Lack of female voices in smart home tech
New research by Monash University, RMIT and Intel Corporation has explored the impact that smart home technology has had on people’s lives, as well as outlining some of the concerns raised by users.
The study, ‘Protection, Productivity and Pleasure in the Smart Home’ was presented to the Association for Computing Machinery’s CHI conference on human factors in computing systems in Glasgow on 7 May.
Chief among the concerns raised is how the technology continues to be associated with expressions of masculinity and how that could pose unexpected security threats for women, with technologies misused to invade privacy or to intimidate. Women also expressed frustration at the ‘gendered stereotypes’ of digital voice assistants while both men and women voiced concerns about the amount of ‘digital housekeeping’ required to keep smart home devices running.
The study finds that while smart technology is useful and entertaining in many respects, it has failed to deliver on promises for effortless, easy living. This is partly attributed to a poor understanding of household diversity and different people’s desires and needs.
Associate Professor Yolande Strengers from Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology points out that in the current market it is mainly men who are designing and selling these technologies. They are also mainly responsible for setting up, maintaining and introducing smart home technologies to other householders.
“This affects the types of devices that get designed, and their potential benefits and usefulness to other householders. In particular, women on the whole are currently under-represented and under-served by the industry,” she says.
The study examined 31 households across the country and also involved other supporting desk-based research. Participants were mainly aged 35-54 and had high incomes of more than $156,000. The study involved interviews, home tours and photography to understand householders’ experiences with the technology in relation to three concepts central to Intel’s ambient computing vision – protection, productivity and pleasure.
The study found that smart technology protected the home and its occupants, allowing absent or working household members to check on the home, children or pets on security cameras. But, some also voiced concerns about these devices.
“Some householders were concerned that these devices could be used to invade the privacy of others without their knowledge or consent, and potentially exacerbate domestic violence situations by, for example, using a smart lock to restrict access to the house,” Yolande says.
Once acquainted with the new technology, many users found it saved them time on work, cleaning, lighting and other tasks such as opening and closing window blinds.
One user, CEO and single mother Angela (not her real name), found it very beneficial to use Google Home’s features to coordinate her business, housekeeping and parenting duties, as well as sending access codes to people renting her house during the summer.
But Angela was also disturbed by the feminised voices of her digital assistants, says study co-author Dr Jenny Kennedy from RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre.
“She had deliberately changed their voices to a man’s to challenge gendered stereotypes of feminised cleaning and administrative roles and avoid reinforcing these assumptions with her two sons,” she says.
Smart lighting, along with voice activation technology had the most positive responses, with the latter being a source of fun. Men also enjoyed the set-up process, tinkering and playing with the devices, consistent with traditional associations of masculinity with new and emerging technologies.
“The potential for uptake in smart home technology is huge, but there are also a number of important gender concerns that need to be explicitly considered by the human computer interaction design community in the further development of these devices,” Yolande says.
The other contributors to the study are: Dr Paula Arcari and Dr Larissa Nicholls from RMIT; and Melissa Gregg from Intel Corporation.