How Microsoft’s Digital Assistant Balances Between Tech And Humanity

How Microsoft’s Digital Assistant Balances Between Tech And Humanity

The personal assistant is totally transparent about its understanding and use of your personal data.

Hilary Weaver
  • 27 june 2014

At the Microsoft Experience gallery event in New York on June 4, Cortana, Microsoft’s answer to digital assistants like Siri, made her appearance.

Cortana learns her owners’ preferences of music, schedules their routes to work and anticipates their needs based on what she knows of them. In doing so, Cortana’s goal is to decrease screen time so users can manage their lives without bothering with gadgets. During the event, a panel of experts spoke about Cortana and whether digital devices of her kind are truly helpful.


One of these panel members was Sogol Malekzadeh, principle UX designer on the Cortana team.  She said the new system introduces users to a new level of interactive UX design.

Malekzadeh mentioned that the first step her team took to make Cortana as useful as possible was to make her similar to human personal assistants.

“We learned that personal assistants have to understand and get to know their clients really well, inform them of what needs their attention and reduce the noise when it’s necessary, anticipate their needs and make adjustments seamlessly, get things done and above all build trust and develop a deep understanding of their client’s emotional needs,” Malekzadeh explained.


Steve Clayton, who moderated the panel, says that the tech world is starting to see technology as more intelligent than intrusive, but that there is a level of trust we must reach before attaining its full advantages. Clayton commented that we can reach a level of trust with our technology when we understand how to reach a balance between what we control and what the technology controls.

“One of the key trends is the idea of ambience intelligence,” he said. “It’s both a combination of being ambient and us being more comfortable with the technology working on our behalf.”

Malekzadeh said Cortana has managed to go beyond other forms of technological assistants because of her intersection between technology and understanding human truths.

Clayton noted that with the large strides developers like those at Microsoft has made, there is still the idea that these models could be too similar to that featured in the film Her, a personal service that breaches the line between ‘human’ and ‘robot.’

“We walk a fine line with what is known as the ‘uncanny valley’ or the idea that things appear to be too like the human model,” Clayton said. “In some movies, for example, the characters appear to be too lifelike.  How do we ensure that technology is helpful without breaching this line?”

Malekzadeh says Cortana has been designed to evade that tricky line and allows users to take the “personal” in “personal assistant”  as far as they want.

“We designed her in a way so you can have a conversation with her about your interests,” she said. “She is very transparent with her knowledge about you and you can trust her because she always respects your privacy and gives you the control.”

cortana event

The old adage ‘If you love someone, set them free’ was on Malekzadeh’s mind  during the creation of Cortana. She says the team did its best to develop a product that could avoid being invasive while still being a useful force in someone’s life.

“Cortana is competent, witty, caring and loyal,” she said. “While she is calm and cool most of the time, she also shows spirit, excitement, and urgency when the situation warrants it. She’s confident and patient and always prepared to help, but neither bossy nor condescending. She takes her duties very seriously. Her job, above all, is to be your personal assistant.”


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