One of my very visual-driven clients wanted to create an avatar for its “new and revolutionary” speech assistant. Our team was highly staffed with our most skilled visual designers who had years of experience with the client’s design language. Our PM and the design director asked me to also jump in, to boost the visual exploration by coordinating development efforts.

Explaining the steps

In the first meetings with the client, I explained the process of moving forward from visual design to code-based generative design and identifying parameters on the way. Additionally, we would have to enhance the mental model with states and actions to define the assistant’s behavior. By matching the visual parameters with the behavior we would be able the create a brand-specific body language of the assistant.

The client appreciated this process but clung to endless visual explorations, direction changes, and was dreaming about “sassy” responses while ignoring the limitations of the AI. Coming from a purely visual department he only focused on aesthetics and appearance without accepting the complexity and the dependencies of his undertaking. Time and money were running like sand through an open palm. The client was lost in the woods shouting in all directions but not waiting or listening to any answer. 

Finding orientation

We needed a compass. A simple device, to follow a line that is universal and helps him understand his surroundings. I focused on the building block we have been ignoring all along because it was too obvious. Human behavior and a visual representation. I grabbed our youngest developer and asked him to merge a Microsoft Kinect into a Unity-Prototype with skeleton tracking. Within a day we had a live motion tracking setup with nearly unlimited visual rendering power. The jumping dots on the screen immediately connected with you emotionally as you recognized another human being behind it. The effect the client wanted all the way – It was there!

But it was too easy and still too obvious. We couldn’t put a whole body into the client’s avatar. So we reduced it to the minimum. One object. Something abstract and easy to observe. But with orientation. A cube.

Within three days we had a stable setup for recording, a questionnaire triggering emotional responses, and a group of willing colleagues being our test subjects.

One week later we hovered over our astonishing and yet so obvious test results. We finally saw the patterns in our everyday behavior. We saw the little nuances in movement that we use to emphasize our messages. We saw the differences between extroverts and introverts, and even between the truth and a lie. From the beginning, it was right in front of us, but we needed the reduction and abstraction to understand it and put it into words.

Getting back on track

As we presented it to the client he was blown away. He never thought a “scientific” approach with analyzing data would be so beneficial to the “creative” and “explorative” approach.

Our results were immediately presented with the latest visuals in the next board meeting. The feedback was amazing and our efforts were described as an exemplary approach to the brand’s future and design.

In review

I still look back at this project with amazement and joy, as it is the perfect example of how abstraction and reduction can reveal aspects you might have always been seeing but never recognized. It’s about identifying the little pattern that will lead you through the process and to the product.

It helped me to lead the client, and it helped the client to lead the project.

But yet it feels so obvious – which is the constant struggle of a good UX Designer – in review your always just a Captain Obvious.

DISNEY-The Illusion of Life