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The UX of Commercial Drones

by Dan Saffer
6 min read
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With the prospect of commercial drones seeming like an incoming reality, there are a number of crucial experience design elements that need to be considered.

Technology asks, “Can it be done?” Design asks, “Should it be done, and how?” I’ve thought about these questions frequently in the weeks following the 60 Minutes’ introduction of Amazon’s PrimeAir. While some were horrified by the prospect of commercial drones buzzing through the skies, I was amazed and intrigued at this vision of the future. But that’s all it is right now: a vision, and a somewhat crude one at that—one that leaves many questions unanswered.

Some of those questions are logistical and legal: Will this work and in what environments? What are the implications on a social level and where safety is concerned? These are all tremendously important questions, but let’s assume the issues surrounding them can be worked out. After all, there is plenty of money to be made (by Amazon and others like FedEx) by making it a reality. In fact, Ross McCullough, vice president of corporate strategy at UPS, recently said: “I believe these things will be part of the system in the future. I don’t know when.”

The Drone Experience

While consumer drones are very much a reality and a hot topic at this week’s CES 2014, the biggest question on the commercial side remains mostly unanswered: What’s it really going to be like to have a drone deliver packages to your house? In other words, what will the experience truly be like?

In order for commercial drones like Amazon’s or Australian startup Flirtey’s to become a reality, the drone (or any future-world technology, really) can’t merely do its job—meaning, it can’t randomly drop off deliveries and simply fly away as the drone in the Amazon demo video does. There’s a lot more to it than that. To make this kind of service take off (literally), companies will have to consider the user experience, and especially the microinteractions, the drones will have with customers.

Let’s examine the customer experience as demonstrated by Amazon: The drone flies in and lands on the back patio. The customer leaves the house. The drone releases the package and flies away. The customer grabs the package and heads back inside.

This is all well and good, but a lot of important detail still needs to be addressed. For starters, how does the customer know when the drone is arriving? People aren’t going to want their packages sitting outside unattended, especially in inclement weather (assuming drones will even be able to fly when it’s raining or snowing). And people won’t want to sit around looking out their window for half an hour. But what might work is something like what the car service Uber does: showing you via an app where your drone is and how long until it arrives, as well as alerting you via SMS when it does arrive. This would provide a level of assurance, especially at the onset when the idea of a drone carrying an emergency last-minute birthday gift will seem the height of novelty.

General Drone Safety

When the drone does appear, it’s going to be really tempting to race out and grab the package, especially for kids—and perhaps for dogs and excitable adults as well. One problem: between the person and the package are several spinning, knife-like blades that form the rotors of the drone. Being accidentally hit in the face by one would be a great way to lose an eye or obtain a nasty cut. Drones can’t operate with the assumption that everyone is going to have a perfectly open backyard

Drones will need several mechanisms to render them safer during this moment, whether it’s some sort of sensor that detects a person (or pet) approaching and turns off the rotors, and/or some kind of feedback (“Please stand back”) until it moves a safe distance away from the delivery. Perhaps it won’t land or take off until the area is clear either. This might be something the package sender would want as well, to prevent people from stealing or otherwise harming the drones when they’re on the ground. (How the drones will avoid people trying to bring them down in the air with guns—in America, at least—and thrown objects is another issue altogether. Evasive maneuvers!).

Just like with other, non-flying robots and other, potentially dangerous means of transportation like cars, commercial drones are going to need to give off social cues as to what they are doing or are about to do. It’s the same as with the turn signals and brake lights in a car: they’re unnecessary for the maneuver, but they prevent accidents and allow other humans nearby to understand what you’re doing or intend to do and react accordingly. Commercial drones will come into close contact with people requiring the same kinds of social cues, what Don Norman calls “social signifiers,” to indicate intent, so that they can react accordingly.

The Drone Zone

The next design problem is where the drone will land and leave its cargo. While there is of course going to be some technical and legal restrictions that assuredly the Federal Aviation Administration (and similar organizations around the world) will help determine, I don’t think we’ll be able to count on companies to know the best spot for the drone to land, especially in drone-unfriendly urban environments with little landing space. I’m expecting some sort of customer-designated landing pad, perhaps defined with some sort of physical device, the way iRobot’s Roomba has a “Lighthouse,” which can help guide the robot from room to room. This landing pad object could determine if there’s enough room and airspace for the drone to easily land and take off again—something that could be tricky if, say, one were using a balcony for the drone to land on. Or perhaps it’s not an object, but an app that uses some sort of AR to determine possible landing sites and sends the coordinates to the drone.

In any case, commercial drones can’t operate with the assumption that everyone is going to have a perfectly open backyard as in the Amazon demo (by the sea, no less) for the drone to land. Customers are probably the best people to help determine where the drone should land, particularly if there’s a chance the package could be stolen before reaching it.

Cleaning up After Drones

The last (obvious) UX question is about the drone package itself. Are they meant to be discarded? Flirtey uses cardboard boxes, but in the Amazon video, the packages looked like weather-resistant plastic boxes, built especially for drone use. Throwing them out seems like a waste. Instead, they should be returned and filled again, perhaps garnering a deposit, much like returning old-fashioned milk bottles once did.

I suppose they could be mailed back, but that’s a lot of effort and besides, a delivery drone could simply pick up a used package and return it after dropping off a new delivery. This would require some coordination on the part of the customer, namely indicating that she has an empty package to return, then placing it where a drone can easily reattach it and fly away. Drones returning from delivering other packages could even pick them en route to home. This too would have to be managed from an app or the sender’s website.

Name Game of Drones

One last suggestion to make commercial drones less intimidating: name them. There is a big emotional difference between seeing “Amazon PrimeAir on its way!” on an app, and “Speedy SuperFly is on its way!” One is a generic service, the other has character and increases anticipation and fun. Kids (both young and old) would get a kick out of it, particularly if the drones had slightly different outer casings and colors. It could be the real life version of Thomas the Tank Engine. Amazon could even sell the toys for the holidays. It’s a win-win.


While there are still many details to resolve, and while some may argue that this kind of service shouldn’t be attempted at all, I suspect it’s an inevitability for certain (especially rural) areas where delivery is expensive and for certain kinds of (lightweight) products. It might not happen soon, or be everywhere and certainly not deliver as many products as Amazon claims, but for some types of products and delivery areas, the potential cost savings will be too great for online retailers like Amazon and shippers like FedEx to ignore.

What also shouldn’t be ignored are the people on the receiving end of this service, the ones who’ll have the most contact with the drones. The details of that contact should be designed, just like the details of any great service should be. The technology isn’t enough. It seldom is.

post authorDan Saffer

Dan Saffer,

The son of a plumber and a psychologist, Dan feels the interaction design he does is a little bit of both. Since 1995, he’s designed everything from websites to consumer electronics to robots. He feels that design isn’t only about problem solving, but about creating a better, more humane, future.

A Creative Director at Smart Design, Dan leads teams in creating new interaction paradigms across a wide range of products, spanning both digital and physical. Dan’s insightful, thoughtful approach to design has been captured in the four books he’s written—Designing for Interaction, Designing Gestural Interfaces, and Designing Devices. His latest book, Microinteractions, about the details of design, was published to much acclaim in 2013. You can follow him on Twitter at @odannyboy.


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