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Field Reports

Talk to me (it's Human Nature)

Maslo founder Cristina Poindexter on why talking to ourselves is the next frontier in engaging with tech. 

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

It all started, like so many things, with cake. And beer. And conversation. Cristina Poindexter and Ross Ingram were both Google employees when they met at a friend’s birthday in 2016, and discovered a mutual passion for thinking about how technology was affecting the human experience. Today’s technology, they felt, was making our interactions too robotic. There had to be a way to design something that would utilize the power of tech but allow us to more deeply explore what makes us human. And so Maslo was born.

A voice journaling app, Maslo is designed to encourage people to talk, quite literally, to themselves, as a colorful, animated orb prompts them with questions (via text) to get them talking about their day. Poindexter and Ross see their place in the market as somewhere between products that encourage mindfulness and those that claim to be virtual psychologists. The design and branding was done with an eye toward getting people to feel comfortable talking to an AI.

“Having something personified to talk to allows people to open up more,” Poindexter says, noting that the app also tracks voice sentiment as you speak. Right now, Maslo doesn’t respond to user’s entries with words, though Poindexter says that’s possible down the road. The idea, she says, isn’t for Maslo to act as a stand-in therapist, but to help people “dial in on the core experience of emotionally processing your thoughts with a digitally mediated tool.”

Maslo recently launched a research project to get feedback from early users about their experiences, and sat down with us to chat about what they found.

Notes from Cristina Poindexter...

On the impetus for the project

My co-founder and I were both previously at Google, and we’d both seen that there was this emergence of people interacting with tech in brand new ways. Sane, smart humans who were asking rhetorical questions to tech products, things they knew the tech wouldn’t answer. There's this huge spectrum of people using technology as a reflective tool even when it's not designed for it.

People are starting to expand their concept of wellbeing into mental health. There are products on the market today that are about meditation, and those that are about virtual therapy, but there isn’t really anything in the middle, something that allows you to be in a sort of generative, creative, expressive mode. And there’s so much that’s in the middle that can be addressed, and it’s not just fuzzy stuff. There is a lot of science behind the power of journaling to rewire psychology, the power of self-talk and how it can rewire your brain, and focusing on positive things to train yourself to be happier.

So it started us down this path of, “how can technology help us understand what's going on in our internal world?” And thinking about how technology, through a voice interface, can actually allow you to gain personal insights that are helpful for you to grow as a human.

How it works

When you log on to the app for the first time, you decide what you’d like to focus on, and that curates the questions that Maslo will give you. That could be rediscovering confidence, or working on being happier. In that case, it might ask you to focus on three things that made you laugh that day. It seems basic, but we aren’t always asking ourselves those questions or thinking about those things, and so the practice of actually focusing on it and speaking about it, even if you’re just talking to a piece of tech, can help.

The system generates various questions that you could use as a jumping off point, or you could just dive in and say what's on your mind without needing a prompt. As you're speaking, it has various animations as if it's listening, and you interact. You just kind of tap it when you're done, and it does its own interaction. It performs basic sentiment analysis today, so it understands if you're feeling on the range of really positive, to things are a bit rough. The orb changes depending on your average sentiments over all the entries that it has stored. The vision there is that in time, the orb is this representation of your inner state and changes as you interact and open up to it.

Why people want to engage this way

We call it a personified experience, and it’s designed to get people to open up more. Because if you know that there is someone listening, it invites you to start speaking. Even if that is kind of a Pixar-like piece of tech, it can help you open up more and get talking because it is a new behavior.

If you’ve had a rough day or you’re going through something, there’s so much value in talking it through with someone. Having a great friend who will sit there and listen to you and talk you through it, and just sort of support you as you emotionally and verbally process what's going on. We asked ourselves, “how would that look if we built some kind of technological tool that acted as that kind of companion? That encouraged you to open up and process what you have going on?” 

Because it’s anonymous, people really feel free to speak about things. There’s something really powerful about being anonymous and having a purely unbiased listener.

Because it's anonymous, people really feel free to speak about things. There’s something really powerful about being anonymous and having a purely unbiased listener. It encourages users to be completely honest. They're not worried about anything. They can say anything that's on their mind, something that they may not have been able to share with other people. So it can be pretty powerful.

On how AI is helping people have very personal insights

It's shocking how much clearer some things can be that we mull over when we just say them out loud, right? As if we're explaining them to a friend. One user told us that he’d been talking through something that had been on his mind for weeks and that he felt really negatively about. It was something that was getting him down. But as he started to explain it out loud, “something weird happened,” and he realized in the process of explaining that it was actually a good thing, and he was grateful for it. He’d had a complete perspective shift just by talking through it. So it's that kind of experience. Its something new that people haven’t done before, and it's mediated through technology.

The AI is all in service of generating these experiences and conversations that in themselves are valuable to the user. It’s not “I'm talking to Maslo because I want it to tell me how I feel.” People are always going to be smarter than any technology, including AI, when it comes to who they are, how they feel, what they're doing. But what can be very interesting with AI is its ability to understand trends and patterns very well. Some of those are unconscious patterns we have that we can't recognize in ourselves. AI can be that agent that sort of pierces our bubble and asks us questions we maybe haven’t thought about before. That ability to track patterns, and help you shift your own perspective on something, those are the capabilities we’re really excited about.

How user research has helped chart Maslo's path

The biggest gap in the product today is the value proposition. People need to understand the benefit. The most recent research that we did with dscout was specifically crafted around that, to try and understand how people are processing their use of the app now. We needed to zero in on what people wanted to do with Maslo—whether that was rediscover mindfulness, or strength, or confidence—and understand if they’re making the connections between the journaling and doing those things already, or if we need to actually step in and help guide them and think about how we would do that.

What we heard was a lot of people say that if they hadn’t vocalized their thoughts to Maslo, they wouldn’t have said it at all. That was pretty powerful.

Via dscout, we asked Maslo users to tell us, over the course of a week, if they felt like they were getting a unique benefit from using the tech, or if they could have gotten some of these benefits other ways. The answers that we got really clarified for us what our beachhead market is, and what value people are finding from using the product today, in beta.

What we heard was a lot of people say that if they hadn’t vocalized their thoughts to Maslo, they wouldn’t have said it at all. That was pretty powerful.

It confirmed that this product was giving them an opportunity to process something they may have otherwise repressed or dismissed. One thing we did learn was that users wanted to know why the app was helping them; they wanted that clarification. They sensed that it was helping them, but they were having a difficult time articulating how or why, and they wanted Maslo to actually frame it for them.

On future uses and applications

Our vision is that in time, we’ll build up the technology behind it so it will understand your voice, and the people, places, and things in your life, and ask personalized questions. Say you had a rough day at work last week, and you're processing that to get it off your mind. This week, it should be able to ask, “This was on your mind last week. What are you thinking about it now? Are things better or worse?” Just like a friend would continue that conversation with you. By nature, I think that would include some type of dialogue, and possibly not always through a voice interface. AI is also really good at tracking patterns, and those are capabilities we’re really excited about.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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