Maria Amelia Randall Work About

Mae & The Night Sky

Learning and Delight through Voice Technology

UX, Voice Design, Product Design

Challenge

Tech is being increasingly used by children in recreational and educational ways, and while tech provides new opportunities there are also well-documented problems around tech use by kids. We were tasked with imagining how voice technology could help us make an educational toy.

Goal

Our goal was to create a delightful learning experience about the night sky for children ages 5-10, combining science and story and without screentime.

Roles

Voice UI, Research, UX, Testing, Identity & Illustration

Partners

Judilee: Research, UX, Storyboarding, Animation
Dillon: Voice UI, Testing, Filming

Timeline

16 weeks

1 Research

Learning at bedtime

Bedtime is perfect time to learn and retain information. From our research, we found learning before sleep is a great way to absorb facts. Children and adults alike retain more information when it is connected to context, so Mae telling stories and myths about space offers broader comprehension and connection of information.

Bedtime is a problematic time for screens and limiting screen use is beneficial for sleep and attention span. We want Mae to benefit children, not feed into screen-addiction, so we decided to make the her interactions voice-based.

Voice for kids

Kids are more misunderstood by voice devices than adults but also more persistent in repeating their request. It is important for Mae to bridge the gap during conversation. If Mae doesn’t understand something, she will repeat back any words she does hear and rephrase the question so that the kid can respond differently.

As COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) has changed, there is greater flexibility with voice interaction for children. However, we use a closed system unconnected to wifi, so that parent’s can feel secure about their child’s privacy.

Girls in STEM

While Mae is a toy for children of all genders, we also want to acknowledge the discrepancy between men and women in STEM careers: women make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce, with an even greater disparity for women of color.

To encourage interest in STEM for girls, we named Mae after Mae Carol Jemison, the first African-American woman to go to space in 1992. We know that cultivating interest in STEM subjects early and increasing visibility of role models have a positive impact.

2 Our Users

Leo, 7, First Grade

Think:

Interested in science and in learning. Loves tech and is excited to talk with a robot. His grandma uses Alexa and he thinks it is really fun to talk to her but she often misunderstands his words.

Feel:

I’m excited but also worried that it will be hard to learn how to use the robot. Toys that are too complicated are discouraging and make me feel frustrated.

Do:

I try to get as much screen time as possible after school.

Say:

“When my Miles had a sleepover with me it was really fun to talk to Mae together. He really liked learning about Orion the hunter and I was proud to share my cool toy.”

Parent: Lexi, 35, $85K/year

Think:

My child is interested in space! I want to encourage that! I love the idea of sharing the storytime at night as well, and I like the idea of learning about the constellations and about starsfor myself also.

Feel:

I want something that my child will continue to play with after the initial excitement of unboxing.

Do:

I buy my child tech toys because want my kid to learn but without that much help from me.

Say:

"My son just wants to play games on the ipad all of the time. I’m worried about the potential of isolation and possible addiction of too much screentime."

User Wants & Needs

In order to successfully market a toy, we need to find the overlap between parents’ and children’s’ wants and needs. Parents want their kids to learn, to hold their children’s interest after the initial unboxing excitement, and bring their kids joy. They also worry about their kids overuse of tech, and the dangers of their kids being online unsupervised. Children are fascinated by space and by tech, and love when they can do things “all by themselves”.

3 Our Solution

With our research in hand, we moved in a space-oriented direction. We were excited about the way learning history, myths, science, and connecting that to names of constellations and images children were familiar with could make the entire experience more rich and memorable—both from a joy and a learning perspective. We named our toy Mae after the first African American woman in space, Mae Carol Jemison. Instead of a screen, she projects the night sky, and all interaction is by voice.

What She Teaches

Kids can learn science, history, & legends on:
—Common constellations, like the Dippers, Ursa Major & Minor, Orion, etc.
—Star facts, like make-up, distance, age, and how they twinkle.
—The moon: its phases, make-up, and myths
—The planets of our solar system
—Space travel

4 Features & Functionality

Mae has a planetarium-inspired shape and a simple design to be both friendly and unobstrusive. In addition to her voice, she engages through simple facial expressions and her ability to project what she is talking about. She can also project the sky without conversation as a “night light.” She uses a bluetooth connection to a parents’ device for updates.

5 Building Dialogue

We designed with principles of conversational design that we learned from Cathy Pearl, consulting voice designers, and from our research on kids and voice. Particularly important were:
—limiting choices and cognitive overload
—warning about the length of stories since they are much beyond the “one breath rule”
—responding to errors with using whatever she’s heard or redirection
Find more dialogues here.

6 Dashboard for Parents

Mae has an online portal for parents, allowing them to see what their child has been learning and how much their child has been using Mae. Parents can feel safe knowing their children are not exposed to internet unsupervised. Mae will only teach them night-sky related information. We use a closed system, and Mae connects through bluetooth to the parent’s device, only for updates on the child’s learning and possible additional packs.

Additional Packs for Learning

Mae has partnered with NASA to create learning packs that parents can add to expand possibilities for engagement, such as: “Our Nearest Neighbors,” “The Brightest Light,” “Journey to Mars,” and “The Sky is falling.”

7 Branding & Design System

One of the pleasures of a project like Mae is being able to do brand strategy as well as concepting, ux, and vx. We interpreted the colors of space and the stars in a rich, bold deep blue and golden yellow, with cooler muted mid-blues and a rust to round out the system. Comfortaa for type feels both kid-friendly and a touch futuristic, and we used it in our logo as well, modifying the “m” and the “e” and bringing it into space with a simple moon. Using gradients and texture in our illustrations, we pursue a tone that is friendly, youthful, and smart. Bring the night sky in.

8 Wizard of Oz Testing

We were ready to invest more time in building out how users could interact with Mae, and we decided to do Wizard of Oz style testing. Using our research, we scripted happy paths and began to organize them into intents and slots, growing our library of what Mae could talk about and how she handles scenarios. We discovered a small program called SayWizard that allowed us to create a 36 line script for Mae and then test her in a limited way with users.

We created a mock Mae and a mock projection to help users interact with her. We connected my computer with a bluetooth speaker so that Mae’s voice came from her body rather than my computer. Then we brought users in and filmed our tests. On the mock projection were shown and labelled the big dipper, the little dipper, and the North Star. We instructed users that for the purpose of the test they could only ask Mae about what was on the “projection” in how to wake Mae, and that their goal was to learn a couple facts about the stars that they could see.

9 Voice UI Decisions

How passive should she be?

Does Mae prompt a user every time after they wake her up or does she wait? What about after she shares a fact or story—does she wait quietly or ask the user if they’d like to hear more right away? How does this feel in the daytime as opposed to at night in the comfort of your own bed? We want the experience to feel open-ended and low-pressure, while still teaching users how to make the most of their interaction with Mae.

How long are her pauses?

Is this longer in children than in adults? This proved our most fertile ground for testing, and it is different in a mult-turn dialogue, when she first wakes up, and after she’s shared a fact or story.We’d read that 1.5 seconds feels like a good delay when the user is expected a response from Mae, but what about after Mae had replied, and is waiting passively to see if the user will interact with her further?

We decided that Mae should prompt a user after 4 seconds of being woke, if they hadn’t made any requests, with “Would you like to see the night sky?” or similar, and that she would prompt a new user after each fact with “Do you want to hear more?” or variant, and an experienced user only some of the time.

Errors & Incomplete Requests

It’s important to have Mae reiterate whatever slot or word she has recognized in order to move the user forward and not get stuck in a loop—we know children often repeat the exact same wording of their request for long periods when they are not understood.

We determined that she should give the user options if she can hear the intent, following the “one breath” rule of thumb, after waiting 4 seconds, in case they correct themselves.

10 Telling the Story

To have Mae appeal to kids and adults, we made sure to include highlight features that would engage both. The storyboard included a hint of starry night magic and important information. We streamlined our work flow, Maria illustrated all of the assets for the scenes, and then handed them off to Judilee to animate.