumer inertia and our inherent status quo bias (that is, no matter how high the fees and how much the keyboard outrage people rarely vote with their feet, it's better the devil you know) should start their humanising process with a simple apology. 'Gee, sorry about that -- we were taking the piss a bit there. We'll try and act a bit more fairly from now on.'

Imagine if a corporation said that! Greed is human, to admit it is divine.

And my final beef with humanising is this, if you truly designed your product or brand around consumer needs, what would happen? Technology now has the ability to wrap services around a consumer and make things decidedly easier for people to do whatever it is that these companies want them to do. However, I'm not entirely sure this qualifies as 'humanising' anything. The business does not become more human, it just makes its products easier to consume.

If you truly were humanising your business, or focused on human-centred design, then sometimes it would mean you would choose to leave the consumer alone, and not offer them anything. You may decide they don't need another widget, they don't require another alternative to the already cluttered category you play in.

Sometimes being human-centred would involve just leaving the human alone, but where's the business model in that?

Hopefully that's something the hipsters at SXSW can work out next year.


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