Interaction Design for Social Robots


Developmental disabilities (DD) are a set of permanent and severe problems that are challenging many people nowadays. As the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD) has revealed, “160,500 (0.6% of Canadian adults) were identified as having a developmental disability” . This survey also indicated that 90% of adults with a developmental disability needed assistance with some kind of everyday activity, and 72.7% of them reported some degree of unmet need for at least one of these activities. 

In the past, there was some research work investigating the use of technologies such as speech generating devices in communication interventions and robotic assistive therapy for people with developmental disabilities. As HCI researchers, we are interested in exploring different technologies and designing meaningful interaction to help them. In recent years, many service robots, also known as assistive robots, are being developed and introduced to various user groups including the elderly. We see the potential of social robotics and determine to carry out our interaction research on the foundation of Human-Robot Interaction (HRI). We believe that socially assistive robots are a great medium for filling in the gap mentioned above, and that they can improve the life qualities of people with developmental disabilities.

Our research tries to develop a new type of sociable robot whose characteristics are different from traditional robots – socially assistive robots (SAR). They are expected to have certain social intelligence to be capable of more than companionship with individuals and cognitive assistance, and thus to become a functioning part of the environment and community. As an HCI researcher in this team, I aim to design effective interaction for the robot to be capable of providing affective support, in addition to the functions as mentioned above.

Prototyping Process

This project presents a study of social interaction design of socially assistive robots specifically for people with DD. We explored the social dimension of HRI through three user studies. Our study followed a previous investigation on how caregivers communicate with their residents with developmental disabilities. Through this process, we analyzed the interaction patterns of both sides. 

Users and the Environment

People with DD are a large user group in which there are substantial individual differences of cognitive levels, skills, characteristics, etc. In this study, we worked with a local group home of the Developmental Disabilities Association (DDA). There were around 5 residents living at the group home, and 3 to 5 caregivers on site during the day time who provided residents with regular training, care, entertainment, and scheduling. Staffing was also provided at night to accommodate residents.

User Persona

Conceptual Framework

HRI is a multidisciplinary research area concerning the “analysis, design, modelling, implementation, and evaluation of robots for human us” . Recent advance in the use of social interaction and affective expression in HRI has benefited social robotics, a subdomain of HRI. Previously, social roboticists had determined the foundation of social robots being competent to provide service and companionship – that is, being functional and affective . These two main features form a robust interface for the elderly to interact with technology which gives them not only care and companionship, but also enjoyment and dignity.

Design Workflow

The figure above shows the design workflow of our research. This overall research project is to study the social and affective impacts of social robots from two aspects: physical and non-verbal interactions. We found that a graphical user interface (GUI) is an effective way to present information and thus is commonly used as a primary instrument of communication and interaction on socially assistive robots for the elderly with cognitive impairment . Also, I investigated how the physical form and the change of a robot’s spatial presence can influence the relationship between robots and people with DD. Therefore, this research consists of three primary areas: robot behaviour, graphical user interface, and interaction design. 

Three Central Research Areas
Three Central Research Areas

This project is essentially a study of human-robot interaction. Robotics is not the primary focus; it is, instead, the foundation of the research. To learn this connection between users (i.e. people with DD) and robots, I need to design social interaction and manipulate robot behaviour. Another part of this social interaction is GUI.

As described in the concept map, the following factors need to be considered and investigated: purposes and objectives of robots, functions of socially assistive robots, technical prerequisites, and possible problems and challenges. Robot Behaviour cover technologies needed for this research, and elaborate on technical details. Interaction Design explores the connection between residents and robots, and we need to know what the robots are designed for. Thus, the purposes and functions of socially assistive robots have to be clarified here. Graphical User Interface solves communication problems. There is an overlap between interaction design and GUI. However, GUI should be considered as an individual category because of its significance – it is one of the main focuses of this project.

Visual hierarchy is the sequence in which users perceive information from a user interface. It starts from real objects and gets stepped up to more abstract line drawings and text. This figure shows the order of different types of visual representation based on the difficulty level of understanding the information.