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November 25, 2022

How to humanise technology

The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) says that to humanise is "to make someone or something human, familiar and sociable". So in this regard, to humanise technology is to create a technology that goes beyond pure functionality to create a pleasant interaction through ergonomics and more user-friendly interfaces, by developing reliable and accessible technologies with systems and algorithms that conform to ethical and political intuitions and avoid bias or manipulation. And, of course, to humanise technology is to make it more capable of interpreting and reacting to human factors, such as recognising users' emotions.

But humanising also involves educating and training users, involving them in all these advances, helping them understand the risks and benefits of each development, explaining complex systems to them in order to build confidence in those systems. And also using intelligent automation to let machines handle the most mechanical, burdensome and dangerous work, thus freeing people from these risks.

In short, humanising means designing technology to achieve a future that is good for mankind.

How to get there

The theory may be easy, or not, to describe. But how can we put this humanisation of technology into practice?

Obviously, it is a 360º strategy: it's no use having algorithms that are completely ethical and human if the application that is used to get the most out of them is not user-friendly or accessible to people with some kind of disability. And vice versa: it's no use having a tool that can be used by anyone, regardless of their abilities, background or condition, if the underlying code is full of biases.

In any case, here are some aspects of technology that we can (and should) work with to achieve a more humanised technology.

User experience (UX)

In keeping with the principles of ergonomics, the user experience (UX) is one of the first aspects that is considered during the development process of a new product. Its goal is to answer questions, such as whether the product will be useful to the user, and if it will be easy to localise, desirable and accessible. That is, if the product adapts to the user and not the other way around.

French linguist Denis Bertrand, in relation to technology, states that our mind builds a myth around it which prevents us from understanding the product, and thus from experiencing it properly. This has two potential consequences:

  1. We can reject technology, and thus refuse to use it (something that can happen to, for example, the elderly)
  2. We can feel addicted to the product (something that happens especially in younger people). Irrational behaviour recognised as "addictive" by fans of the product (especially in the case of young people).

Therefore, when humanising technology, we must demystify the user experience so that those who really want to use it can integrate it into their lives, without it being intrusive.

Adopt social/emotional intelligence

When developing any technology, the goal is always to respond to a specific need of people (be it personal, professional, leisure, etc.). Because of this, the process must be empathetic: product designers have to put themselves in the place of potential users and consider the emotional journey that users go on while facing the problem.

Privacy by design

Although this is a requirement that has been imposed by the proliferation of regulations regarding the personal data of users, privacy by design is another way to humanise technology, since it is at the service of people and not the other way around.

This design, in which the starting point is respect for the private information of users, also allows algorithms to be developed that are more transparent and less biased, which doubly reinforces the emphasis on humanising technology.

Pre-production testing

In relation to all of the above, a good way to humanise technology is to test its use on real people before the product goes into production.

Even if we have taken all the above parameters into account, we should not forget that when human beings interact, they usually share a very acute sense of what is emotionally, socially and physically appropriate. However, most experiences with products today barely exhibit any of that emotional intelligence or social skills. Human interaction can be a solid model for improving the way technology responds to people.

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