Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine

Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine

Exhibition, V&A Dundee, ends 9th February 2020


The exhibition space for Hello, Robot at V&A Dundee features several questions that are suspended from the ceiling, such as “Do We Really Need Robots?” Rather than providing definitive answers—not that there necessarily are any—the exhibition presents a wide range of examples to help you draw your own conclusions. And there are a lot of examples, so you need to carefully plan how you navigate the exhibition: you could easily spend (lose?) half a day or more if you try to view everything.

Most people will have preconceived ideas of what a robot is, and the examples cater to most, if not all of those preconceptions. They also go further, and I’ve focused here on a few of the less obvious examples.

The first part of the exhibition features the most familiar examples, including video games, an interactive steerable robot (a bit like an updating of Seymour Papert’s Turtle), and a real R2D2. If you intend to visit the exhibition you should note that you can’t take photographs of all the items on display.

Maltese Offshore Aid Station

MOAS donation boxes

In among the familiar examples, it’s nice to see a humanitarian example of the use of robots. MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) is a not-for-profit organisation that arranges for drones to scout the Mediterranean for migrants in distress, and sends out rescue ships to vessels that are in trouble. The image of the Syrian child refugee Aylan Kurdi’s body inspired the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar to put the image of the beach where Aylan was found on the side of cubic donation boxes, with all donations going to fund the work of MOAS.

Curvoxels’ 3D Cantilever Chair

Curvoxels’ 3D cantilever chair

Moving on, I found the chairs particularly fascinating, especially Curvoxels’ 3D Cantilever Chair. It’s quite striking in both colour (cream) and appearance (it looks a bit like it’s been crocheted). The most interesting aspect though, is its construction. A robot, in one continuous motion, ejects a plastic thread that hardens as the robot moves, compressing the structure as appropriate. Like several of the other exhibits, this one has a short, mesmerising video showing how the robot works. It does all beg the question, though, about how sustainable such chairs are.

Robot Baby Feeder

Robot baby feeder

Having previously spent some time researching the use of technology to assist older adults, it was interesting—and a little scary—to see the examples of everyday robots. In addition to the robot arm with a head scratcher attachment(!), there was also a robot baby feeder. The psychologist in me wonders what this would do to the bonds that get established between a baby and its parents (who would normally be expected to feed it), to say nothing of how the robot would respond to feedback from the baby: what if it starts choking for example? It strikes me as another example of a task being automated just because it can be, with little or no consideration of the wider effects of doing so.

The Sony AIBO

Sony AIBO dog

Close by is one of Sony’s AIBO (Artificial Intelligence roBOt) dogs, which were rather cute (not as cute as real dogs, mind). Our HCI group had one of these back in the early 2000s. The AIBO was designed to evolve its own personality through interacting with its owners and environment. Several models were introduced, each time adding new capabilities, but it was finally withdrawn from production in 2006. It’s a shame that you don’t get a chance to interact with the one on display, although it does come from a private collection. (Note that in 2016 the AIBO was re-introduced with more updated capabilities.)


3rdi images

Just beyond the display that mostly covers the role of robots in fashion (which includes exoskeletons for humans, and shoe designs that are grown in the same way as molecules and then 3D printed) is 3rdi, adjacent to the exit. This really interesting project saw Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal have a webcam surgically implanted into the back of his head(!) in 2010. This randomly captured images as he went about his everyday life, one shot per minute, for a year, and he live streamed the results. There are several printed images on display, all illustrating the pervasive nature of surveillance, over which we have no control.


Up-Sticks scale model

Outside the main exhibition area is an intriguing, specially commissioned piece Up-Sticks (with a scale model in the glass case). It’s the result of a combination of ideas from traditional Scottish construction methods with expertise in computational design and robotic formation. The resulting structure consists only of spruce planks and beech wood dowels. In other words, there are no nails or glue holding it all together. One robot was used to drill the holes for the dowels at the appropriate angles for the dowels; another was used to pick, place and support the planks while the dowels were manually inserted.


Hello, Robot includes something for pretty much everybody with an interest in robots. It’s not the sort of exhibition that you can fully take in on a single visit (I’ve visited twice, for more than an hour each time, and still not seen all the exhibits). There aren’t any robots that you can interact with, or roaming around the floor carrying out tasks, but it’s still an interesting and intriguing exhibition that provides plenty of illustrations of how and where the robots are coming, maybe not always in the shape or places that you’d expect.

More information about the exhibition and how to book tickets is available from the V&A Dundee web site: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/exhibitions/hello-robot

Understand the Problem Before Designing Solutions

Everywhere you look nowadays, you see people writing about the importance of design, and how user experience (design) is the key to success, particularly in ecommerce. Increasingly, however, I’m seeing websites that are harder to use and (mostly) seem to be more interested in looking flashy (prioritising form over function) and keeping the user engaged with the website, rather than helping them to do what they want to do.

At least part of this problem comes down to a lack of appropriate analysis during the development process. This strikes me as somewhat perverse, given that It has long been accepted that the first steps in developing most systems should involve understanding the task at hand, e.g.,:

  • Understanding the problem situation. This is the first step in SSM (Soft Systems Methodology, e.g., see Checkland & Scholes, 1999).
  • Understanding who the users will be. This is the first principle of designing for usability (Gould & Lewis, 1985).

Understanding the problem situation

One of my old bosses frequently used to say that system performance was about particular people, doing particular tasks, in a particular context. If you want to understand the problem situation, you therefore need to spend time and effort analysing these different aspects of the system, and how they interact and are inter-related.

Some years ago we worked withJimmies Hospital in Leeds (Baxter et al., 2005) to help them develop a new system for use in the neonatal intensive care unit.  It took us several months to understand the problem situation. This involved attending meetings, visiting the unit, talking to the people who worked there, and carrying out background reading. It was only when we understood the language staff routinely used to describe their work that we could we go on and properly analyse what they did in more detail, and generate rich pictures—another very useful concept from SSM—to represent this.

Understanding who the users will be

First, designers must understand who the users will be. This understanding requires directly studying their cognitive, behavioural, anthropometric, and attitudinal characteristics, and by analysing the nature of the work expected to be accomplished. (Gould & Lewis, 1985, p. 300)

Understanding and organising everything that you need to know about your users is a similarly non-trivial task. There is usually a lot that you need to know about your particular users, so we suggest organising this information based on the ABCS: the Anthropometric, Behavioural, Cognitive, and Social factors (Ritter, Baxter & Churchill, 2014). We added social factors to take account of the fact that most work is now performed by teams of people.

So what?

If you don’t understand the problem situation, and who your users will be, your design solutions are likely to make the user’s life harder than is necessary. In other words, you’ll be providing a user experience that is less satisfactory than it could be.

If you don’t spend time understanding your users,  you can end up assuming that they are just like you. In other words that they have the same knowledge, skills and attitudes as developers. This explains why you can still hear developers describe users as “stupid” (or worse) when they watch them wrestling with their system to try to make it work.

Take the case of shopping. Most people, most of the time, go into a shop to buy one or two things—the main exception being grocery shopping—and then move on.

When you look closely at many commercial websites, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the developers aren’t supporting what the users are trying to do. Or, at least, they aren’t doing it in the best way possible. Instead of just helping the users to buy what they want and then move on, the developers employ a gaming style model of motivation: they try to keep users engaged with their site in an effort to get them to spend more money. This is why you see recommendations along the line of “people who bought X also bought Y”. Many of us have fallen into that trap and ended up buying something that we didn’t really want (or need) in the first place! The developers also provide a streamlined checkout process, reducing it to the minimum number of clicks so that users have less opportunity to think about what they’re buying, and whether they really need it or not. On top of that, the developers hide the sign out button, so users have to search the website to find it.

Take-home Message

Understanding the problem situation, and who your users are, will give you a solid foundation for designing solutions that will lead to the appropriate user experience for their particular situation. This is true for all (technology based) systems, not just websites. So, for example, in safety critical systems—air transportation, medicine, nuclear power etc.—you provide your users, first and foremost, with a safe user experience, rather than necessarily a good one!


Baxter, G.D., Monk, A.F., Dear, P.R.F., & Newell, S.J. (2005). Using cognitive task analysis to facilitate the integration of decision support systems into the neonatal intensive care unit. Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, 35, 243-257.

Checkland, P. & Scholes, J. (1999). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Gould, J.D. & Lewis, C. (1985). Designing for usability: Key principles and what designers think. Communications of the ACM, 28 (3), 300-311.

Ritter, F.E., Baxter, G.D., & Churchill, E.F. (2014). Foundations for Designing User-Centered Systems. London, UK: Springer.