How does the Roomba really feel about dog shit?!

United States
2023 People’s Choice Award
Vote for this Project
Voting closes at 23:59 EST (EST time: UTC-5) on 5 May 2023.


Concept / Indie/Non-Profit


Chris Butler, creator/performer/facilitator apradipta, freelance Illustrator


Or how does the Amazon Ring video doorbell worry about being a snitch? Or would the Boston Dynamics Spot robot prefer to not carry a machine gun?

What makes them scared, disgusted, angry? Do they feel loyalty, distrust, spirituality towards the meatbags in their homes? You will find out in this workshop!

We will explore the smart home, the devices in it, and those pesky humans that keep getting in the way through animistic design and roleplay. If we don’t consider all of the communal uses of the devices, humans don’t trust them. When those humans lose trust they are willing to kill devices (aka be unplugged and thrown away).

Then maybe you will really know what a Roomba feels about dog shit.

Project Description

When building technology for communal setting like the home, designers are overly concerned about how an individual (usually the buyer) will interact with the device. They don’t think about all of the other people with access (partners, children, guests) and how they work alongside other devices from other organizations.

Combining techniques like empathy mapping, service design roleplay, animistic design, workshop facilitation, speculative futures/design, discursive design, and roleplaying games I created a new workshop to help guide the design of these communal devices. Usually these techniques are used to focus on the humans in the situation but in this workshop we make the devices the protagonists. This is meant to help us understand how they exist within an environment as complex as the home and how should they act if they acted like people expect them to (“the lamp acts like a lamp”). This is in opposition to the current trend of tech where every device eventually becomes super-intelligent and capable of holding a full conversation with a person. We don’t need every device to talk to us, let alone interact with us directly all the time. This is a path to anti-calm computing.

I had been using roleplay as part of my device design process for a while while at Philosophie (a design consultancy) for clients and Facebook Reality Labs during the development of the Portal home device. I’ve taught this workshop during multiple O’Reilly AI Conf “Design Thinking for AI” workshop where people roleplayed autonomous vehicles and their riders to get a better understanding of how they should interact together. The design of this particular workshop was to stir up the way that people inside large technology organizations design and implement their smart home tech.

The combination of animistic design and roleplay originated with an online workshop (see the YouTube summary link) where I tested out the format. The culmination of this work, with a slight push into the realm of speculative fiction or performance art, I created a workshop for SXSW 2022. See the slides attached for more information.

During the workshop people were asked what a device would be like if they took on human characteristics. See the Medium post for the full workshop description. First they created their device traits and what would make them happy/sad/disgusted/surprised/angry. Then they roleplayed with props (like fake dog poop) and recorded video from personal POVs (to a Zoom recording if they had one as part of their roleplay device).

Over 40 people attended the the full SXSW workshop, including a few iRobot employees. They walked out of it with a renewed understanding of how the home is an ecosystem rather than a place that they need to sell their device into. The feedback was incredibly positive and gave them a new view on how to design these devices.

In the end, the Roomba (as played by the person in the workshop) was really scared of dog shit.


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