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A robot that enhances elderly people's social experience  

Get re-connected through


Project Overview

Many elderly people feel lonely and isolated from their family and friends because of the inevitable physical distance and the inactiveness due to aging. While more and more elderly people are emailing, texting and video chatting with family and friends, most of those technologies are not tailored to elderly people’s lifestyle, mental and physical characteristics, which actually undermine elderly people's social experience.

In our Human Robot Interaction course, we want to design and prototype a robot that helps elderly people communicate more frequently with family, reconnect with old friends and keep up with community developments.

​This is a three-month course project. My role in this four-people team project: 

  • Responsible for the user research and feature design;

  • Responsible for UX & UI design of the interfaces;

  • Designed and conducted User testing;

  • Created the product feature set.


  • Literature Review 

  • Competitive Analysis

  • User Interviews

Frame the Problem 


  • Brainstorming

  • Affinity Diagramming 

  • Storyboards

Features Exploration

Design & Prototype 

  • Screen design and prototype

  • Body design and prototype

  • User Testing 

Features Validation


  • Product Vision

  • Design Vision

  • Business Vision

Product Feature Set

Literature Review Findings

What do elderly people value

  • Relationships with friends and family outweigh financial concerns

  • Value social connections a lot

How elderly people connect with the world

  • Social media is the key for sense of community and belongs

  • They realize technology is an important tool for avoiding isolation

  • Reported challenges in accessing and understanding how to use informational technologies, e.g. voice messaging, video chatting, etc.

How robots improve elderly people's life quality

  • Human-and-Robot Interaction: companionship

  • Not many studies explore how to enhance Human-and-Human social connection

  • Ethical concerns: feeling of loss of control, loss of privacy, potential reduction in the amount of human contact, etc

Robot design implications for elderly people

  • Robotic products must be conceived of as part of a larger system of existing products and environments 

  • Robotic products should uphold the important values of independence and dignity

  • Robotic products must be functionally adaptive to elderly people's mental and physical characteristics

Competitive Analysis
User Interviews


  • 10 senior members of Osher Lifelong Learning institute in CMU

  • Age: 62–81​

  • Characteristics: self-confident and in control of their lives; more involved in seeking novel experiences, personal challenges, and new adventures


  • In-depth face-to-face interview up to one hour

The user interview recruiter poster that I designed.

Lead Questions and User Insights 

We were interviewing one user from Osher Lifelong Learning institute in CMU

Lead: What are elderly people's behavior pattern when communicate with family and friends? 

Elderly people care the context of the communication 

"Face-to-face is important because you can find something going on, which you can’t find otherwise."

Elderly people consider family and friends' feelings when choose the time and way to communicate

"I don't want to make others feel imposed. So I usually text or email my family and friends because people have more control for content and time, but phone call seems hard to control."

Elderly people connect more frequently with people who share common interests.

"We often text each other the up coming events in the local museums and go together."

"I love to go to Osher Lifelong Learning institute in CMU because I love to know more people who are also keep learning at this stage of life. "

Lead: What are elderly people's user experience of existing communication media/technologies? 

While elderly people have growing concerns about using social media in their life, social media plays an important role in their communication with family and friends.

“I will look at Facebook because my grandsons will post pictures there.”

“I’ve tried to use social media, but there are too many fake information on it.”

Many elderly people struggle with social media and informational technologies because of the learning curve.  

“It is hard for me to figure out how those features work. How do I know if the text message I sent to others has been read or not? There should be a way to tell, right?”

“How can I turn off the notifications of Facebook? It is annoying.”

Elderly people are disappointed about the quality of the communication through existing communication media/technologies.

"I found the communication through social media is shallow."

Lead: What are elderly people's expectation and attitudes towards robots?

Elderly people are interested in having social interaction with robots and think robots can have a positive impact on their lives. 

"I think robots can give some elderly people a sense of responsibility, I mean, make life worth living. Robot may take care of them, and they also have robot to take care of."

"Can robot check on me when I'm not feeling well and lying on the bed?"

Elderly people expect more intelligent, human-like interactions with robots although they are resistant to the human-like robot looking.

"I hope I can have some meaningful conversation with robots. For example, if I like a book, I want the robot to tell me more about the author and the backstory of the book."

"Isn't that creepy? A human-like robot is sit in your room."

Our team was doing affinity diagram together

Based on our research, we defined our design problem statement: 

Elderly people feel inconvenient, suppressed and disconnected when communicating with family and friends through using existing technologies. 

Based on our user research and the defined design problem, we brainstormed three key features and sketched the storyboards. 

Conversational User Interface (CUI)

  • Users can activate and command Curabot by using voice. 

Video Recording and Messaging 

  • CuraBot can record the videos for the users when they are doing some activities, like cooking, playing games, etc. send the video message to other people's communication devices. 

  • CuraBot can receive the video, audio and text messages from other people and remind users to check them. 


Social Calendar and Reminder

  • Curabot can add the social events or activities for users to their calendar.

  • Curabot will go find them and remind them the time and place of the events or activities ahead of time. 



We came up with the solution that designing an autonomous robot which is adaptive to elderly people's social needs

  • Support multimedia communication: audio call, video call, video recording, audio/video messaging 

  • Conversational interfaces + touchscreen-based interfaces;

  • Automatically detect when, where and how to provide the information and services; 

  • Automatically collects the social information based on the user's interests and needs, and create the social calendar and reminder

Design & Prototype 

The final deliverable we designed and rapidly prototyped for this course project is an interactive robot demo. It is composed of two key parts: the touchscreen-based displayer interface and the body.


Although users can use the voice to activate, command and communicate with CuraBot (conversational interfaces), we think the high resolution, touchscreen-based displayer is necessary as lots of multimedia interactions are involved when using Curabot.


For the body, we focus on the autonomous motion of the body in terms of proximate interactive experience. 

Touch-screen-based Displayer Interface Design Iteration 




Body Prototyping


  • iRobot Create

  • Lenovo N22 80S6

  • iPad3

  • Aluminum profiles

  • Wood pieces

  • Logitech joystick

  • Paper for body

We did the rapid prototyping in the lab of Robotics Institute at CMU.​

My teammate was measuring the wood plank

My teammate was cutting the wood plank

The frame of the Curobot

I was controlling the Curobot by using joystick

The rapid prototype of Curabot


User Testing and Design Iteration Implications

We conducted five user testings. The participants attended the user interviews in the research stage of the project.  We have three guiding questions for user testing:

  • Does the user case of the key features motivate elderly people to communicate with family and friends?


Method: Set the usage scenarios of the key features, and observe the user's behavior in the interaction between the user and Curabot.​

  • ​When, where and how Curabot should proactively initiate the interaction?


Method: ​Set the usage scenarios of the key features. When there is the potential interaction,  we guide the user to experience and compare two different ways: Curabot initiate the interaction without human versus Curabot can only be activated by human command. 

  • How to improve the physical appearance of Curabot?

Method: Ask for users' feedback and suggestions. 

The users found video recording and messaging are particularly valuable when they want to share their hands-full activities, such as gardening, knitting and cooking. Knowing the video messages can be archived and send them anytime, they feel more motivated to do so because it is imposing both for themselves and their family and friends. 

The next round design iteration should focus on the user flow of the video recording and messaging. How can we motivate the users to share their experience by sharing the videos without making both sender and receiver feel "imposed"?

In most cases, the users want to be dominant in the interaction with Curabot. Curabot's autonomous patrolling and related proactive interactions are not valued. The only autonomous service that is appreciated is the location detection happens when the urgent reminding is needed.    

The next design iteration should take into account the dynamic of the initiative and give the users options to set the degree of Curabot's autonomy. The proximation should be considered, including the minimal physical distance between Curabot and the user, and the frequency of the interaction. 

The users prefer Curabot be shorter and smaller. Although they expect the human-like interaction with Curabot,  they are resistant to the human-like appearance of the robot. 

In the next round prototyping, we should do more research on robot appearance design because the impact of the appearance on the user experience is more important than the impact of the touchscreen-based displayer interfaces.

While Curabot is designed to enhance the human-and-human communication, the robot-and-human interaction largely affect the users' behavior pattern. The elderly people have mixed feeling about the Curabot: they believe the robot can be a friend but they are afraid of that possibility too.

The conversational interfaces should be carefully designed to achieve the balance. The script, the sound, the tone, and the postures can give Curabot' human-like characteristics. The use of multimedia, like the light, can emphasize the machine characteristics.

Content for this part is to be added
It is not required as the deliverable for this course project, but I would like to continue this work.
What I learned


The interaction between human and robots are way more complex than the interaction between human and machine 

People have mixed feeling about the human-like companion robots, no matter what they look like. People not just "use" robots. They tend to treat robots like something has feeling and thinking. But they feel scared if their sense of control in the interaction is threatened. The design should reach the balance that making people feel respected and dominant, and also considering the robot's dignity. 


Companion robot design is not just the product design. It is an experience design. 

The robot design is fixing the problems through creating a dynamic interactive experience not just building a set of features. The designer should holistically consider all the factors that may affect the user's feeling, thinking and behavior. For example, the different ways the robot approach the user, the different tones and the scripts of the conversational interface, the different appearance of the robot, etc. all these factors may stimulate different dynamic of the interaction, and thus affect the user experience. 


Understand and respect your user

The elderly people have established mindsets, attitudes, and behavior patterns when interacting with people and the world. It is unwise to expect to dramatically change their lifestyle and behavior patterns. They need time to observe, learn and experience.  A small, elegant feature maybe more meaningful than a bold, innovative feature. Also, the elderly people are experiencing both the physical and mental constrains caused by aging. Any products that target tis population should show respect and empathy to their constraints.  

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