For centuries, writers and storytellers have imagined fantastic stories about autonomous robots and artificial intelligence. Today, what was once fantasy has become reality. Smart products, such as robotic vacuum cleaners and smart speakers, populate our everyday lives. They act completely on their own, without the need for humans to intervene.
In Greek myths and Hollywood movies alike, whenever such robots take control, it often ends in disaster. The robots wreak havoc and oppress humans. Influenced by this dystopian vision, many people are suspicious of and feel threatened by the reach of advanced technology — such as the friend who stops wearing a smartwatch after growing tired of its constant nudges, or the driver of an autonomous car who is reluctant to let go of the steering wheel. Both examples illustrate concern over losing control — a reasonable concern, given that humans have an innate desire for control.
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From a business perspective, consumer fear of losing control hinders smart-product adoption and use. In our work, we aim to provide guidance to managers on how to design and market smart products with customer control in mind. We do so by answering the following question: How can managers help customers restore control over their smart products?
To address it, we teamed up with a home appliance manufacturer and a nonprofit organization to conduct a representative survey among 1,007 people living in Western Europe on their use and perception of smart products. We found that convenience and time savings with smart products are valued, but the accompanying loss of control — a factor that is often overlooked — looms so large that it impairs adoption and satisfaction.
In this article, we examine three aspects of customer control and provide effective strategies to restore it based on multiple research projects: first, how smart products take away control from consumers; second, how fostering social relationships between customers and smart products remedies the loss of control; and finally, the relevance of an overlooked smart-product feature — their ability to move on their own — in customer perception and adoption.
Safeguarding a Meaningful and Sovereign Life With Smart Products
In our survey, respondents indicated two key elements of control they fear losing: control over their lives in general as they become overly reliant on smart products, and control over their data.
1. E. Leung, G. Paolacci, and S. Puntoni, “Man Versus Machine: Resisting Automation in Identity-Based Customer Behavior,” Journal of Marketing Research 55, no. 6 (December 2018): 818-831.
2. E. de Bellis, G.V. Johar, and N. Poletti, “Meaning of Manual Labor Impedes Consumer Adoption of Autonomous Products,” Journal of Marketing, forthcoming.
3. J. Görgen, G. Nyilasy, and E. de Bellis, “Zero-Sum Beliefs in Autonomy Hinder Consumer Adoption of New Technologies,” working paper, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2023.
4 J.L. Zimmermann, E. de Bellis, R. Hofstetter, et al., “Nicknaming Autonomous Products,” working paper, University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2023. For more on this topic, see E. de Bellis and G.V. Johar, “Autonomous Shopping Systems: Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Customer Adoption,” Journal of Retailing 96, no. 1 (March 2020): 74-87; and S. Puntoni, R.W. Reczek, M. Giesler, et al., “Consumers and Artificial Intelligence: An Experiential Perspective,” Journal of Marketing 85, no. 1 (January 2021): 131-151.