Both 3rd year Bachelor’s students in Interaction Design, Valentine Milliand-Roux and Maëva Hémon decided to take part in hub:raum, a hackathon in Berlin organized by Deutsche Telekom on artificial intelligence, or more specifically on the interpretation of emotions by AI in customer service chatbots.
The trip to Berlin
It’s Sunday 29 January, on the Nantes-Berlin flight en route for the Hackathon. The plane slowly prepares for take-off, and we are suddenly aware of a change in lighting: it becomes blue and muted, inspiring calm and serenity. We notice this change of atmosphere and immediately see a connection with the theme of the hackathon: how to target users independently with emotional reactions to improve the customer service experience.
Playing with the influence of an ambiance in order to modify the perception of an experience: that’s what came out of our research on artificial intelligence. Some of us may be nervous about sharing personal details or payment information with a customer service chatbot, others are skeptical about the bot’s level of understanding. If you think about it, have you ever felt emotionally understood by a robot? The user experience of a chatbot is a complex issue to tackle for future interaction designers as it must be based on a pre-existing interface (Facebook chat, slack, etc.)
Motivated and keen to take up a new challenge, we arrived the next day at 9 o’clock to discover our working environment for the next two days, and to get to know our potential future teammates: there were surprisingly few designers. After a brief introduction, we made up the teams: it was then that we met Andy, a project manager, and his colleague Arne, a software developer, who were also keen to work on our challenge. Our team was completed by Daniel, a newly graduated Swiss engineer.
Buliding the team and the start of the hackathon
“We really struck gold with our team: we didn’t really have much technical knowledge about AI, and they needed an original idea from the experience standpoint. They were very open-minded and ready to learn and discover new approaches, and they really liked our idea,” explains Maëva.
We spent the first morning thinking about a concept: EmoBot, a bot which recreates emotional reactions through subtle colors and animations in order to create a climate of trust with the user. The aim was to get across to users that the bot understood their emotions and that it was going to work with them to resolve their problem, without exaggerating the anthropomorphic aspect too much so as not to make them feel uncomfortable (cf. the “uncanny valley” theory by robotics professor Masahiro Mori). We wanted to create an environment for discussion similar to the one you would have with another human: our bot would adapt its tone and manner depending on our reactions.
“During the production phase, I loved working on several aspects: Interface, Experience, Front End Development and Pitch. As the technical part was very long, we were in charge of preparing the pitch in English and presenting it to the jury in 3 minutes,” adds Maeva.
“The first day was really busy: we spent a lot of time describing our idea in great detail with Maëva. We did some research on the meanings of colors, we went much further than a simple monitoring of interfaces and thought about our own behavior: what were the dynamics of a dialogue between two human beings, and how could we recreate them in a simple chat window?”, says Valentine.
"After finishing the presentation and every aspect of the concept after midnight, we went back to the hotel to get a few hours’ sleep – some teams were still working. The next day we arrived at 7am at the Hackathon to present our solution."
The project pitch and the feedback on this hackathon
“It was really tough. We were exhausted, we hadn’t had time for breakfast and the pitch was at 8.20. Fortunately, the presentation went really well – Valentine did a great job!”
“The 3-minute pitch was quite stressful. We were before a jury made up of several professionals (Dr. Felix Burkhardt: expert in voice and language technologies, project managers, etc.), and we had to speak in English, being careful to respect the time limit. Maëva gave a brilliant description of our project, clear and well-structured, and we managed to communicate our idea to the jury, despite the stress."
"When it came to announcing the results, our jury made a case for awarding two prize-winners. In the end, another team was declared the winner: we just needed a few hours longer to perfect our algorithm."
“After the results, we got some really positive feedback from a member of Deutsche Telekom who came to congratulate us on our project, as well as from the organizers. It was an extremely rewarding experience, although we would have liked to have heard the conference by Facebook and Nvidia and watched the other teams’ presentations. Valentine did an amazing job.” explains Maëva.
“This hackathon (my first) was really rewarding, both on a professional and a human level. Working with Maëva was a brilliant experience and I would do it again in a flash. It was really interesting to meet other people, to break down the language (and professional) barrier and to discover everyone’s skills and backgrounds. It genuinely made me realize that a good team spirit is often more precious than the success of a project,” concludes Valentine