Me Man, You Robot: Designers Creating Powerful Tools

Long before these tools were used on any patient, a product development team decided how the doctor, patient, and other care team members would experience the robots. In the introductory scenario, the doctor was given total control of the situation. You never had a choice between a local or remote doctor. You never chose to communicate through a telepresence robot. You didn’t agree to surgery by a multiarmed robot that could deploy an array of instruments inside your body. You certainly didn’t ask that the surgeon be in another city, state, or country. And when the conventional diagnostic tests indicated certain risks, you weren’t consulted about the pros and cons or asked your philosophical or religious stand on the use of microscopic robots injected into your bloodstream. A person other than you, empowered by the control and feedback capabilities of these devices, chose a course of action for you.

Engineers, scientists, doctors, medical staff, hospital administrators, industrial designers, interaction designers, human factors specialists, and others all serve as user experience (UX) designers of medical robots. They decide which of the hospital’s IT systems to connect to, what communication and control systems to create, which mobile phone and tablet computers to support, and how users will interface with these systems. They intentionally (or inadvertently) design the way robots interact with everyone and everything in our complex system of care. Everything that makes those sophisticated robotic tools useful in the first place is being envisioned and designed, including the human interactions that were mediated through the robot. UX designers are in the hot seat; not only must they design the way we experience the tool itself, they must design the way we experience each other through these tools.

The process of designing these experiences poses many questions. What experience should the various medical users have? What experience (and control) should you as the patient have? What does it mean to design a robotically mediated interaction between people? And, when do these tools start to carry out tasks that people do, perhaps autonomously; at what point does the tool become a being in and of itself? We will address these and other questions in this chapter, but first, let’s back up to provide some context for thinking about the relationship between humans and robots.

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