NICOBO, a robot born out of
empathy with consumers and sense of mission

UX Designer
Future Life UX
Kaho Asano
Product planner
Smart Life Network Business Division
Yoichiro Masuda
Smart Life Network Business Division
Shinya Kemi

What would a future life with robots be like? What are people seeking? Until now, robots have been meant to perform useful functions for people. However, Panasonic’s NICOBO development team easily broke through this stereotype. In a way, NICOBO doesn’t do anything for us. It just wags its tail, engages in baby talk, and stays by our side as a housemate. When the team proposed a combination of a product and a service that provides a lifestyle with NICOBO on Makuake, a crowdfunding platform, the target number of supporters was achieved in just 6.5 hours. How did they create new value that won the empathy and support of people? We interviewed the development team to find out.

Involvement of a UX designer
from the process of idea creation

The NICOBO development project started with no clear goal in mind. The product planners, engineers, and designers who got together to create a new business featuring UX design had almost never met each other before. Through a series of discussions to identify pain points from the perspective of consumers, they came up with several ideas, one of which was to develop a robot.

Providing users with a good experience was already nothing special. However, there is no single answer to how we should apply UX design to product development. Since we had little experience incorporating UX design into product development in our company, we felt like we were groping in the dark. To put UX design into practice, five members from AV-related technology, product planning, and design came together to start a project. We had no concrete idea at the beginning. What would a product born out of a careful observation of consumers be like? All of us worked together to research and solidify the concept of what we offer. Gradually, the passion of the five members expanded the circle of people who could identify with our idea, and the technology and content necessary for the development of NICOBO were put in place.
As a product planner, I finally decided to develop NICOBO because of its potential to take advantage of our digital AV technical assets. Robots are said to be akin to mixed martial arts in the technical field, which requires a wide range of digital and analog technologies, such as the mechanism of movement, a CPU with a throughput equivalent to that of smartphones, and connection to a server for upgrades. Although we had never built a robot, we had the required set of technologies to make it. In our discussions, we came up with the notion that a combination of products and services would be able to create value, or more specifically, help solve some of the pain points of living alone; and that lead us to the idea of a communication robot.
It was fun for product planners and designers to get together from the idea creation stage. To be honest, I was feeling that the development objective did not necessarily have to be robots. To me, the creation of new value itself was of great significance. However, engineers love robots, and in this project too, they naturally wanted to work on them, which was encouraging to me. Despite their busy schedules in their own workplaces, all the members were willing to spend a lot of time on the development of the robot. I think it was partly because they were drawn to the irresistible appeal of robots.

Meeting with Dr. Okada, a professor at Toyohashi University of Technology and advocate of “weak robots”

Although the team set the goal of developing a communication robot, Panasonic essentially had little expertise in robots. The team approached universities and companies in search of a development partner, and they finally met Michio Okada, a professor at Toyohashi University of Technology and leading authority of “weak robots.” From then on, the project took a step closer to reality.

One of the features of “weak robots” advocated by Professor Okada is that they are not perfect at communication. However, a sense of unity can be created between people and robots through their collaboration on a single task. Before we met Professor Okada, we had been aiming for an advanced language function that would enable us to have chats. However, we reached a major turning point when we came to think about language from the perspective of the satisfaction brought about through the relationship between people and robots. We want our robot to be a roommate, rather than a tool. Therefore, we have improved the accuracy of voice recognition by taking advantage of the noise reduction technology we have developed for our AV products, so that we can communicate with the robot even without addressing it with trigger words such as “Hey, Nicobo, do this or that.”
I was impressed by Professor Okada’s idea that the experience of helping a robot makes us feel that we have done a good thing, and that living with weak robots will create a tolerant society. Professor Okada told us that communication is not only about conversation, but it also includes gestures and other body movements as well as emotions expressed through eyes and smiles, and dialogue that is built on top of them. It was a significant input that broadened our definition of communication.
I liked the idea of people and machines, even without full functionality, cooperating with each other. We complement each other and feel joy of doing good for others. That is wonderful, and it would be great if the interaction between people and products could inspire such feelings in every corner of our society. It is said that subtraction, rather than addition, is important in design. We are tempted to cram all sorts of functions in NICOBO to get the best out of it. However, we decisively add to or subtract from our design, focusing on experience that is the most important for users in their lives with the robot. In that sense, it is my opinion as a designer that NICOBO’s value is due to its subtractive design, or in other words, its vulnerability.

Creating an environment that enables people
from different fields to discuss in a common language

What we see in the development scene of AV products are generally square and hard items. In such an environment, the team members sitting around the fluffy knitted NICOBO and having discussions must have seemed quite strange. Meetings of the NICOBO development team are filled with smiles. How did members with different backgrounds, such as product planning, engineering, and design, and with a different mindset come to understand each other and align their development vectors?

According to the materials used to explain the NICOBO project to the company, the team met 2.5 times a week for a total of 240 hours, and used 1,560 sticky notes to jot down ideas. The team started out with five members, then expanded to 10, and now we have about 30 if you count everyone involved. Our basic rule is that our top priority is the work of each workplace we belong to, not NICOBO, and that it is okay to be absent if we are busy. The important thing is that team members respect each other as experts in their respective fields. I remember that when we had discussions, I always kept in mind that Ms. Asano is a professional UX designer and has a lot more expertise than we do in this field.
At the beginning, we were fumbling for how to communicate with each other. I had difficulty getting a clear image of what Ms. Asano, the designer, was saying. Therefore, we asked her to demonstrate the movement of NICOBO, and videotaped it so that we could have a common image in mind. Members were sometimes busy with a lot of other work, but we understood and helped each other, which I think was great. In addition, we were all enthusiastic about creating a new business with our AV technology.
As a UX designer, I first defined the personality of NICOBO based on the concept of creating a life with some giggling moments. Then I designed its interaction with people, including its favorite phrases, how it nods, and eye movements to express various emotions. I documented the nature of NICOBO, and also showed our members similar characters that already existed, so that everyone could share what I imagined in my mind. Sometimes, technical members implemented some specs that I requested in a meeting on the spot (for example, I wanted NICOBO not to meet the sight of a person when it farts beside them). We are particularly attached to NICOBO not only because we have been engaged in it from the concept stage, but also because all of us firmly believe that this project will benefit society. That motivates us and bring us joy of doing something meaningful.

Reaction to NICOBO surpassed the success of the crowdfunding campaign. Many people outside Japan viewed the video of NICOBO, and the “farting cat robot” went viral around the world. Weak robots bring people spiritual wealth. The development concept of the robot captured the hearts of people in Japan and around the world. The goal of the development team is not only to solve people’s pain points, but they also aim to create what people wish there were, in other words, what people yearn for. NICOBO is smiling with its eyes looking toward a happy future.

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