Humans and Computers can act as if they were a team.

Clifford Nass shows in his experiments that even though we would deny it, we treat computers as little humans ("social actors"). In his chapter about Team&Team-Building he explains that identification (similarity-attraction) and interdependence (my goals contribute to the team's goals, and vice-versa) lead to better cooperation.

Little cues like giving the subject the a wristlet of the same color that the monitor has, or naming the team, would increase enjoyment of interaction and attention.

Assuming all this is true, how can we use these effects in designing Human-Computer interaction interfaces? Do you know examples of "team-building" between humans and computers?

  • 1
    Interesting looking book. I guess this could also be why a certain brand of computer used to start up with a happy face icon...
    – PhillipW
    Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 11:25
  • It's definitely interesting, although it's written more from a management perspective than an UX one.
    – giraff
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 19:51

4 Answers 4


Taking Clifford Nass' premise that human-computer interaction is —unconsciously— like human-human interaction, we can conclude that in designing human-computer interfaces we should use the same Human-Human interaction paradigms.

Some examples of this being a good approach are:

  • Apple's Siri, which has been a big hype in human-computer interacion.
  • Microsoft's Kinect, another leap on 'natural user interfaces'.
  • The 'Error 404' pages that are rendered to be more real-life-like or human.

And to answer the question, some examples of human-computer interaction within teams are:


I really can't make up my mind whether I think this is a good or bad question. No offense, because it is very interesting, indeed!

First of all. The question relies on some very controversial preconceptions. Namely that people treat computers as little humans.
Then it ask how we can achieve more of something we don't really know if we want (or consider it to be good UX). Do we really want to (team)work with computers (or any other device?) or do we want it to be a good transparent tool - just like any other convenient tool we use?

The hammer is a tool The iPad is not a piano
(Pictures from "A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design". A very nice read!)

Is the hammer the carpenters best friend? Or is it just another tool?
Is the iPad the students best friend? Or is this also just another tool?
Do we want the iPad to be friendly or do we just want this thing to have a high degree of usability? (30 years ago "user friendly" was the term for what we call "usability" or perhaps "user experience" today. The conclusion was clear: "user friendly" is misleading, because we don't need friendly computers, we need tools that makes it easy to accomplish the task we need to accomplish).

enter image description here
(From www.cartoonstock.com)

Ok, down to some answering :-)

To me, what you describe is just a consequences of good UX- and UI-design. A good interaction between the user and the "thing". If the user feels like he is in control, and that the "thing" does what he wants, then he will interact with the computer (or any other device) in a natural way.

The "Actor Network Theory" (Wikipedia article, YouTube movie) describes a network of actors (humans) and actants (eg. computers, mobile-phones or even hotel room keys). And I believe that Nass is mixing these two networking roles when he describes "computers as little humans". Yes, the actants have a place. And yes, the actants must be taken into account when designing and developing devices and software (especially devices/sw that affects the interpersonal interaction/communication). But the actants are not little humans.

Actor Network Theory
(Illustration from www.clipartof.com)

How do we achieve a natural interaction then?
Well. This actually comes down to the very basics of UX knowledge. Best described (imho) by Don Norman in his famous "Seven stages of action" (Wikipedia article). A natural and good implementation of these gulfs (of execution and interaction) will lead to a natural interaction with the device. And in some circumstances this might lead to a subconscious comparison to interpersonal interaction and thus an simplified interpretation: "this is a human-like interaction, I must be dealing with a little human".

Seven stages of action The gulfs
(Illustrations from www.dubberly.com)

Sorry if I'm a big party-pooper here. :-/

I haven't read Nass' book, so I really can't argue with his findings. They may very well be real and they are definitely interesting.

I do believe that we are aware that the computers are not human. I think we know that hitting the key harder will not make the computer understand better, or that hitting CE multiple time will clear the calculator better. We just do it, because this is how we are familiar with treating things.

So, bottom line. The computer/device has a job to to and it is an actant in the task we're doing. A tool. With a good exec/eval gulf, we will interact naturally - but still not expect them to be human. We still expect them to search faster and calculate better, but we don't expect them to understand feelings (like frustration) or interpret a picture.

The computer is just another tool, and we need create the appropriate tool for the given task.

Hammers Mobile devices

  • Very interesting comments about why you prefer not to answer the question :-) As far as I understood ANT, it doesn't distinguish humans and tech-agents, they both are "actants". And both can behave as "intermediary" or "mediator", depending on whether they are (assumed to be) fully describable or indeterministic. Of course you are right, Computers are not human. But, Nass claims, we treat them as such (subconciously). "My beloved hammer", "He served me well", "He is faithful to me" and so on. Good points about UX and Usability!
    – giraff
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 10:59
  • Yeah. It turned out to be a very long comment :-) Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 11:20
  • Browsing trough the wikipedia article, it looks like you're right on the actor vs actant part. I just brought out my knowledgne from 15 years ago, and I'm pretty sure that we distinguished between actors and actants. Maybe the ANT-theroy has evolved during these 15 years ;-) Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 11:24
  • 1
    It's hard to argue with someone who says "you might deny it, and you probably will not believe it, but the objective research gives us these amazing facts." Interesting fellow and interesting statements, nonetheless. Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 11:30

The only examples I could think of:

  • Some professional video editing software comes with a specialized keyboard. This may not only increase usability (color-coded and labeled keys may help to be more efficient), but also identification (This is the computer I do video stuff with. It is my ally).
  • There is a natural programming language that, instead of throwing compiler errors, resolves ambiguities by asking questions. (See "mixed-initiative natural programming language") This dialogue may foster interdependence: it is not the user that wrote the program, they worked together.
  • Avatar-like assistants like Clippy or Eliza.

I can think of examples of human-computer/robot teams:

  1. Mars rover
  2. Predator drones
  3. Search and rescue robots

And some background material that might be of interest:

  1. http://www.dodccrp.org/files/IC2J_v1n2_03_Parasuraman.pdf
  2. http://www.satechnologies.com/Papers/pdf/ASEM-ACP13-final.pdf
  3. http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/~softagents/papers/nourbakhsh_2005.pdf
  4. http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~athomaz/papers/murphy04.pdf

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