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Autopilot Software

Running coaches recommend a default 2% incline when running on treadmills to mimic the outdoors because you need to produce less force to move forward. The belt does the work for you.

The real world is similar to treadmills. Consider walking around an office: you see people’s faces, you talk to them, you smile, you laugh, etc. All this work is done by the environment, for you. You decide to engage just once by going into the office, and the rest of the button clicking is done for you.

The digital world is more like running outdoors. There’s a small, barely noticeable repeated effort. You need to schedule a meeting to see people. You type rather than speak. You need to decide more frequently. Every decision in itself is easy, but they gradually add up to exhaustion.

You could try and define the last decade by breakthrough UX: pinch-and-zoom, elastic scrolling, pull-to-refresh all deserve honorable mentions. None is as impactful as auto-play. A simple and powerful concept: the interface will drive you. Without the benefit of hindsight you might think “but it’s not that hard to play the next episode, right?”. As it turns out, it is. Micro-cuts kills more UX than macro-cuts. It requires neurons to fire, and neurons need energy.

One might want to think about more forms of autopilot in their product, especially if it’s cognitively taxing (e.g. email, dating apps, anything that involves making decisions). It would be great if the machine improvised more automatically with me, instead of me actively playing every chord.

Some decisions are truly blocked on your input: the dating app needs to know if you like the person. In other cases, due to recent advances in machine learning (e.g. OpenAI’s GPT-3 work), we can make autopilots that guess the next step for you.

For example: an email client that procedurally opens every email and starts replying using Gmail completions unless you edit the draft. A treadmill for email. Most of the text will be wrong, and you’ll race to edit it before the ghostwriter embarrasses you, but you might get more work done.

For example: Slack that has voice presence built-in, in a way you cannot disable. The only way to communicate in the company is to use this messaging app, and it puts you on a constant call (unless you go into an “office”), just like the effect of an open-office plan. Replace the friction of scheduling calls with just… talking.

Both of these examples feel a little scary and stupid, emotions that should be of interest to any product engineer.

If we’re going to try and rebuild some of the old world online, we’ll need to bring this element back: software that mimics the autoplay nature of the real-world.


[1] There are other biomechanical reasons for the 2% grade, like the lack of wind resistance.

[2] I happen to think open-office plans are bad, but that’s another topic. I’m just trying to illustrate how you’d recreate that effect in software.