Smart Doll & App

Product, UX/UI, Research
Developing a smart doll and companion app to foster empathy for ASD children & families.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face the difficulty of comprehending non-verbal and social interactions, interpreted as a lack of emotional understanding or empathy. Research into behaviour of ASD and technologies reveals insights to encourage empathy and learning.
Our solution is two-fold; a doll that can capture and evoke emotions from a child with play, and an app that provides the caregiver data about the child's emotional state.
I contributed the most to the research aspects of the project, bringing validation to our process. I also was responsible for the physical appearance & 3D modelling of the doll.
I revised this project in early 2022 for improvements, which I did individually.
Research, Ideation, 3D Model & Animation, UI/UX, Website, Product
2 months
Observations in the wellness space highlighted nuances in fostering empathy among children with ASD.
We observed the additional struggle of caregiver resources and desire for more tools to help children with ASD.
1 in 66
children are diagnosed with ASD, presenting a unique design opportunity to foster their growth.
Our design team sought a challenge:
How might we help caregivers understand their child with ASD while also supporting their child’s emotional growth?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder affecting one's communication and behaviour, where there is difficulty understanding non-verbal communication and social cues. We focused on four user-centric pain points to generate our design challenge:
Children with ASD tend to feel overwhelmed with social cues.
Social cues are mostly intangible, unable to grasp through literal means. Only focusing on what is available, they end up responding differently in social interactions.
Children with ASD think more concretely.
Often needing literal explanation for social actions, caregivers may not sufficiently cater or respond in a way the child understands. Thus, the child struggles with emotion understanding.
Caregivers have difficulty accessing catered autism-related interventions.
This is especially true at their child's initial diagnosis, as autism covers a wide spectrum of behaviours. They experience stress and become uncertain of parenting their child.
It is difficult to integrate a healthcare tool in a child's lifestyle.
With the use of accessibility tools, this difference can cause negative judgement from other children in school or external settings.
The Design Process
Research → Ideation → Refinement
Finding insights and validating design hypotheses became the first step to define what our project would be. We asked ourselves given the pain points - what products already exist that try to solve a similar problem?

Our PACT analysis of ASD-related products reveal a gap in the market, where there is currently no portable and responsive therapy device for children.
Delving into research
Opportunities arose from research and we recorded them as insights, starting with questions we asked ourselves. Analysis of articles and theories advised our direction to create a smart tool for children with ASD.
How can a child engage with emotion?
ASD Children process emotion better on a simplified scale. Happy, Angry, Sad - simplifying complex emotions into processable fields can build a strong foundation of empathy in children.A robotic appearance, with distinct appearances when it is happy or sad, is very helpful.
How can empathy be encouraged?
In educational settings, interventions for rowdy children show that they understand emotions more when a visual support and modelled target behaviour is demonstrated.A product reacting in a way that is socially acceptable (e.g. A sunny day = happy!) can encourage emotional understanding in ASD children.
How can we understand emotion from the child?
A theory called "Laban's movement analysis" uses music combined with reading pressure and motion to reveal emotional states.
There are physical properties linked with emotions, and technology can be leveraged to find it.
How does an ASD child show emotion?
Most ASD children do not communicate or express their feelings verbally; instead, their flight-or-fight response, primarily seen from their eye contact, is a key factor.Leveraging facial recognition and eye contact technologies provide further emotional info.
A doll-and-app dynamic
Given our competitive market and research, we opted to create a dual-type product. For the child, they would have a friendly doll that evokes empathy through dance and play. Meanwhile, the caregiver can receive data recorded from the doll, translated into an app; helping them understand their child's emotional state.
At the end of research...
We developed opportunities from  research; Miimi would be ideal as a doll-and-app dynamic product.
Research → Ideation → Refinement
Taking insights into design, the rough doll and digital design began fabrication. Hands-on with the project and taking it to the next level. Personas were created to guide development for constant focus on our users:
Rough work and development
We began roughing out the visual of Miimi, including modelling a real-life counter-part. Wireframes also began fleshing out the idea of the app, which soon took further inspiration from Google's material design to be further fleshed out.
At the end of ideation...
A first step into visuals guided our approach; providing a solid direction.
Research → Ideation → Refinement
Polishing our design, asking why things were implemented, and gaining a clearer vision of our goals allowed further refinement. We started by fleshing out our first prototype, and cleaned it up with the brand concept.
Miimi 3.0 - Refinements
Our process of making the Miimi companion app is a lengthy one that involved multiple iterations to polish and make better. By comparing the polished version and the updated one, improvements can be seen. From left to right, these version are visual chapters in the team's development.

Onboarding - A new design system, inspired from Material Design.

Miimi's original design revolved around its face, but improvement can start through a stricter design system. By having the elements respect an 8px system, hierarchy with the "Most Recent" logs and battery power used type considerations to make information visually organized.

Data - Improved understanding and insights.

The first prototype made a good point in using data charts, but the insights leave room for improvement; helping them be visible and stand out. Colours were used selectively to create impact ("High Pressure" coloured in red now stands apart from a monochrome colour scheme).

Longitudinal Data - Making value prospects clear at first glance

With the original prototype offering valuable data insights, improving it meant making the values visible and clear to the user. As a result, sections were dedicated to providing macro and micro information at a glance to help the user make better decisions.

Programming Miimi - Detailed options give more power to the user.

The first prototype opens the possibility of planning Miimi's interactions. In the second prototype, the parent can program Miimi to act happy when they say a phrase ("Hey Max, it's sunny outside!") to teach their child more social reasons to display happiness; taking the opportunity from the first prototype and refining it to support the caregiver.

Result 1/2- The Miimi Doll
Miimi is a tool to help caregivers understand and provide ways to engage their ASD child with empathy; while enjoying it through a friendly and dynamic doll.

Visual Design - Friendly Face, Memorable Shape

Miimi's visual design is specifically less humanistic - predictable faces & simplistic themes are effective compared to intimidating & unpredictable human faces.

Helps child be more familiar with an emotional entity.

Interaction - Dance with Miimi and Play Along!

Miimi mimics the child's face at times, or models a particular emotion given a context (gloomy in the rain, happy in the sun). Sometimes, Miimi will play music to just help the child dance!

Provides social reasons for child to emotional states, and recognizes emotion-influenced movement through dance.

Technology - Imbued with Sensory Intelligence

With sensors woven into the doll's fabric, Miimi provides an understanding of emotional interactions with the child as they playfully grip, softly sway, or angrily throw the doll. Accelerometers, gyroscopes, and a camera are also part of this sensory package.

Provides the ability to decipher emotional cues through physical variables (pressure, motion, etc.)

Customization - A Miimi just for your child.

In many colours and weaves, Miimi as a doll is a personal companion; not just a way to help the caregivers, but to provide the child a fun digital buddy in their daily lives.

Integrates more seamlessly in the child's lifestyle - reducing fear of stigmatization.

Result 2/2- The Miimi App
Caregivers access data that improve clarity about their child's emotional states, curated personally for them.

Onboarding - Seamless Beginning

To-the-point experience for first time users so that they can immediately familiarize with different sections of the app - with a complete tutorial on usage for better clarity.

Eases caregiver into Miimi's system.

Interaction Details - Get Notified of Miimi's Interactions

With easy and seamless updates from Miimi, parents can gain better understanding faster and with more preparedness for their child.

Alleviates caregiver stress and uncertainty.

Progress Charts - See Child's Progress, Eye-to-Eye

Weekly, quarterly, and yearly summaries provide caregivers a better long-term understanding of their child's patterns with Miimi.

Expands caregiver understanding with humanized language and long-term data.

Recalibration - Grow with Miimi

As the caregiver's child grows, Miimi can recalibrate to keep up with the child's physical developments.

Creates long-term adaptability with the doll and app.

Program Prompts - Make Miimi Personal

The caregiver can plan specific prompts for Miimi, using activation triggers such as saying a specific phrase ("It's morning, Max!"). Create scenarios where Miimi reflects an emotion during an event Max can understand is socially acceptable!

Offers maximum control to the caregiver, and lets them make Miimi a personal teacher of emotions for their child.

Takeaway & Reflection
A blue sky concept such as Miimi held a lot of value for myself; being able to explore the unknown and create many artefacts to visualize a concept was satisfying to see. What pushed this even further was the revision made after the first iteration was developed, as I was able to improve further on what it could be.

This project, while a milestone, is still able to flourish. I wish we took more time to ask users what they thought of the project, and to improve it through their lenses. One new perspective highlighted using humanized summaries even before the user accesses the data. An effort to improve translating hard data into abstract, easy-to-explain insights would be important to further explore in this project.

For now, Miimi stands as a project worth reflecting on for its diverse research challenge, unique user-centric needs, and design development. I look forward to the next challenge.
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