Applied psychology in human-­computer interaction
: the social impact of a virtual assistant's gender and human-likeness in self-service

  • Jeunese Payne

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research applies psychological theory to human-­computer interaction and the creation of a virtual assistant (VA) for use in self-­‐service checkouts (SSCOs). Existing research investigating the impact of interface agents and avatars in virtual shopping, gaming, and teaching environments presents a range of findings, yet there is comparatively little investigating the impact of a VA in kiosk-based applications. Based on the premise that human-computer interaction resembles human-­human interaction, the potential cognitive and social benefits of implementing a visually present VA in SSCOs are examined. Further, this research addresses how the impact of VAs is affected by its gender and human­‐likeness. To this end, this thesis brings together two lines of research: human-­likeness (in the human-computer interaction literature) and gender (in the psychology literature). Through four studies, it is demonstrated that a VA's similarity to the user, in terms of gender and human-­likeness, has an impact on performance with, attitudes towards, and willingness to use a VA.
   The first study showed automatic orienting to onscreen locations indicated by the gaze of an animated human-like virtual character. Observers could also respond to this cue based on their own knowledge and goals (unlike peripheral cues or a static virtual character). In the second study, women strongly preferred to gender-match with their VAs, but this did not affect their reaction times in a visual search task; men showed no overall preference for gender but were sometimes slower to respond when a female VA was on screen. The tendency to gender-match in males steadily decreased with age, such that the majority of younger males preferred to gender-match whilst the majority of older males preferred to interact with a female VA. Both men and women preferred more realistic VAs, resulting in faster reaction times.
   The third study focussed on the development of a questionnaire for measuring perceived VA usability and credibility, and, after reliability and validity testing, offered a new measure for assessing these perceptions. This measure consisted of four sub-constructs: warmth and capacity (sub-constructs of credibility) and usefulness and ease-­of-use (sub-constructs of usability). Responses to items evaluated in Study 3, in parallel with Study 4, showed that similar agents tend to be perceived as warmer, higher in capacity, and more useful – but only when participants were assigned a gender-matched, humanoid VA. When participants chose their VA, similarity had no impact on the newly developed scales for measuring perceived usability and credibility. Moreover, the positive ratings of similar VAs that had been assigned to participants did not impact willingness to take its advice; in direct contrast, when participants had chosen their VA, positive ratings of the VA (regardless of similarity) correlated with willingness to take its advice.
   Finally, consistent with the findings of Chapter 4, female participants who chose their VAs tended to gender-­‐match (to the equal exclusion of the male and non-­human VAs) and half the male participants tended to choose a male VA. Unexpectedly, this was followed by a preference for the non-­human, non-gendered VA rather than for the female VA, attributed to its novelty. In general, participants tended to choose a VA taking human form, rating these options more attractive and likable.
   Overall, the results suggest a preference for and performance-based benefit of human-like VAs. Preferences for VA gender can be interpreted in terms of differential social networking strategies employed by men and women. The research also shows that the perceptions, preferences, and behaviours induced by a VA that is matched to the user (in terms of gender and human- likeness) are not always in line. Thus, retailers should weigh the importance of each of these outcomes (e.g. perceptions of usability or checkout speed) before choosing VA gender and its level of human-­likeness, or should allow users to make their own decisions about the appearance of their VA.
Date of AwardMar 2014
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAndrea Szymkowiak (Supervisor) & Lloyd Carson (Supervisor)

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