Design Research: Epi


Design research, creative direction




Amorous, anxiety-addled adults 20-30


Maxwell Crabill, Kate Johnson, Rick Paz


Preliminary Research
Unstructured Interviews
Data Sorting & Insight Generation
Empathy Mapping
Solution Conception and Illustration
Smoke & Mirrors Prototyping
Creative Direction

Guiding question

How might we reduce anxiety in a young adult's experience when seeking and maintaining romantic commitments?


To conduct an exercise in design research and idea development. We used our findings to dream up a new, speculative design based in insight, principal, and real-world prototyping.  By incorporating a hot mic in to the solution, we familiarized ourselves with the ethical dilemmas implicit in designing with always-on surveillance.


Secondary research revealed trends among young adults of increased anxiety when finding and committing to romantic partners. We conducted a series of unstructured interviews, which revealed many subjective sources of romantic anxiety. We created empathy maps, and synthesized our insights into design principles which guided our ideation. After settling on a speculative solution in the form of EPI, we tested the idea through smoke-and-mirrors prototyping which gave us a unique opportunity to observe typical reactions to an omniscient, relationship-monitoring AI.


The Research Process


Millenials are perceived as anxious and confused when it comes to romance and commitment. How come?
  • Secondary research revealed a general perception among millennials of cluelessness and anxiety surrounding romance.

  • We devised research questions and assembled a study guide to use in a series of unstructured interviews.

  • We interviewed eight different young adults, each in monogamous relationships, between the ages of twenty and thirty.

  • Research techniques used included guided storytelling and conversational, unstructured interviews.

  • I interviewed three participants personally, and took time with my teammates dissecting all eight interviews in to qualitative data points for our next step: insight generation.


Insight Generation

We turned those interviews in to data. Through the power of sticky notes, we turned those data points in to insights. (This is my favorite part)

I was particularly excited to discover the following:

  • Fear of failure is a nearly universal contributor to day-to-day anxiety.

    • "Analysis Paralysis" happens in part thanks to the increased possibility of making a "wrong" decision when faced with many choices, inflating the perceived risk of failure.

  • We are told what love and lust should feel like by our parents and society before we are old enough to experience it ourselves.

  • Our parents typically have emotional power over us, because we must eventually either accept or reject their assertions of what is normal. This also applies to popular culture.

  • Love transcends work and play - the gradually increasing amount of work we put in to a relationship functions as a stress test for its purposefulness.


Empathy Mapping



We transformed our most relevant insights in to guiding principals. These principals would ensure our design stayed focused, effective, and ethical.

Close to my heart were the principals of assurance, humbleness, and nurturing.

  • "Assurance." The critical role fear of failure played in our participants' experiences was tangible to me. Many contemporary apps play up those fears to manufacture urgency and user dependency - this was our chance to buck that trend.

  • "Humbleness." Derived from the idea that relationships take time and work, often without immediate payoff. Our ability to delay gratification, extend our focus, and separate our wants from our needs is what makes us human, and current consumer tech is often built to rob us of that essential quality.

  • "Nurturing" is rooted in an essential principal of interaction design: it is our job to help others, not change them. Similarly, for a commitment to work, it must be built on who the participants are, not who they might rather be.


Concept and Testing


With our principals in mind, we considered problem spaces we could work to solve. We concepted dozens of designs. I sketched out the best ideas for presentation and peer feedback.
  • We encouraged each other to be speculative, critical, and fantastic.

  • Personal to me were the Thoughtshare and Spectre concepts. Thoughtshare skipped to the heart of social interaction to create a sense of community without forcing direct engagement. Spectre had enough Black Mirror-esque qualities to be a genuinely intriguing speculative design.

  • Many of our principals and insights largely transcended romance and focused on anxiety as a larger phenomenon. Because of this, many of our design concepts did as well.



After settling on EPI’s concept, we concocted a smoke-and-mirrors prototype and ran user tests to see how users would react to a sci-fi fact checking robot.
  • Keeping with the "Black Mirror"-like concept of our assignment, EPI was originally a live fact checker and conversational moderator, which pulled information from user's social platforms and the web.

  • To test UX, two interviewers sat in the room with the participant and a bluetooth speaker, which would play the part of EPI. A third researcher would sat in a separate room with a close friend of the participant and a laptop connected to EPI. The two would use a text-to-speech program to attempt to moderate the conversation, check facts, and dispense personal feedback.


Final Deliverables

While a lot of fun, the critical nature of EPI’s design forsook several design principals. I thought it was time to see what EPI would look like redesigned with our principals in mind.

In her current incarnation, EPI was jarring and intrusive. When creating the final video pitch and slide deck, we envisioned a softer spoken, more compassionate AI instilled with basic therapy training. It focused on allowing one or two people to achieve long term emotional goals and track their progress, while holding them to their promises and avoiding judgement. Something a little less out of the dystopia of Minority Report, and a little more at home in the summery future of Spike Jonez's Her.