‘The computers were down last week – we had a great time’

4 Jun 2018

Will all our receptionists soon be replaced by virtual assistants? Image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

UX consultant Gareth Dunlop fears a future where humour and personal connection are washed out by a wave of virtual assistants.

We have a client in Dublin that has a laugh-out-loud funny guy on reception. He’s a proper inner-city Dub who quite rightly mocks the foppish, middle-class ways of the punters coming and going in the posh reception in HQ at the heart of Dublin’s financial services district.

The Fathom team is in and out regularly and, over the months and years, he has got to know us all by name, could match most of us to our favourite sport and team, and is always ready for us with some banter on arrival. It’s not an exaggeration to say we always look forward to chatting with him as a highlight of a visit and we often speculate on the train journey south from Belfast to Dublin what mischief he might be up to on any given day.

That was until last year when a virtual assistant, in the form of an iPad on a plinth, was foisted upon both him and us. No longer did we give the guy our names; we typed them into the iPad. We no longer told the guy who we were meeting or what company we were from; we told the computer. And we no longer had any banter with the dude – such frivolity was forbidden!

The virtual assistant then texted the person we were in to see and printed out a name label, whereupon the heretofore hero of our story would attach the printout to a badge and hand it over. Our hero would give a knowing glance and we would take our seats.

I have used the virtual assistant now dozens of times and, for the life of me, I cannot understand a single benefit it brings to customers, the organisation or my man behind the desk. All I can see is a soulless interaction with a computer, a caged funnyman and no time or money saved in the process of letting our client know that we have arrived.

This non-solution can only have been suggested by someone who has never spent any time in reception, doesn’t like jokes and who has never considered how stressed humans work, middle-class or otherwise.

As a result of this nonsense, my banter with our man is now limited to me teasing him that he’s not allowed to talk to me now as it’s too inefficient and that only the computer is allowed to communicate with me. He joked last time I was in: “The computers were down last week. We had a great time – we were talking to people and everything.”

Well, I say joked. He was deadly serious. And, what’s more, he was deadly correct.

The guy doesn’t need to be funny for the story to be important. Nor does he need to be male. The receptionist just needs to be warm, human and welcoming for the tale to matter.

A few years ago, our local general practice surgery set off down the same road to madness. They didn’t so much replace a funnyman with an iPad on a plinth as replace as series of friendly receptionists with a cold screen in the porch (not even in the main foyer or reception), asking all patients to enter their date of birth to register for their appointment.

I remember being shocked the first time I saw it – and I’m a self-confessed computer geek who loves technology and was just in for something minor.

The thought of an elderly or infirm person, unfamiliar with technology, in for a check-up or to receive life-altering news, being greeted by a screen asking them for their date of birth just sits terribly uneasily with me. In this instance it may add to the efficient running of the surgery, but at what human cost?

When technology and design are abstracted to their highest level, surely they exist solely for the enrichment and betterment of human life? What other purpose should they serve?

Might I suggest therefore that technology and design professionals consider embracing their equivalent of the medical principle primum non nocere – first, do no harm – to ensure that rather than making the world colder or harsher or less humorous, they enrich human life to its fullest capability.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, NHS Scotland, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.