"Automagic" - some user experience design principles for automated systems.

Kitchen robot
Category & Hashtags

(This was originally a pecha-kucha style presentation that I gave recently at an internal event where I tried to give some general overview and some advice, or principles, for designing better automated systems. It's transcribed after memory + my notes, and slightly adjusted for readability). "Hi, I’m Joakim. I work at a place called the User Experience Lab at Ericsson Research. I’m going to say a few things about the user experiences of automation and I will do that in very general terms, since I'm not too sure what exactly automation is. Or, I know what it is, but I don't know how all of you and everyone else define it. But I'm sure you do. So - I’m a designer. A design designer, not a system designer, so this is not about system logic, it's about people's logic, which is not always entirely logical. Anyone who have ever done any kind of manual work can easily see there is value in automation, but automation is also a bit like magic to most average people."

Automated car

"Technological inventions can sometimes be quite accurately predicted decades, sometimes centuries ahead. But the changes of social norms and behaviour, is much harder to foresee. Self-driving cars are around the corner - but playing domino in them?! It's important to realise that most peoples' perception of automation and technology as such is closely linked to our collective cultural memory. The experience is not just of dependent on utilitarian characteristics, it's also lots of magic and dreams."

Piton - Lager beer

"But what exactly is automation to most people? The diplomatic answer is that it depends. But somehow automation holds a promise of less work, implicitly meaning more leisure. You may be aware that does not always happen. Disappointment in technology is something that shape people's attitude during their lives."

Bottles manufacturing

"Companies on the other hand have no feelings. They are pragmatic. They must be. For them automation equals efficiency, increased production cheaper, better margins etc. What is important to remember, and this is going to sound so obvious, but it is still important, in the end companies are people too."

road sign

"What has that to do with anything? Let me give you one example, which is a real case. Company X got a state of the art automation system, but it is not being used. The system works fine and do exactly what it is supposed to do, but they have turned it off since their engineers don’t feel that they understand what goes on. Disappointment! And it could have been avoided."


"PRINCIPLE # 1: Don't over-engineer! Rube Goldberg's machines are probably good fun to construct, but it makes no sense to actually use them. It's is like a Stockholm Syndrome of Engineering - it's when people fall in love with the system itself and stop caring that the system might not be doing that much good after all."


"PRINCIPLE # 2: Transparency.
 What goes on needs to be possible to understand, even for non-experts. The whole thing doesn't need to be displayed, but at least make some important parts transparent and - voila - it becomes enjoyable! Most people also trust what they can see, and trust is a general keyword."

monster robot

"If something is not transparent - people use their imagination in stead. Imagination is powerful stuff and people become scared. People we have talked to in different studies we have done often express scepticism and sometimes even fear of automated systems. Especially if they are perceived as almost entirely autonomous. The fear may or may not be rational, but we need to be aware that it is there."


"PRINCIPLE #3: Give control. The user need to feel that she or he is in charge."

car steering wheel

"Most people like control quite a lot. The experience of mastery is something that massages our egos nicely. Our cars for example - lots of automation: adaptive cruise control, auto transmission, rain sensors, climate control, adaptive volume control, auto tuning on the radio, electronic anti spin, automatic brakes etc etc... And while people want these things for convenience, a lot still think it is more exciting driving manually. The car industry knows that so most of the automation can be tuned off."

Stop button

"PRINCIPLE #4: Emergency brakes.
 Have a stop-button. Have a way to easily opt out of the automation. One thing is the actual practical functional part, but perhaps more important is that just knowing that you could stop if you wanted to makes people feel reassured and a bit safer. Make the stop button as easily accessible as it can be without compromising anything else, and have as few strings attached as possible."

Driverless train

"PRINCIPLE #5: 'Bonus'.
 Add something extra, something only made possible by the automation itself. I have actually no idea how (or if) this could possibly be implemented in your particular systems, but I'm sure you can figure something out. But think of it as removing the driver of a train makes it possible for passengers to sit in the front seat. It is a simple joy, which is something that should never be underestimated."

Automated doors working

"PRINCIPLE #6: Show some respect.
 If people have to be considerate of the automation rather than vice versa, it is indirectly telling people that the system is more important than them. It makes people feel less important. Few people like that feeling."

Nest thermostat

"PRINCIPLE #7: Be humble.
 The Nest thermostat is a nice example. You use it as a normal one, but it learns your routines, and remembers, and after a while, when it has figured out your habits, it become automated. No need to learn or program anything."

loyal and careful

"PRINCIPLE #8: The system is a companion.
 A system could be imagined as a friendly creature that can do things for you that you can't do yourself. Make the system to somehow express that it is responsible, loyal and careful so it's users can build confidence and trust."


"Large and complex automated systems can make people feel bad. It can be systems made of technology, business, politics or of bureaucracy etc., the same principles apply. If people experience that they are not seen, are not respected or they get the feeling that they are subordinate to the system - we feel bad, or even worse - some will begin to see the system as an enemy."

Social Web of Things

"We try to follow these principles in the systems that we design, as for example this Social Web of Things concept we came up with some time ago - here is a short video. Thank you." (You can see and read more about that here if you like).

Photos licensed under creative commons licenses, found on flickr, by Ashley DeasonDan TentlerO'ShannonDeusXFloridaTim DobbelaereDaniel SparingLeo ReynoldsSini Merikallio and Nest. Other images via Paleofuture (1, 2, 7, 8), drawing by Rube Goldberg (6) and Gary Varvel (16), still from Stanley Kubrick's '2001, A Space Odyssey' (9) .

The Ericsson Blog

Like what you’re reading? Please sign up for email updates on your favorite topics.

Subscribe now

At the Ericsson Blog, we provide insight to make complex ideas on technology, innovation and business simple.