How might we get toddlers excited about brushing their teeth?
Brushee, a smart-mirror for pre-linguistic children that attempts to make brushing teeth and engaging and interactive experience.
I led the interaction design, including storyboarding, motion and the feedback loop. I also wrote the poem you see above :)
Toddlers often don't like brushing their teeth. Parents try really hard to help their children with this endeavor: at best, the nagging and coaxing takes a toll on both before the child finally gives in; at worst, the child clamps his/her jaws shut and refuses to let their parents come near them. This problem is widespread.
A team of three, we wanted to help solve this problem through design thinking. We hoped to create an experience so memorable and enjoyable for children that they look forward to picking up the toothbrush twice a day.
Be it a game of hide and seek or watching a magic show, children always find joy in in experiences that leave them surprised or delighted. It is no surprise then that they are more likely to engage with something that is approachable and fun to use, as opposed to something that's simply didactic.
All three of us in the team were interested in creating something that works with this psychology to improve children's behavior, if even in a small way. Here are some ideas that we came up with:
1 A plush toy that responds to their touch
2 A device to help them brush their teeth
3 A ball that changes color when tossed around
4 A device that helps them sleep better
While some of these ideas were exciting and potentially great projects, we felt helping children become more regular at brushing their teeth was the best fit for our creative goals and desire to change behavior.
It was through secondary research that we found out that making a child brush his/her teeth was indeed a problem that needed solving. Primary research was hard because interviewing children requires additional consent. However, we stumbled across this video that became a great starting point and also ended up influencing the name of our project.
This seemed like a playful and fun way to get children to brush their teeth. When we dug deeper, we found that IDEO has indeed employed Sesame Street characters to engage children. We thought bringing Elmo closer the to children in an embodied interaction can help further our cause.
Here are some interactions we considered to support the child brushing alongside Elmo:
1 Racing Elmo to complete a brushing routine
2 Elmo teaching the child how to brush
3 Elmo mirroring how the child’s toothbrush moves
We were concerned that the first two interactions might make the experience exaggerated, stressful or worse, pedantic. The third option’s affordance of imitation is well-founded in research. Children may not listen to what their parents say, but they closely watch what we do. We thought of extending this insight and tying it with Elmo, a character a lot of children feel familiar with.
Storyboarding the interaction between the child and Elmo
using a two-way mirror
In our prototype, we housed a laptop inside a box with a two-way mirror as one of it's sides. When the laptop is turned off, the box resembles a regular bathroom mirror. But when turned on, the mirror stops reflecting and becomes transparent to the source of light behind it. Hence, the two-way mirror became a very important part of our design, allowing us to elegantly design elements of delight and surprise.
We planned on imitating the path of the toothbrush on the screen and thought of using the laptop’s front camera to capture the motion of the brush. However, this idea was quickly scrapped since cameras in bathrooms seem invasive. Instead, we hoped to fit a Bluetooth connected Arduino module inside a brush that could transmit it's coordinates to the computer. Fetching location data from an accelerometer housed in the same brush, the computer is then able to replicate the movements on screen.
Probably the hardest part of creating this hardware was to retrofit a toothbrush to hold a Bluetooth module, an Arduino Mini, an accelerometer, the batteries and a switch. We also designed an additional touchpoint in the form of the three lights that light up progressively to indicate how far the child is in his/her routine.
Moving from a wooden box to an acrylic one, then finalizing the branding and indicator lights
During the project showcase, we received favorable feedback from parents of toddlers, some of whom went as far as to say that this product could potentially make their mornings easier and less anxious.
(Left to Right) 1. A user exploring Brushee 2. Me posing for the camera 3. Our professor evaluating our project
I learned that thinking deeply about affordances and signifiers becomes even more important when designing for children. We risk losing a child's attention if the first few moments of the interaction fail to engage them. I also learned about Arduinos, sensors and how to work with animation in Processing. Finally, I understood why it's so important to collaborate with people from different backgrounds. Brushee may not have been possible if the team wasn't skilled in diverse domains like research, programming, laser cutting and interaction design.