Personality in software

In an interview with Computerphile, Marco Arment talked about the advantage that indie developers have by being able to inject some personality into their apps. From the interview:

[1:58] Every time I do things like [adding tongue-in-cheek language to Overcast], I think it’s a risk, and I think maybe it’ll turn off some people — and every time it’s had the opposite effect. […] I’ll get hundreds of tweets saying ‘Hey, look at this! This is so great; I’m so happy to see personality,’ ‘cuz I think people are kind of starved for some kind of personality in software which is so rarely the actual case.

He goes on to contrast his app (Overcast, a podcast player) to dental software: for the latter, it would be a lot less appropriate to feature little jokes or ‘personality’ in general.

I agree with this. I always smile when I see the Snapchat ghosts playing soccer at the bottom of my feed, but I’d be a little weirded out if something like the (otherwise great) NS Reisplanner added a similar Easter egg. Marco mentions personality can’t come out of a committee, and that’s often the case: jokes in a piece of software feel a lot less genuine if they’re being vetted by a marketing department.

In the past couple of years, though, personal assistant bots like Siri, Cortana and Alexa have all started to tell jokes and use cheeky replies in their interactions with users. So for these larger companies to be able to give their software some genuine-feeling personality, they had to surround it with entire personas complete with names, voices and (feigned) self-awareness. This approach also gets positive responses on social media, and I often see tweets and videos showcasing the newest funny Siri reply someone has discovered.

But especially with Microsoft integrating Cortana into Office 365 (and their push at Build last week for ‘her’ to be setting up everything from business meetings to Uber rides), these personal assistant bots are bringing software with a personality into enterprise workspaces. Cortana’s personality already varies from country to country, so it’s going to be interesting to see how, over the next couple of years, she and the other personal assistants might be taught to change their humor setting depending on whether you’re talking to them at home or at the office.

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