• Son Luu

Microsoft Design Expo 2019 | Empathy At Scale

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

Team "Ask Charlotte"

Class: Design Expo

Mentor: Michael Dory

Design Expo is a semester-long class at leading design schools, sponsored by Microsoft Research. Students form interdisciplinary teams of 2-4 students to design a user experience prototype that solves a real-world problem. Design Expo began as partnership between Microsoft and Apple to integrate technology into the curriculum of design schools worldwide to build long term relationship with the design schools, and build community across schools. This year's theme is:

"Empathy at Scale"

This year, four teams within NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program were honored to be selected to participate in the eight-week program (out of 17 idea submissions). We will be mentored by our ITP alumni - Google representative: Mike Dory. From these 4 teams, one will represent NYU to present their work at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington USA.

Project Team of 4

▫️The Challenge: Today's teenagers face a lack of comprehensive, inclusive, accurate sexual health information.

▫️The Outcome: Ask Charlotte - an online guide that provides users (particularly teenagers) aggregated, credible, and inclusive resources for sexual health information regardless of gender identity & geographical locations.

▫️ My role: project management, research, interaction design, prototyping, user testing

Week 1: Research and Idea Proposal

Our team of 5 members all come from different backgrounds: 1 engineer, 1 programmer, 1 designer, 1 film maker, and 1 businessman, and because of that, I know we're off to a great start. I love collaborating with a diverse group of interdisciplinary team members. You contribute your strong skill set and background to the project while learning so much from each other, expanding your knowledge in other unfamiliar areas.

With how broad this year's theme "Empathy at Scale" is, it can be both an advantage and a disadvantage during the research phase in order to come up with an idea we want to work on. On one hand, we are free to explore and pick any area of problem we feel strongly about; on the other hand, the scope could potentially be overestimated. At the end of the day, we have only 6 weeks until we present the final product, so nailing on the right product idea as firm and as early as we could is the task at hand.

Before our first team meeting, we prepared by reading and researching on our own and came up with potential areas or topics we each feel appropriate for the theme "Empathy at Scale". As we met up, we each pitched the topic to the whole team. We used sticky notes, divided the board into 3 groups and start generating ideas for:

(1) Who? --- which group of target users?

(2) What? --- what problem area?

(3) Technology Tool? --- which technology would be appropriate to incorporate?

... and evaluate different combinations of ideas under each groups to narrow down what were most feasible.

After about 3 hours of brainstorming and evaluation, we decided to go with a problem area we felt that it is challenging, complicated, still needing a lot of attention in many regions: Sexual Health Education for Teenagers.

As we identified those high-level challenges around sexual and relationship education that teenagers seem to continue to experience despite available resources, we came up with a preliminary problem/opportunity question:

After a few days, our team still struggled with clearly defining the product we wanted to develop. So, at the second meeting, we did a brainstorming exercise to identify as many ideas as possible related to 4 different areas of topics:

(1) Teenagers

(2) Physical Sexual Health

(3) Teen Relationships and Emotional Health

(4) AI Technology

We came up with plenty of relevant, innovative ideas that would help address issues within the above areas. All ideas were further grouped into 4 categories:

(1) Information Feed

(2) Mood Boosters

(3) Alternative means of communication

(4) Virtual Assistant

Although a well-defined product idea was still not decided, we knew what were the goals we wanted to achieve in helping teenagers obtain a better experience with sexual health education and relationship guidance. The initial idea of Ask Charlotte was born...

As the team identified AI as the appropriate technology tool to support our product development, we also realized the many controversies and challenges with using AI in data collection, analysis and personal information manipulation in the digital world, which is our biggest concern. We wanted to establish guidelines for the use of AI in our product design and development.

As part of the research stage is to find out what are the products in the same realm that already exist. Understanding the product market can potentially reveal opportunities to bridge gaps and look for more innovative ideas to improve current user experience.

The Tuesday before our first progress presentation to our mentor, I found several products that provide guidance related to sexual health and education for teenagers. What stood out to me was a chatbot product: Roo - a collaborative project between Work & Co - a digital design firm and Planned Parenthood - one of the largest leading nonprofit organizations that provide sexual health care in the United States and globally.

This is Roo, the closest to our vision for Ask Charlotte. We knew we needed to explore Roo more. We downloaded the chatbot and started interacting with the tool to understand how this new technology tool help teenagers with sex and relationship education. The tool didn't disappoint based on our trial. However, we are not the users! We would have liked to hear more from teenagers who have used the platform, but Roo is still so new that it needs more time to receive more reactions and feedback.

Despite a market full of products that aim to help teenagers obtain an improved experience with sexual health education, why is Ask Charlotte relevant? What can it provide that would enhance the current experience? We came up with 4 features of Ask Charlotte that we envision for the product to provide teens.

We hope to move forward with the product idea. However, the next step is to share out project idea and speak to relevant stakeholders and obtain feedback to validate our research findings and see if Ask Charlotte is going to provide what is in need.

Week 1 - Reflections

We received very insightful feedback from Mike as well as the other teams:

Feedback from Mike for Ask Charlotte:

  1. Mike liked the team's problem statement: "How might we provide...?"

  2. It was a great idea to study and research on competitor Roo.

  3. Team lacked on why we decided to choose AI and hardware to develop our product. Although we did explain our reasons, we were encouraged to focus on the problem and ask ourselves how these two technologies would address that problem. Why that particular technology approach among all that are out there?

---> Based on these question, our team really need to re-assess our research on AI and hardware and re-evaluate why we think these technologies would be crucial to what we are trying to do. Are we missing a bigger picture? Are we too excited about the technology and forget to focus more on the problem we are trying to solve?

Feedback from other teams for Ask Charlotte:

  1. "The presentation mentioned teenagers don't feel comfortable talking and sharing with closed family members; why would teenagers come to this product then instead?"

  2. "The presentation proposed to build a social network of support, but also brought up guidelines about privacy. How do you build social connection without violation of personal identity and privacy?"

  3. "Team proposed to address "inclusivity" among identity groups of teenagers. I grew up in a different culture where specifying my identity as an LGBTQ individual and being included with other groups on platforms like this is not the best protection for myself. It can be dangerous to the community members."

---> These questions remind us of the complication of the topic, and that there are many aspects we could be overlooking as we develop our product ideas by NOT speaking to the relevant stakeholders and potential users.

---> We need to quickly get in touch with the stakeholders to explore more perspectives and insights before we move further along with Ask Charlotte. We definitely don't want to develop a product that we fall in love with, yet doesn't provide the actual users what they really need.

Week 2 | Further Research and Connecting with Stakeholders

Reflection Summary

Connecting with Stakeholders

Our team met again this last Sunday at Freehold - Morgan's recommended coffee place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We decided to meet here because we had a scheduled meeting nearby with Hayley - a representative at Ali Forney Center, a NYC based largest LGBT community center helping LGBT homeless youth in the U.S. We were all excited and could not wait to meet with Hayley.

The meeting with Hayley provided many insights regarding what is lacking in helping LGBT teens with sexual and relationship challenges. We got to listen to stories that truly represent empathy. Thank you, Hayley!

We gathered all our notes on observations and tried group them into themes or patterns. What stood out to us the most was around teens' emotional connection and support while dealing with personal sexual physical health and/or navigating youth relationship issues.

Understanding the Problem

Hailey shared, the staff usually referred their teens to hotlines to speak with professionals, instead of pointing them to online sources. We realized that online resources, for certain groups of teens, are not trustworthy.

The following data came from studies and research by the Guttmacher Institute - a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally.

Not only that, online sources are not inclusive in terms of information to support all groups of teens, especially marginalized groups. This is particularly true, as times are different now. There has been increasing acceptance of gender fluidity among youth, which comes with a demand for a lot of health education information and materials to be updated and more inclusive for all groups of young users. Indeed, organizations such as World Health, and United Nations have advocated for the position of sex education being put within the framework of human rights and gender equality in the current landscape of societies all over the world.

Week 3 | One More Round of User Research

Access to Users - A Tough Challenge

Working on a project that targets a protected group such as teenagers, has exposed us to the biggest challenge: access to users. Without direct contact with our users, how do we gain insights? How do we obtain feedback? How can we understand the journey and the emotions they experience? In response to this challenge, limited to the amount of time we have, we have been reaching out to individuals and organizations that work directly with teenagers and obtain relevant insights and stories from them about our teen users.

We made an attempt to ask a friend who is connected with a high school educator to help send a survey out to any teenagers who may be interested in helping. In addition, we reached out to our high school principles as well as high school doctors to seek help based on their experience supporting teen students. The only things that were insightful were a few comments from two teenagers who actually took the survey.

These comments further supported what we found regarding the lack of inclusivity in current formal and informal sources for sex health education.

The persona that inspires the solution for this project is one that reflects an extreme case overwhelmed by the stressful process of information searching, a lot of fear and concerns about inaccurate, outdated details as well as a lack of comprehensive and inclusive information as they navigate physical and emotional support related to sexual health issues.

We were fortunate to also be able to schedule a meeting with Rose - a representative from Planned Parenthood. Rose worked with the design team that designed Roo chat bot. The conversation with Rose, once again, validated 2 problems: inclusivity for marginalized teen groups, and trusted sources of information.

Leveraging the insights we've gained so far from the survey as well as individuals and organizations that support teen groups, we went deeper into the journey of our users in the process of searching for sexual health information to gain a better understanding of what activities involved, what emotions they experienced and what specific pain points were associated with every step. Based on those pain points, we hope to identify meaningful opportunities to help solve the problems.

Week 4 | Ideate Solution Concepts

Design Goals

As we've identified the opportunities of problem areas we'd like to tackle, it is important to set the primary goals that we target for the product we are creating.

Concept Ideation

Low-Fidelity Prototype for User Feedback

We walked through the user flow of a search engine and pointed out where are some of the areas that could be improved, what are the steps we can control, what are some of the options that may be available for more exploration.

Based on what we think could be approached differently, and which options are more feasible, we wanted to quickly made a low-fidelity prototype so we can show to our potential users and stakeholders for feedback.

We sent the prototypes to Hailey - our representative from Ali Forney, and spoke to Rose at Planned Parenthood. We also approached other people who know and work with other young people of teen age to gain their perspectives.

Week 5 | Design Iteration

Going to into a new round of design iteration, we wanted to remind ourselves of what we are trying to create, what are the design principles that guide us through this process:

  • Accessible: accessible to all regardless of gender identity or geographical locations

  • Privacy protection: respect for personal identity

  • Comprehensive and Inclusive: physical and emotional health, serving all groups of users

  • Trustworthy: trusted sources

First of all, letting the users know their privacy is our priority is one way of emphasizing the platform's understanding user's concerns and wanting to address it upfront: no data collection, no questions asked about personal identity of any kind.

Understanding the stressful process of searching information while being uncertain whether the information out there is trustworthy or not, the search engine is intended to be assistive with featured topics as well as providing suggested relevant information to users.

At the bottom of the landing page, we show our users who are our content partners to provide transparency and let our users know we not only value accurate and credible information but also take our users' trust seriously.

The platform is intended to provide comprehensive information without becoming a social media platform where content filtering can become a major concern. The idea for Ask Charlotte is to provide both:

  • Fact-based physical health information, provided by trusted health professionals and organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Advocated for Youth etc.

  • Perspective-based stories and articles, provided by credible journalistic sources such as: The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Journal of Adolescent Health, etc.

  • Hotlines to allow directly speaking to health professionals as needed.

User Flow Demo

As shown in this Demo, the comprehensive contents of Ask Charlotte are categorized into 3 groups:

1. Learn the Basics: providing fact-based physical health information

2. Explore the Stories: providing perspective-based articles and stories, reflecting up-to-date information and current landscape of sex health education for teens

3. Hotlines: allowing interpersonal connection and help by professionals

In addition, as part of the result page of Ask Charlotte, users can continue to explore more information on our trusted source's sites via direct links to those sources.

Contextual Search Handling

If users run into scenarios that expose specific health risks and safety, instead of further refining search terms, Ask Charlotte will provide a more tailored, context-based result which could include contacting professionals for immediate help via hotlines, if applicable.

Development Plan

As part of the development plan for Ask Charlotte, we want to make sure to engage communication with our key stakeholders:

1. Content Partners: these will include both credible journalistic sources as well as trusted health professionals and organizations to explore ways of safely, effectively and efficiently linking relevant information to our platform.

2. Users: understanding the difficulty in connecting with our teen users, we need to approach and work with individuals and organizations that directly support teenagers in order to gain their feedback and insights.

From there, it will be an iterative process of ideation, user testing, and continuing to improve the site with the help of our partners and users.

Week 6 | Presentation Week and Reflection

We presented the product and received great feedback from the Microsoft team - Amy and Telmen, our Google mentor - Mike, as well as other respectable Faculty Members at ITP - Tom Igoe and Dan O'Sullivan.


  1. Access to Users: this was the biggest challenge from the beginning until the end of our project. Having said that, I am proud of the team for being creative with who we could reach out to and stayed committed to designing based on the user stories we were able obtain through professionals and organizations working with teens. The lack of access to users reinforced the importance user input as guidance in our process of designing for People.

  2. Positive reinforcement in sex education: as many negative stories and experiences as we've been exposed to throughout the process of developing Ask Charlotte, we also realized the lack of positive stories regarding healthy relationships and sex education among teens that should be voiced more on educational platforms.

  3. Addressing extended groups of audience: these groups could include parents, educators etc. Among these groups, some may be more conservative than others. As a result, when assessing sources of information and content partners, it is recommended to study how to address these different groups of audience and the spectrum of their perspectives on the chosen sources.

  4. Assistive Search Engine: It is also recommended to look further into how to make Ask Charlotte even more assistive for users who may not know which specific terms to search for. These users may be a lot younger and require a more hand-holding process in order to find what they are really looking for.

It has been an awesome learning journey. We've learned so much from this process, our mentors, and also from other teams. I'd like to conclude with an excerpt from my closing key notes in our presentation:

Teenage sexual health is an issue that extends beyond just physical health. It requires us to empathize with and step into the shoes of millions of teenagers to understand their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Through Ask Charlotte, we hope to present sex education with a positive approach, emphasizing values such as respect, inclusion, and empathy regardless of gender identity or geographical location. We believe sexual health education has a broader relevance to other issues, including the overall wellbeing and healthy development of societies around the world. Teenagers are the next generation of leaders, thinkers and inventors and we must provide them with the essential education.

We all understand what it is like to be a teenager. How can we leverage that to empathize with them in this new and changed landscape? With Ask Charlotte, we feel empowered to learn, understand and practice empathy on a deeper and more meaningful level. Because we believe empathy is not a finite resource, but a renewable one.

After our final presentation in April 2019 at NYU. From left to right: Myself, Amy, Telmen, Mike, Anna, and Arthava. We missed two other members of the team in the photo: Morgan and Jenny.

Thank you for your interest in this project!