Consumer Behaviour,Innovation & Technology

Does the Appearance of Robots Matter to Customers?

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CUHK research finds that customers prefer friendly-looking robots in seeking leisure-dominant information and competent-looking robots when seeking practical advice

The global hospitality and tourism industry has seen an increased prevalence in the use of robots, from the front desk and concierge services, to robotic waiters and room service. While most people would associate robots with a stereotypical image of a human-like android, in reality they can take many different forms. It is with this in mind that a recent research study by The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) sought to examine how the appearance of robots may affect customer intentions in using them.

The study found that, at least within the hospitality context, customers are more willing to use friendly-looking service robots when they are looking for suggestions such as dining locations. On the other hand, customers prefer to use professional and competent-looking service robots when seeking instructions related to tax refunds or travel insurance.

It’s hugely important for companies to use the right robot with the right looks in the right circumstances.

Prof. Lisa Wan

“They say you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. When using robotics in a service encounter, what we find is that not only do appearances matter in making that crucial good first impression, but that context is key,” says study author Lisa Wan, Associate Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management and Department of Marketing at CUHK Business School. “It’s hugely important for companies to use the right robot with the right looks in the right circumstances.”

The study Friendly or Competent? The Effects of Perception of Robot Appearance and Service Context on Usage Intention was co-written by PhD students Liu Xing and Yi Xiao at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at CUHK Business School. The researchers conducted four experiments with hundreds of online participants to find out how the physical appearance of robots that are used within the service context can affect their effectiveness in different scenarios.

Different Types of Service Encounters

Although people normally associate the service industry with leisure and pleasure-seeking activities, such as vacations and fine dining, some parts of it can be downright mundane. In the study, Prof. Wan and her co-authors divided the different service contexts into whether they were leisure-dominant or utility-dominant. For example, getting dining and shopping suggestions would be classified as the former while getting information on tax refunds and foreign currency exchange would be classified as the latter.

The study suggests that the appearance of service robots should match the service context. For example, when a customer is looking for restaurant suggestions from a service robot (a leisure-dominant encounter), they may prefer to interact with a robot whose appearance is designed to elicit a feeling of warmth, such as by making them more childlike. However, in more utility-dominant encounters, such as when a tourist is requesting tax refund information, they may prefer a robot which is designed to look competent and professional, which can be done by making them look adult-like.

The study results suggest that in a leisure-dominant service encounter, consumers may prefer to interact with a robot whose appearance is designed to elicit a feeling of warmth, such as by making them more childlike.

The researchers reached the above finding after measuring people’s preferences for child-like and adult-like robots in different service contexts on a scale of seven. They found that study participants preferred robots that look more childlike in leisure-dominant service encounters, scoring them 5.8 out of seven for that specific scenario. In contrast, the preference for robots with a more adult appearance in this context came in lower at 4.79. In the utility-dominant context, participants showed more inclination towards robots that look more adult-like, with an average score of 5.55 out of seven. The preference for child-like robots in this context was lower at 4.81.

“When a customer is staying at a nice hotel and wants to have a fun night out, they would want to interact with a robot with a fun and friendly appearance because that’s what they are looking for – fun! But when someone is in dire need to exchange foreign currency, they don’t have the time to play around, so naturally they would prefer robots with a more competent, adult-like look,” says Prof. Wan. “This just underscores the importance of matching robot appearance to the service encounter scenario.”

Appearance and Trust

In the 2000 film State and Maine, the character Doc Wilson, played by the late actor Michael Higgins, introduced the world to the statement: “Never trust a man in a bow tie”. That single line was meant to be a throwaway joke, but the researchers note that appearance can play an important role in gaining trust.

The same goes for robots. Prof. Wan and her co-authors examined whether the appearance of the two types of service robots affected their credibility. In one experiment, study participants were told to score a robot’s trustworthiness in a scale of seven in either a leisure or utility-dominant context. When the service encounter was leisure-dominant, they rated friendly-looking robots to be more trustworthy with an average score of 4.68 out of seven, compared to professional-looking robots which only received an average score of 3.85. In the scenario related to the provision of utilitarian services, professional-looking robots were rated 4.64 out of seven in terms of trustworthiness, whereas friendly-looking robots received an average score of only 3.88.

In more utility-dominant encounters, customers may prefer a robot which is designed to look competent and professional, which can be done by making them look adult-like.

The researchers theorised that the appearance of a competent, adult-like robot connotes a sense of reliability, which is crucial to customers who are seeking professional advice in mundane but nevertheless important service situations. On the other hand, the appearance of a friendly, child-like robot connotes a sense of sincerity, which may resonate more with customers who are looking for dining or shopping tips. In other words, the appearance of an adult-like robot evokes a perception of reliability among customers, and this perception makes the customers trust these robots more when the service context is utilitarian in nature. Similarly, a child-like robot’s look induces a perception of friendliness among customers, and this perception makes the customers trust it more when seeking information on pleasure activities.

“Trust is a key component of customer satisfaction with service encounters. The more trust that customers have in the robots, the more likely that they would use them,” says Prof. Wan. “Our study shows that the appearance of robots can play a significant role in whether robots are able to gain customer trust.”

The Right Robots in the Right Places

The researchers note that the study’s findings provide rich implications for the future development of robotics, especially as it relates to their use in the tourism and hospitality sector. For instance, robotics companies may consider designing robots with physical features that induce trustworthiness among customers depending on the service scenario. For example, child-like physical features may be adopted when the goal is for customers to use these robots in a pleasure-seeking context.

For companies that are considering purchasing robots, they may consider selecting the robots that best match with their operational context. For example, friendly-looking robots would be best suited in a leisure-oriented context such as tour guiding, assisting and welcoming. Professional looking robots should be placed in utility-oriented contexts like giving guidance on tax refunds, currency exchange or travel insurance.


How ‘Human’ Should Robots Be?

In addition, Prof. Wan says the findings may be applicable to other industry sectors outside of the hospitality contexts mentioned in the paper. For example, it might be a good idea to use child-like robots to serve in a companion role, such as to accompany patients in hospitals or to reduce the loneliness of astronauts in space stations. Some companies have already caught on to this idea – for example, Belgian company ZoraBotsBoo Boo robots have been used in Belgian hospitals to play games with patients. On the other hand, Kirobo – Japan’s first robot astronaut completed its first mission on the International Space Station in 2015.

“Robots are increasingly being adopted for use in the service industry, and one of the reasons for that is that they can be quite versatile and serve in a wide range of roles. We hope that through this study, we can help companies, especially hospitality and tourism sector operators, to select the right robot for the right role,” says Prof. Wan.