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The Trade-Offs of Autonomous Products: Efficiency vs. Experience

The Trade-Offs of Autonomous Products: Efficiency vs. Experience

Emanuel de Bellis, Gita Venkataramani Johar and Nicola Poletti

Whether it is cleaning homes or mowing lawns, consumers increasingly delegate manual tasks to autonomous products. These gadgets operate without human oversight and free consumers from mundane chores. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that people feel a sense of satisfaction when they complete household chores. Are autonomous products such as robot vacuums and cooking machines depriving consumers of meaningful experiences?

In a new Journal of Marketing study we show that, despite unquestionable benefits such as gains in efficiency and convenience, autonomous products strip away a source of meaning in life. As a result, some consumers are hesitant to buy these products.

Automated Versus Autonomous Products

It is important to highlight the difference between automation and autonomy. Automated products allow consumers to perform some manual labor themselves; however, autonomous products do not demand any work from humans. Examples of manual tasks being replaced by autonomous products include cleaning the floor (delegated to robotic vacuum cleaners), mowing the lawn (robotic lawn mowers), and driving (self-driving cars). Autonomous products free consumers from daily chores by performing manual tasks that require time and effort.

Not All Consumers Want to Avoid Manual Labor

In our article, we argue that manual labor is an important source of meaning in life. This is in line with research showing that everyday tasks have value—chores such as cleaning may not make us happy, but they add meaning to our lives. Our studies show that “meaning of manual labor” causes consumers to lower valuations and reduce adoption of autonomous products. For example, one study conducted in collaboration with industry partners shows that consumers who derive more meaning from manual tasks are less likely to prefer autonomous over conventional products. The effect proved robust when accounting for various consumer demographics. Likewise, these consumers have a more negative attitude toward autonomous products and are also more prone to believe in the disadvantages of autonomous products (e.g., too much focus on technology in life) relative to their advantages (e.g., comfort).

Highlight Saving Time for Other Meaningful Tasks

On one hand, autonomous products take over tasks from consumers, typically leading to a reduction in manual labor and hence in the ability to derive meaning from manual tasks. On the other hand, by taking over manual tasks, autonomous products provide consumers with the opportunity to spend time on other, potentially more meaningful, tasks and activities. We suggest that companies highlight so-called alternative sources of meaning in life, which should reduce consumers’ need to derive meaning specifically from manual tasks. For consumers who derive meaning from manual tasks, highlighting other sources of meaning (e.g., meaning derived through one’s family or one’s hobbies) at the time of the adoption decision should counteract the negative effect on autonomous product adoption.

In fact, a key value proposition for many of these technologies is that they free up time. iRobot claims that its robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba saves owners as much as 110 hours of cleaning a year. Some companies go even a step further by suggesting what consumers could do with their freed-up time. For example, German home appliance company Vorwerk promotes its cooking machine Thermomix with “more family time” and “Thermomix does the work so you can make time for what matters most.” Instead of promoting the quality of task completion (i.e., cooking a delicious meal), the company emphasizes that consumers can spend time on other, arguably more meaningful, activities.


Our studies demonstrate that the perceived meaning of manual labor (MML)—a novel concept that we introduce—is key to predicting the adoption of autonomous products. Consumers with a high MML tend to resist the delegation of manual tasks to autonomous products, irrespective of whether these tasks are central to one’s identity or not. Marketers can start by segmenting individuals into high- and low-MML consumers.

Segmentation and Promotion Opportunities

Unlike other personality variables that can only be reliably measured using complex psychometric scales, the extent of consumers’ MML might be assessed simply by observing their behavioral characteristics, such as whether consumers tend to do the dishes by hand, whether they prefer a manual car transmission, or what type of activities and hobbies they pursue. Activities like woodworking, cookery, painting, and fishing are likely predictors of high MML. Similarly, companies can measure likes on social media for specific activities and hobbies that involve manual labor. Finally, practitioners can ask consumers to rate the degree to which manual versus cognitive tasks are meaningful to them. Having segmented consumers according to their MML, marketers can better target and focus their messages and efforts.

In promotions, firms can highlight the meaningful time consumers gain with the use of autonomous products (e.g., “this product allows you to spend time on more meaningful tasks and pursuits than cleaning”). Such an intervention can prevent the detrimental effects of meaning of manual labor on autonomous product adoption.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

From: Emanuel de Bellis, Gita Venkataramani Johar, and Nicola Poletti, “Meaning of Manual Labor Impedes Consumer Adoption of Autonomous Products,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Emanuel de Bellis is Associate Professor of Empirical Research Methods, University of St.Gallen, Switzerland.

Gita Venkataramani Johar is Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business, Columbia Business School, USA.

Nicola Poletti is Chief Marketing Officer, Cada Fertility, Switzerland.