The (In)Human Touch: How Avatars Can Support Our Need for Relatedness in Healthcare

Wine¬†all you wantWhen design psychologists talk about the need for relatedness, it’s easy to default to ideas of social media and creating human-to-human connections via technology. In fact, research has consistently shown that human beings are so hungry for relatedness that they will assign personalities and human qualities to animals and inanimate objects (a process known as anthropomorphization, in case you’re taking any verbal SATs soon).

The human habit of anthropomorphism can be used to our advantage in creating motivating health care experiences. We can use technology to create a relationship with patients and other stakeholders in areas where healthcare professionals may not have the time or tools.

One person leveraging technology to engage patients is Timothy Bickmore, Ph.D., a professor of computer and information science at Northeastern University and formerly of the MIT Media Lab. Bickmore and his colleagues have created cartoonish avatars that are used to communicate with patients about health topics like conceiving a healthy baby or hospital discharge instructions. Patients can ask the avatar questions and have the information repeated as often as they like.

Photo of the avatar system used to enhance hospital discharge processes.

If you look at the photos of the avatars Bickmore and his team use, there is no confusing them for real people. They are obviously animated; patients are not confusing them for live healthcare professionals. Yet, studies of this avatar system show:

Clearly, people don’t have an issue anthropomorphizing technological agents and feeling a sense of relationship with them. Knowing that supporting a need for relatedness is one ingredient for an engaging experience, it seems like there’s a real opportunity to use technology to fill some of the communication gaps in the healthcare system. I’m excited to see who does it and how.