Why Consumers Feel Creeped Out by Smart Devices

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Smart home assistants are becoming increasingly popular. However, they are not only perceived by users as practical, but also as creepy. A study published in the International Journal of Information Management (Open Access) by researchers from BFH Wirtschaft has looked into such creepy encounters. They shed light on the triggers and consequences of what exactly causes unease among respondents.

While SHAs promise to make our lives more carefree, anecdotes of eerie laughter in the dead of night [4] or unexpected recitations of nearby funeral home names [5] have given SHAs an unsettling reputation. These glitches, while often the result of malfunctions, tap into a deeper issue – the perceived creepiness of SHAs [6]. In fact, the Mozilla Foundation’s popular buyer’s guide, which invites consumers to evaluate smart technologies based on their concerns, categorizes SHAs as some of the creepiest technology products on the market [7]. For example, as per November 2023 the Amazon Echo Dot has been rated as creepy or super creepy by over 70% of 11,000+ voters.

Unveiling the Triggers of Creepiness

Intrigued by this phenomenon, we sought to understand why exactly some consumers perceive SHAs as creepy and how this affects their willingness to use them. To this end, we started with a series of exploratory interviews with individuals who actively resisted SHAs. This initial exploration provided initial evidence into the phenomenon of perceived creepiness in the context of SHAs as well as its potential triggers. In subsequent studies, including a large-scale survey (n=313) and an online experiment (n=553), we conceptualized perceived creepiness and developed a measurement instrument as well as experimentally tested the triggers that are commonly mentioned as triggers: lack of algorithmic transparency and lack of tangibility.

Lack of Algorithmic Transparency – When the Device is a Black Box

SHAs rely on complex algorithms to comprehend user queries, process commands, and execute actions or responses. Transparency of these algorithms, also known as algorithmic transparency, enables users to understand how algorithms are employed (e.g., data lineage) and how they produce outcomes (e.g., recommendations).

While a high level of transparency mitigates negative perceptions, a low level of transparency can cause tension, scepticism and discomfort.

Prior research on digital technologies emphasizes the significant influence of algorithmic transparency on how users perceive these technologies [2, 8, 9]. While increased transparency alleviates negative perceptions, a lack of algorithmic transparency can breed feelings of strain, skepticism, and discomfort [1, 2]. Moreover, this lack of algorithmic transparency may erode trust in the outcomes of digital technologies, such as recommendations, and lead to creepy ambiguity or instances of “creepy surprise” [6, 9-11]. Examples of such surprises are “People You May Know”-suggestions on Facebook or Instagram after having met someone in person or receiving ads from Instagram based on the use of the microphone of one’s smartphone [2, 12].

In our study, we investigate the relationship between algorithmic transparency and the perceived creepiness of SHAs through an online experiment and provide supporting evidence that a lack of algorithmic transparency causes consumers to perceive creepiness.

Lack of Tangibility – The Vanishing Device

SHAs are becoming increasingly integrated into our surroundings, whether in walls, ceilings (see the Klipsch Amazon Echo multi-room smart speaker system), or objects like mirrors, lamps, and speakers [13]. Thus, SHAs are becoming more and more disembodied and starting to vanish as visible, tangible devices [14, 15].

From the perspective of potential users, these developments may not be uniformly positive. Prior research suggests that the absence of tangible elements may negatively impact consumers’ judgements of a company’s offerings. For instance, consumers find purchasing services riskier and more uncertain than tangible products, as services lack a physical shape that can be evaluated before purchase [16-18]. This sense of uncertainty intensifies when consumers are psychologically close to services, as is the case with SHAs, which operate in the intimate space of our homes [19]. Recent research on smart products reveals that customer relationships often form around a physical device, like an iPhone [20]. Hence, as SHAs are gradually vanishing as physical devices while subtly entering our most intimate spaces, it is no surprise that they may also appear creepy to some of us.

Our online experiment provides further evidence for this link, showing that lack of device tangibility significantly contributes to the perceived creepiness of SHAs.

The Way Forward

With the inner workings of SHAs increasingly resembling a black box and the devices becoming more and more embedded into other products of our daily lives or the structural components of our homes, SHAs are becoming more difficult for everyday users to grasp. This development poses a significant challenge for SHA vendors: finding the right balance between technological advancement and consumer perceptions. By addressing the underlying triggers of a lack of algorithmic transparency and tangibility, vendors can mitigate negative effects such as the emergence of feelings of creepiness and create SHAs that integrate seamlessly into our lives without compromising our psychological wellbeing.

Based on the findings from a final focus group study, we carve out some concrete ideas on how SHA vendors can achieve this. For instance, to enhance the tangible experience and spatial presence of SHAs, vendors can incorporate visual or auditory status cues such as LEDs or sound effects, that signal when the device is active. Vendors consider incorporating traditional physical on/off buttons, so users can easily deactivate the device and disconnect it from the Wi-Fi.

On the software side, SHA vendors should offer insight into the algorithms via apps or dashboards and in this way explain in an understandable way how the device specifically arrived at a certain recommendation. Vendors give users the ability to configure when SHAs use personal data to make recommendations.

In summary, while SHAs represent a great technological leap to a more comfortable life, SHA vendors need to be cautious and consider the potential adverse psychological effects on consumers. In this regard, our study shows that the right balance must be found between the seamless integration of these devices into our daily lives and the need for transparency and tangibility to avoid discomfort and perceptions of creepiness in their presence.


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[1] In this study, we understand a feeling of creepiness, as explained by McAndrew & Koehnke (2016) in relation to social contexts, as a form of subtle unease, an intuitive or instinctive feeling, triggered by a lack of transparency about whether there is a reason to feel threatened or frightened.

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AUTHOR: Stefan Raff

Stefan Raff is an assistant professor at the Institute for Digital Technology Management. Previously, he was an assistant professor at RWTH Aachen University, where he also received his doctorate. His current research interests include innovation management, services marketing and consumer behaviour in digital environments.

AUTHOR: Stefan Rose

Dr Stefan Rose is a research professor at the Institute of Marketing & Global Management at BFH Wirtschaft. His research is dedicated to these topics: Consumer Behaviour, Psychological Distance, Construction Level Theory, Mental Simulation and the Acceptance of Innovative Vehicle & Mobility Concepts. He holds a PhD from the RWTH Aachen University.

AUTHOR: Tin Huynh

Tin Huynh is a PhD at the Institute for Innovation & Strategic Entrepreneurship. He holds an M.Sc. in International Business from Maastricht University. His research is dedicated to these topics: sharing economy, circular economy, innovation resistance, rebound effects, moral licensing.

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