Approaching and coping with anxiety with a conversational user interface

Ada is a CUI (conversational user interface) that helps people prepare, overcome, and reflect on high stress situations using a calm and empathetic tone.

Being multimodal, she can communicate in public and private spheres through text and voice. This project was completed as a submission for the 2016 Microsoft Design Expo.

Renee Chang
Tingwei Chang
Natalee Ouzts
Emily Phan
James Pai
Key skills
User Research, Storyboarding, Rapid Prototyping

Microsoft expo 2016 challenge

Design a product, service or solution that demonstrates the value & differentiation of the CUI

After digesting the design prompt, our team started off by investigating broad problem spaces that we thought would receive the most benefit from a CUI.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Where we began

During our brainstorm session, a point that often came up was the the idea that conversation can be healing. This led us to discuss the problem space of mental health, particularly anxiety. Anxiety is the activation of your body’s alarm system. Only one-third of the adults who are diagnosed receive treatment. However, everyone experiences general anxiety from time to time.

How can a CUI provide an accessible way to cope with anxiety?

To further understand our problem space our team decided to first conduct primary research. We performed eight interviews to gather qualitative research about how people experience and cope with anxiety. We spoke with students to learn how anxiety can be triggered in different ways, as well as a psychologist to learn successful coping mechanisms.

  • To help people cope with anxiety, the CUI needs to:
  • Help people overcome difficult situations
  • Facilitate self-reflection and mindfulness
  • Provide reassurance and feedback

Identifying Key User Needs

By understanding the difficulties that people with anxiety commonly faced, we developed three primary design objectives that we wanted our solution to address.

Creating a Storyboard

It was important to our team to develop a full scenario to showcase how Ada could be applicable. We accomplished this by creating a storyboard for a video prototype that we would use to convey Ada's concept.

Leveraging Technology

The team needed to make sure that our concept of Ada was realistic and could be fulfilled with current technology. We did a lot of research on bone conduction technology, and while at the time it was not widely applied, we recognized it could become very commonplace in the future.


Ada is a coach that helps people prepare, overcome, and reflect on high stress situations. As a CUI she is resourceful, accessible, and non judgmental – able to help you when needed. To see her in action, our team created a video prototype.

Design Decision

Provide Reassurance & Feedback through tone

An effective way to help people in high stress is by using a calm, friendly tone in conversation. During anxiety attacks, a common response is to become hyper self-aware and talk to yourself in a negative tone. Thus, Ada addresses Chloe’s pessimistic thoughts through encouragement of positive and rational thinking.

Design Decision

Use questions to facilitate self-reflection

Ada asks Chloe open-ended questions that help Chloe’s self-awareness and to find the cause of her uneasiness. Taking journaling aspects of emotional release and tracking personal progress, Ada provides a space for external expression.

Design Decision

Be context aware based on biometrics and situation recognition

Dr. Gerber explained that exposure therapy is a common technique that targets what makes us most anxious. Therefore, Ada responds by giving Chloe an opportunity to prepare the interview environment that makes her uncomfortable and stressed.

Reflection and Takeaways

Incorporating CUI technology proved to be challenging as our team had to traverse the thin line between respectful and invasive. We realized quickly that language plays an important role in design, regardless if a CUI is being used, and spent a lot of time debating and testing what kind of language to use in the video script.

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