Companion-centred design

21 July 2013

The CMeebie project establishes a new relationship between the BBC and a child: a companion.

During a great talk by BERG’s Jack Schulze, he summed up how lots of software and connected things are starting to go beyond straightforward responses to interactions with the phrase: “there’s no more U in UI”. Then he showed this video of a quadrocopter juggling a ball:

That video sums up how software and connected things are starting to display qualities such as behaviour, motive and even agency.

That’s what we were exploring in this BBC prototype. But the relationship between the child and the CMeebie needs to be established at the correct level. Taking cues from existing discussions around companion-centred design, we decided the companion needed to be as “smart as a puppy” – far from being too smart to fail, the CMeebie needed to make endearing mistakes in its attempts to learn and improve. This approach reduces the chances of the so-called “uncanny valley” effect whereby users feel uncomfortable with an entity which behaves almost but not exactly like a human being.

Endearing failure is particularly important around the suggestions. The CMeebie is effectively the friendly face of a suggestion engine, gathering information about the child and using this information to serve relevant content to the child. It’s important that the CMeebie can get it wrong and then tries to use that information to improve in the future.

There’s no doubt companion-centred design is becoming a big thing. This experience building a digital companion for children was illuminating and satisfying and we’d love to explore this area further.