What would it take for you to trust a robot? That’s the sort of question that Dr. Susan Weinschenk loves to analyze. Weinschenk is Chief Behavioral Scientist and Chief Executive Officer at The Team W, a consulting firm that advises clients about user experience and design, focusing on the intersection between humans, brain science, and technology.


She has a doctorate in psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin, and has published several books, including 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People. In this interview, she shares her psychologist’s perspective on understanding customer expectations and building trust in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.



Q: A new Salesforce Research study on customer expectations shows that a majority of customers say their standard for good customer experiences is higher than ever. About 50% say that most companies fall short of their expectations. What’s your take on this? What are the risks for companies that aren’t providing the desired consumer experience?


Consumers now expect to be able to get things, talk to someone, and do what they want at any time. I was talking to someone recently who was trying to make a change to her credit card and didn’t understand why that was hard to do at 10 o’clock at night.


We used to assume that if we had a problem or an issue, it was going to be hard to resolve. We were going to be on the phone to a call center that didn’t know what they were doing, or that products would be hard to start using. We didn’t like it, but that was just the norm.


But now I think we have a divide — there are some companies and some products we use that provide such a perfect, seamless experience that it has raised the bar. In fact, they’re so easy and seamless that we kind of forget to be impressed. But that is making the ones that don’t have that kind of great experience all the more obvious.


If you don’t keep up, consumers will either assume you’re not very modern — you’re a dinosaur — or you’re not a leader in your industry. What’s worse is that they may start assuming your privacy and security features aren’t as good as those of your competitors.

Q: In terms of new technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), how are these influencing customer expectations and the way companies are approaching customer experience?


The intersection of AI, IoT, user experience, and customer experience is a really interesting place and one that’s not well mapped right now. 


You have AI and IoT improvements happening at many companies, and then you have customer experience improvements. But they’re not closely linked and that will become an issue as we move forward.


The difference is that AI happens primarily in the background. Unlike a change in the interface on a website, for instance, you don’t really see it — you just get the result of what it’s doing. But the potential customer experience issues are larger and more serious.


As an example, Facebook has a huge trust issue because of some of the decisions — and some of what you could describe as AI — that go on underneath its platform that were not initially apparent. Some of the AI-driven voice assistants, which are both AI and IoT-enabled, also raise concerns about privacy and recording.


In the long run, there will be these larger questions about how comfortable we are with the companies behind the technologies. What are they doing with our data? What are they doing with our information? Are we comfortable with the decisions the machines are making? What are they feeding back to us as a result of those decisions?


Q: As a behavioral scientist, you spend a lot of time understanding the elements that build or break trust between people. But how does that translate to questions about trust between people and entities — such as companies, or even a robot?


I think we expect our relationships with machines to follow the same norms as human-to-human relationships. Talking about trust specifically, the research we have on what makes someone trust another person is extremely relevant to what makes someone trust a machine.


There is something really interesting around driverless cars, trust, and our human need for feedback. A driverless car doesn’t need to tell you what it’s doing in order to make a decision. But for you to trust the car’s decision, you need to understand what it’s doing. You need that feedback. And the research is showing that if that feedback comes to you as a voice rather than just a visual display, you will trust it more. And if that voice has a name, you will trust it more again.


Q: That sounds like auto-save in some programs. I often don’t trust it because I want to see that my file is being saved. Is that my need for feedback?


Yes, you need that feedback that your document is being saved. In fact, research shows that if something goes too fast then people don’t trust it because they don’t believe that someone or a machine could possibly have done it that fast.

Q: Another interesting issue is control. You’ve been quoted as saying that people equate having choices with having control. Could you expand on that?


People want to feel that they are in control of their choices, in control of their data, and have control over how they do things. But, interestingly, they may not actually want to do the work that gives them that control. And they may prefer the outcome when somebody or something else, like a machine, makes choices for them.


We’re not at all logical around this issue of choice and control because it’s largely happening in the unconscious parts of our brain. These are automatic, instinctual, or habitual reactions.


Q: What advice would you give business leaders about building trust and improving the customer experience?


The first thing is to become as familiar as possible with the data, the research, and the science in behavioral science. I know I’m biased, but there’s an enormous amount of great information out there.


I also really believe that you get your most useful data from customers and potential customers, so you should find ways to listen to them. You need to be constantly testing your decisions and testing to see how people are reacting to your products or services.

But, at the same time, you also need to envision new ideas for yourself and test them with prototypes. You can’t just ask people what they think they’ll want in the future because their benchmark is what they have now. Imagine if you’d tried to ask people about the internet before it existed — they couldn’t have explained that they wanted something that gave them information everywhere instantly, that they could share with everyone, on every device.


Dr. Susan Weinschenk is one of the experts we’ve been interviewing about rising customer expectations — and the growing scrutiny of customer experience and trust — as we gear up for Connections, June 12–14 in Chicago. For more, check out this article on Changing Expectations in the Age of the Customer.