Personality on Wheels

MSc Master Thesis | Imperial College London & Royal College of Art

Project Duration: 5 months  |   Individual Work    |   Mobile Application    |   UX Design

ZooKA is an autonomous vehicle (AV) ride-hailing service equipped with a zoomorphic virtual driver. Turn a passive passenger into an active rider, using zoomorphic behaviour traits to design a human-AV system with affective communication. ZooKA driver identity is presented as an embodiment of the Autonomous Vehicle algorithm allowing riders to receive cognitive and affective responses to form a reliable relationship.

My Skills:
Project Management, User Research, Market Analysis, Field Observation, Design Fiction Workshop, User Experience Design, Interface Design, Wire-framing, Prototyping, Usability Test, Wizard of Oz Experiment;

- 1 research paper in delivering
- 2 exhibition showcase

Key Problem
For newbies who have zero experience with AV technology, it’s difficult to trust a machine-like vehicle based only on cognitive information that provided by the system. To support rider forming a reliable relationship with the AV, it requires driver system to deliver affective information to empathize with its users.

Design Goal
How might we foster a positive AV experience and contribute to the development of trust between riders and AV?

Using Zoomorphic Driver to Develop Trust between Rider and
Emotionless Self-driving Car

Value Proposition

User Journey

Final Design

Driver Information
I provided users with a category view of the drivers to help the user see and know whom they could choose to be responsible for their journey. On the driver list page, users could view the image of the capability of the virtual animal driver. When users selected a particular driver, more information regarding the personal story and operation capability will be displayed on the selected driver page. This process will help users get full control over who they are going to order and build an initial understanding and engagement before the journey started. I also designed the visual representation of different driver identities matched with different driver personalities and driving styles. It could help users simply understand who will be operating the vehicle and how the vehicle will be operated.

Find Vehicle
How to find the vehicle is troublesome. If a user has ordered in a crowded area, it will be frustrating to find the right one. After the vehicle arrived in the designated parking space, the parking area view will be available to navigate the user on finding the AV. A 3D street view of the AV generated by the vehicle's inbound sensor and algorithm will showcase exactly where the vehicle is.

In-vehicle Interaction
When a user started the journey, the travelling page will keep updating the journey process and providing thematic interaction with the user to ensure the user’s needs or questions will be recognised. The traditional tipping process has been replaced by snack treatment to promote emotional engagement with the users. The further review process has also been replaced by simple voice-reviewing offering instant feedback.

On-road Wizard of Oz Experiment
This project has gone through an iterative user testing process, resulting in the development of a compelling proof-of-concept. It offers 8 participants an immersive experience through an on-road "Wizard of Oz" experiment, allowing them to directly interact with the technology and gain a deeper understanding of its capabilities.

70% of initial users say that ZooKA service is trustworthy and they would love to continue use it

“Zoomorphic Behaviour Traits mediated ride-hailing service can potentially build and grow trust with intuitive interaction and emotional connection. Enhancing the emotional experience support user to perceive its usability more positively and have higher intentions to continue to use the technology in the future. “


Research has shown that the advanced development of autonomous technology doesn’t result in the popularity of the public. 44% of 2500 respondents from the UK claim that they don’t trust self-driving cars. One of the hindrances is the overblown technophobia which has been historically the subject of various fear. To overcome the challenge, it is clear trust will be a decisive factor in customer acceptance. Since autonomous vehicle technology is not market-ready, I adopt a speculative design approach with insights from existing taxi services to investigate pain points and potential opportunities to leverage user experience.

Problem Statement

  • How might we design a trustworthy experience for an autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service?

  • How might we increase the engagement and interaction between riders and autonomous vehicle?

  • How might we allow people to overcome the fear and judgement on the autonomous technology?

My Approach

  • Adopting speculative design approach to translate users’ imagination into actionable innovation

  • Delivering affective information which  is essential for users to make sense and build a perception of the technology they using

  • Introducing zoomorphic design approach to design a visual and identity representation for AV

Observation & Semi-structured Interview

I started this project with observation research to directly observe and document the behaviours and interactions of passengers, drivers, and other stakeholders during the journey in real life and through online video content. Following a semi-structured interview, I talked with the observed participants to gather their insights on the journey and build a conversation imaging the journey with an autonomous vehicle

Journey Map

The ride-hailing service consisted of four parts. Information receiving, first contact with AV, riding with AV and after journey. What stood out was the communication with the vehicle. This was the most frustrating part of the journey simply because the driver has been taken away and there is a lack of emotional engagement with the passenger which is not fully fulfilled by the machine.

Design Fiction Workshop

The design fiction workshop was created to collect users' insights for design ideation. The objective of this session was to investigate users' speculation and expectation of the conceptual zoomorphic AV driver. 12 Participants were invited to the virtual workshop (due to COVID restriction) and presented with a series of fictional scenarios with the core task "Image a journey with a driverless taxi that has a soul of an animal”.
*A Story Book - “A City Alive with Animal-powered Vehicle” was written based on the users’ speculation from this workshop.

Read It Here ︎︎︎

Translate Speculation into Actionable Innovation

This part summarises the results from previous research and explained the ideation and iteration process to build the product.

Since the context of this service was placed in the coming future and the target user was those who hold sceptical opinions on autonomous technology, the initial users were those who lack full knowledge of autonomous vehicle technology. The core design tasks were focused on the three touch points to ideate solutions (to design a reliable experience and engagement for users)

  • Driver Information Display (Before Hailing)
  • Meeting the Autonomous Vehicle (First Contact)
  • In-vehicle Interaction (Ride with AV)

Through analysis of the workshop result, the key ideas have been categorised based on the user journey. I analysed the data and identified the most frequently mentioned ideas. Based on the analysis, I selected the ideas that were mentioned by the majority of users as the most promising ones to build the final product.

Prototyping & Design

The prototypes have been developed consistently through three stages mapping out the service blueprint presenting the user flow, creating low-fidelity wireframes illustrating the ideas through sketch and building an interactive high-fi prototype. I have conducted two rounds of user testing with 13 people in total to evaluate the flow of the application and usability (contrast, text size, colour choice, and visual identity). The biggest takeaway from the usability test was that I need to restructure the driver page, and make the information easy to access and visually appealing for the user to select.

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© 2024 Douglas Yueming Lai. All Right Reserved.


Human-AI Interaction & Digital Innovation

Playfulness & Sensory Engineering

Speculative Future & Cities in Motion