Good grief! What can UX do when gadgets with a personality die?

Our story begins when my team purchased an Anki Cozmo for, you know, legitimate UX “research.”

CozmoSide note #1: Yes, this is entirely plausible. For those of you who don’t know, this gadget is seriously adorable. It’s a toy robot that could be the lovechild of Wall-E and Eve, even though I’m not sure how that is anatomically possible. Anki designers and engineers, with some education from Pixar, filled Cozmo with personality through the use of tiny LCD displays, IOT-app linkage, facial recognition sensors, voice and soundtrack pairing and more. It’s an insightful glimpse into the near-future.

Cozmo arrived to brighten an otherwise dreary winter day, or so we hoped. The team gathered for an “unboxing” (a carefully selected semi-official-technical-sounding word that could pass off as actual work).

We made it through all of the early setup without too much frustration and excitement was building. The app was downloaded. Cozmo was on his charger for the suggested couple minutes of extra juicing.

The moment of magic had arrived. We hit his Connect button.

Side note #2: We are simply assuming Cozmo is male. For linguistic proof, his name isn’t Cozma. A more convincing argument is his tendency to get angry and throw fits when he loses at games. Here’s hoping that Anki will make a Wanda or Elaine to be his friend in the future.

He began to blink open his eyes and look around. It was, as promised earlier, adorable.

A collective “oooooo” and “ahhhhhh” emerged from the crowd. Some slightly feared that he may imprint on whoever was nearest to his line of vision.

Cozmo began to inch forward off of his charger.


It was a beautiful moment… until it wasn’t.


Where there was once beaming, carefully-animated, eyes, now showed darkness. Where there was once a playful jiggle and whirl of motors, now stood silence and stillness. Cozmo? COZMOOOO!!!!

Confusion quickly set in. What had we done wrong? We retraced our steps and repeated. Again and again the same spark of life appeared only to be snuffed out after millimeters of movement.

Mourners started to slowly file out of the room. We knew all hope was lost and Cozmo was destined for a special box and send-off to his “maker.”

An emotional roller-coaster

Things break. We often get a bit angry and frustrated when they do. Sometimes those things are objects we’ve built a relationship with over time. The anger and frustration is then paired with a bit of sadness.

But what happens when those things are meant to simulate life?

I would like to suggest that the emotional roller-coaster is even more pronounced  when the design personality is done well. On the flip side, nobody cried when an anthropomorphized paperclip met its demise. Clippy, I barely knew you, cut short in the prime of your life …“It looks like you are trying to write silly blog article.”  But, Cozmo was designed to have a personality, to make you care about him.

For those of you who appreciate journey mapping, the two-dimensional happy-and-sad graph may struggle to tell the whole story. Here’s a quick representation, with the stages-of-grief embedded. Notice the steep plateau when Cozmo went completely unresponsive.

Cozmo Journey with Stages of Grief

What can be done in these situations?

If we assume that gadget death is inevitable, what’s the designer to do?

A sadistic designer may chose to amplify this loss. For example, that soundtrack music I mentioned earlier (which is played on the mobile app) – while typically cheery, could have changed to something suspenseful or forlorn. Maybe there are times when this isn’t even sadistic if this goal is to dramatically call attention to a grave situation.

For fun, here is what that might have sounded like…

Perhaps the most logical and obvious solution is to provide the user with substantial troubleshooting. In a connected ecosystem, this is even more possible. The Anki app knew it was communicating with Cozmo and was suddenly cut-off. It could have used that opportunity to immediately begin the process of troubleshooting or connect the owner with a grief counselor (aka the tech support hotline/chat).

This connected ecosystem and the cloud also makes reincarnation an afterlife alternative for gadgets. Any of Cozmo’s history, experience, or my memorized face could be simply transferred to a replacement through the cloud. For millennia, parents have to worry if a child will recognize the new fish they bought after Goldy met an unlucky fate.  A replacement Cozmo would not only look the same but act the same as well. That’s a little spooky, actually.

The happy ending

My unqualified diagnosis is that poor Cozmo simply had a battery which could hold no charge. His destiny was sealed before we ever laid eyes on him.Cozmo Finger Hunger The Anki support team was wonderfully helpful and Cozmo-the-Second arrived within a couple days. He is now bebopping around the office with an unnatural hunger for human fingers. Better than brains, but still a little spooky also.


No animals or other gadgets were harmed in the making of this blog article. Lead fish photo by flickr user, Natalie Parker
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