Exploring the Social Science of Human-Autonomy Interaction

"Alexa, what should I wear today?"

Do you prefer “fashion victim” or “ensembly challenged”?
— Cher Horowitz, Clueless (1995)

I am bit of a style junkie and draw inspiration from the uber-talented fashion designers and celebrities I follow on Instagram.  What I really enjoy is designing my own outfits and accessories by drawing inspiration from the amazing pictures I see on Instagram,  in a cost-effective manner. 

Echo Look, the latest virtual assistant from Amazon that provides wardrobe recommendations grabbed my attention but for all the wrong reasons. 

Amazon introduced its latest Alexa-powered device, a gadget with a built-in camera that is being marketed as a way to photograph, organize and get recommendations on outfits. Of course, Amazon will then try to sell you clothing, too.

It reminded me of the scene in Clueless (1995) where Cher, the main character, uses an early "app" to help her decide what to wear.

Echo Look can serve as your personal stylist and provide recommendations if you are confused between two outfits. The recommendation is based on "style trends" and "what flatters" the user.   

But from where does the Echo Look draw its style trends?  Personally, I will work with a personal human stylist only after making sure he or she has a good grasp of the current trends and  who understand my needs (comfort and practicality is important), sensibilities, and most importantly my personality.

Fashion-wise, blindly following the current trends is not an effective strategy.  So, how can I trust a machine that does not know me? To gain trust, the machine should convey to me how it arrived at its decision. Or even better, present the raw data gathered and let me decide what fits me best.

In the automation literature, we refer to this as stages of automation (more in depth on this topic later).  What gets automated (deciding for the human versus simply gathering the data for the human) is an important design decision that affects how people perform and behave with automation.  I think that high level automation, simply deciding,  does not work in this context!

But Rich disagrees (in research we call this “individual differences”). In the process of writing this post, I found out that Rich is a big fan of Bonobos. Being, as he says, "style-impaired," he especially appreciated a new feature of the app that will suggest pairings of all the items he's purchased or with new items in the store.  

He shared some screenshots of the Bonobos app, which I thought was pretty cool. After you select an item, it will instantly create a complete outfit based on occasion and temperature.  Because it is a brand he trusts, and he is not knowledgeable about style, he rarely  question the decisions  (Ed: maybe I question why they keep pushing Henleys; I like collars). 

So what makes my opinion of Echo different from Rich's reaction to the decision aid in the Bonobos app?  

Experience

Experience comes from years of experimenting different things (and in the process creating some disastrous looks), and understanding trends but most importantly understanding your body and skin, and textures and colors that suit you the best. With experience, comes efficiency (in research we call this "expert versus novice differences"). If I am an expert, why would I need to rely on a machine to tell me what to wear or what looks good on me?

However, I am not dismissing the usefulness of Echo for everyone. For millennials who do most of their shopping on Amazon, Echo could provide a lot of value by putting together their outfits based on their shopping choices (Stitch Fix is a similar, popular concept). 

Passion

Even the simplest clothes can look stylish with the right shoes and statement jewelry. I genuinely enjoy the art of styling an outfit. This activity stimulates my right brain.  Why would I give up doing this activity? For those like Mark Zuckerberg who think that dressing in the same outfit will help them save their energy to do other important things in life (which he does!), Echo may do wonders. 

Gender

Now, do I dislike Echo and Rich likes his Bonobos app because I am a female and he is a male? So, statistically speaking, are men more fashion-impaired than women? Or to be politically correct, do women have more fashion wisdom than men? I dont know. What I do know is that some of my favorite fashion designers (e.g., Manish Malhotra, Prabal Gurung) are men. 

Automation Design

A major difference between Echo and the Bonobos app is in their level of automation. The Bonobos app provides recommendations on pairing outfits  that users already purchased (important point, users made the purchasing decision on their own) but users are empowered to use the data presented by the app to decide whether they want to follow the recommendations or not.  The Bonobos app also presents alternate outfits if the first choice is unsatisfactory.  This would be considered a form of “low decision automation” where it alleviates a moderate load of decision making but leaves some for the user.

Echo, on the other hand, tells users "yay" or "nay" as to why certain outfits are not flattering on them but givers users no information on how it arrived at the decision. The lack of transparency is a major drawback in how Echo is designed and a big reason as to why it wont work for me. It also could represent a much higher form of decision automation where it gives users no alternate options other than the binary yay or nay.

So, will I ever ask the question, "Alexa, what should I wear today?". I will if Alexa convinces me that she understands me and my personality (she should be my fashion-partner who evolves as I evolve), collaborates with me, clearly conveys her thought processes, and is nice to me (in research, we call it automation etiquette)! 

Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.
— Rachel Zoe