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Developing an interactive story for the Google Assistant

Bedtime is a magical moment for kids. A moment between parent and kid where they can feel safe and experience the most exciting adventures - just by listening to a story. But what if we could increase the magic of this moment, and at the same time stimulate the imagination of kids? What if we could do this by using just one simple smart speaker? That’s what my team and I tried to achieve, and I would love to share the process with you.

Smart speakers

There’s a new digital interface on the rise. In the last couple of years, conversational interfaces have shown rapid growth in both quality and popularity. Companies like Amazon, Google and Apple released dedicated smart speakers which can be used to control a smart home or assist the user in accomplishing simple daily tasks. The popularity of these speakers is increasing; 24% of all US households own a smart speaker, and this is expected to grow to 70% before the end of 2020. A growth that is even exceeding the rapid adoption of smartphones. Almost 2 years after the initial US release, Google brought its speaker to the Dutch market, where it is expected to reach the same level of adoption as in the United States.

I’ve been working as a conversational designer at Greenhouse Group Conversational since July 2018 now. Since then, my team and I cooperated with several innovative brands who were keen to collaboratively learn and discover the possibilities of conversational interfaces.

Auping

One of the first brands that jumped aboard is Auping, a Dutch bed and mattresses manufacturer. We were informed that the Google Home was going to be released soon, and Auping wanted to be available on the platform as soon as the Google Home would launch on the Dutch market. Auping was a perfect fit since the bedroom is one of the places where the Google Home is used most. Besides that, our partners at Mindshare were working with Auping on releasing a new brand campaign. This campaign was revolving around the beautiful moments that people have in their beds. (Yes guys, also those moments.) A great opportunity to strengthen Aupings’ brand campaign by the use of a Google Home.

Bedtime stories

We presented multiple concepts, including one called: “Bedtime stories”. This concept was all about this magical moment between a parent and their kid. The moment where kids can use their imagination while listening to a story told by their parents, just before slowly falling asleep. But what if this moment could be used to increase the magical feeling of this moment, just by adding multiple layers of sounds and interaction? The Google Home would be the perfect piece of hardware to make this work. Auping loved the idea, but did want to see a see a connection with the stories in their brand campaign.

At this moment, there was a concept idea, but it was still way too broad. That’s why we developed concept variations and compared them by writing down some pros and cons. Eventually, we chose an interactive audio story, where the story is being told by a narrator and background sound is added for more immersion. During this story, the child could interact with the story in order to proceed. This concept made the best use of the tech of the Google Home while still being realizable within the available budget/timespan.

Prototyping the story

After deciding on a concept, it was time to build our first prototype. The goal of the test was to answer a few questions:

  • “Which type of interactions work best?”
  • “How many interactions should a story contain?”
  • “What’s the perfect story length, before you lose the kids’ interest?”

Hansel & Gretel
Since there was no written story yet, we took inspiration from an existing story: Hansel & Gretel. A simple version of the story was tweaked to fit interactions in there. A few examples of the interactions:

  • Asking a question
  • Asking to shout
  • Choosing a left or right path
  • Asking for a gesture (waving, pushing etc.)

Dialogflow was used for the development of the Google Action prototype. A Google Action is the name for 3rd party chatbots/assistants that are running on the Google Assistant.
Usually, it takes a lot of time to think out a conversation flow and translate it into a Google Action in Dialogflow. But since we were creating a story, which only had one straight path from start to end, the flow was fairly simple. It only contained 6 story parts, which were divided by 5 interaction moments.

The most important part of the prototype was the audio. For this part, we took our revised story script and recorded it. The quality was not ideal, but good enough to work with. After the recordings were done, the audio files were uploaded into our Dialogflow prototype. We now had a Google action containing the audio story including interaction moments.

User test
For this first user test, a couple of parents tested our Google Action with their kids (5-9 y/o). It was important to us that they would test it right before bedtime, so the situation would be similar to the situation we were aiming for with the end product.

Some things that worked:

  • Kids love cheeky jokes:
    At a certain point in the story, the kids were given a choice between the left or right path. On the left side a fart/poop house, and on the right side a candy house. Every single kid chose the fart house and did this while laughing their socks off. Definitely, something to keep in mind.
  • The physical interactions (pushing, waving hands) worked better than questions.
  • The sound effects had a positive effect:
    The kids were really immersed in the story.

Some things that didn’t work:

  • The story was too scary for some: Parents abandoning their children, starvation. witches that eat children, that’s terrifying stuff for kids this age.
  • The story was too long: The ideal length turned out to be around 8-10 minutes.
  • Some questions were too difficult to understand: We asked how many rocks Hansel needed to pick up to find its way back home. A lot of kids froze, and didn’t know what to answer

Building the story

The learnings gained from the prototype were crucial in developing the story for Auping. Since we now had a better idea about the kind of interactions that work best, the ideal story length, focus age, and story type. On to the next step: developing the beta version of the actual end product.

The story
Since none of our team members had experience with writing children books, we teamed up with Judith Koppens, an experienced children’s book author. In order to strengthen the branding, the story should have a connection with the latest Auping brand campaign and the stories and videos that Auping already developed for this campaign. One of the stories was about a little boy laying in his bed, afraid of the storm, and his mother entering the room to comfort him. In the same video, you can find a robot and a dino toy laying around in the kid’s bedroom. Thus, Judith was asked to build the story around this video and include the kid’s toys as characters.

Interactions
It would be amazing if the kids that are listening to the story could be part of it themselves. And that’s exactly what we tried to achieve. The very first interaction is a simple question: “What is your name?”. The child will tell its name, after which the assistant will use their name to address them before every interaction. This should increase the immersion and will add a personal touch to the story. A lot of kids turned out to be super surprised and thrilled whenever the assistant would call them by their own name.

For the remaining interactions, we chose numerous physical movements, like waving your hands to scare away birds, and blowing into the microphone to make objects fly. These interactions could not be picked up by the Google Home. However, during the user test, it was noticed that most kids don’t even care or realize that the Google Home wasn’t listening to them. They were still enthusiastically waving their hands to get rid of all the scary birds.

Let’s talk about the voice
The Dutch Google Action voice is pretty robotic, to say the least. It will improve over time, but at the moment this action was being developed, it was just not very human-like. Luckily, the biggest part of the story is being told by a narrator, so there wasn’t any reason to worry about the voice too much. However, for the interaction moments, the robotic Google Action voice had to be used. At this moment we came up with the idea to connect the Google Action voice to the story’s robot character. From that moment on the Robot joined the main character on his journey and guided the kids through the story’s interactions. So in the end, the robotic voice actually turned out to be a good thing. We eventually made extra adjustments to the voice to make it sound even more robotic.

The soundscape
The story is being narrated by Birgit Schuurman, a famous Dutch actress and singer, who also narrated the Auping commercial. Not only did this create a great connection to the commercial, but she also turned out to be a great fit for this story. A warm and pleasant voice, perfect for narrating a children's story.

For the soundscape, our team cooperated with the same sound studio that worked on the Auping commercial. They did an amazing job enhancing the story with incredible sound design while maintaining the magical feeling that the story should capture.

Sharing the story with the world

It is finally time to share the Auping story with the world and upload it to the Google Assistant. But how do you make sure that people can actually find the story?

Explicit invocation
An explicit invocation occurs when the user tells the Google Assistant to use an Action by name. At first, the name of Aupings Action was: “Auping bedtijdverhaal” (Auping bedtime story). This name was based on a search query analysis.
The user would invoke our action by saying: “Hey Google, I would like to talk to Auping bedtime story”. However, after a while, we noticed that the Assistant had trouble understanding the word “bedtijdverhaal” (bedtime story). Most of the time, it wouldn’t even invoke our Action. It turned out that the word “bedtijdverhaal” was sometimes being picked up by the Google Assistant as two words: “bedtijd verhaal”. These invocations results were so inconsistent that it was decided to change the Action name to “Auping”, which improved the invocation rate drastically.

Implicit invocation
The biggest downside of explicit invocations is that the user must be aware of the existence of your Action in order to invoke it. But luckily that’s not the only way of invoking an action. Implicit invocations occur when a user makes a request to perform some task without invoking an Action by explicitly saying its name. In this situation, the Google Assistant attempts to match the user's request to a suitable fulfillment. These implicit invocations have to be defined in Dialogflow.

For Auping we’ve created a list of invocation based on search volumes. Some examples:

“Ik zoek een verhaaltje voor het slapen gaan”
( "I’m looking for a bedtime story" )
“Start een kinderverhaaltje”
( "Start a children's story" )

In these examples, the words: “Verhaaltje voor het slapen gaan” and “Kinderverhaaltje” were based on high search volumes and bot relevance.

Communication
For the launch of Google home and Google assistant Google organized a Google Home warming, an event in Amsterdam where they furnished an apartment and equipped it with smart home devices and Google Home speakers. Several brands were able to present their Google Actions to the Dutch press. One of these brands was Auping, who claimed the bedroom with the bedtime story we developed. A perfect PR moment where they were able to give the press the first introduction to Aupings' Google Action. After this PR moment, a social campaign was launched to generate extra awareness.

Wrapping up

We have not been idle since the release of this Google Action for Auping. Our team continues to learn and develop in the area of conversational interfaces. If you are wondering how conversational can strengthen your brand, or if you are just eager to know more about the subject, feel free to contact our team.

And if you are curious about the end result, and want to try it with your own kids: The Google Action is available on Google Home and other Google Assistant devices which are set to Dutch.
It can be invoked by saying:

Hé Google, praat met Auping.