Designing the future of translation

Watson Hello is a proof of concept project showcasing the capabilities of IBM Watson's natural language processing

Role:User Experience Designer


Skills:User experience, wireframing, user research, rapid prototyping, user testing, scenario mapping

Tools:Adobe Illustrator, paper prototyping, Final Cut Pro

Watson Hello was a 4-week IBM new hire challenge to train designers to collaborate in multidisciplinary teams and apply the principles of IBM Design Thinking. Our design team collaborated with the stakeholders from the Watson organization to design a translation app using Watson APIs.

I was put on a team of 7 people - one User Researcher, two Visual Designers, three User Experience Designers and one Front End Developer. Over the course of four weeks, we developed the proof of concept while learning the framework of IBM Design Thinking. As the User Experience Designer, I was responsible for concepting, wireframing, prototyping, and user testing. I presented these major deliverables to the Watson organization stakeholders.

*PLEASE NOTE* This project features new technology and therefore is represented through high level descriptions of interactions and interfaces. This project's design details are password protected.

Due to propriatary limitations, you may find my description here to include gaps my process. I would be happy to discuss the details of my process and experience in confidence.

The Challenge

The Watson stakeholders approached our team with two objectives — to improve the experience of using an app to communicate despite language barriers and to showcase the capabilities of Watson's natural language processing APIs. We were tasked to deliver high fidelity designs, prototypes and roadmaps for future experiences within 4 weeks.

Watson APIs offer a library of cognitive services available on IBM Bluemix to build applications that leverage the power of cognitive computing. The services our team used were Speech to Text, Text to Speech and Language Translator. The market for language translation is saturated and competitive. To make a meaningful product that impacts users, we needed to discover where the pain points and needs were and define the opportunity for the app.

The Discovery

We quickly needed to understand what assumptions and questions we had about the project's objectives, conduct competitive analysis to learn the industry landscape, and speak with users to gain insights on motivations, pain points and needs. We also partnered with cognitive computing engineers to understand how natural language processing works, the current capabilities of the Watson API's and future feasibility.

Due to the tight timeline, all team members contributed to recruiting interviewees and conducting user interviews. In order to understand user's real needs, we interviewed people who require translation services daily. In a week, we interviewed 7 users:

  • A Doctors Without Borders physician
  • A nurse whose patients frequently did not speak English
  • A Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan
  • Study abroad students
  • Employees at global corporations who had to communicate daily in a non-native language
  • A professional translator
  • A supply chain manager at a multinational company

  • We synthesized the findings of these interviews into three distinct personas: the Doctor, the Volunteer, and the Knowledge Worker. Each persona has distinct objectives and pain points that we aimed to solve. We tackled the project by designing for extreme examples in order to create a product that assists in diverse contexts involving language translation and also highlights the unique strength of Watson's natural language processing.

    The Doctor

    The Doctor needs to fully understand patient's symptoms and also communicate complex diagnoses and treatments. She relies on tools such as Google Translate, but is often frustrated that nuanced messages are not interpreted as intended. This miscommunication makes her feel helpless as she's failed her mission.

    "I need to understand, before I can help."

    "I want to help abroad but I don't, because I would feel ineffective."

    The Volunteer

    To prepare for traveling abroad, the Volunteer is trained in basic vocabulary and local customs, as well as given printed resources. However, actual collaboration with the local community reveals shortages in his training and being in the field leaves little time to reference his notes. The language barrier is an overwhelming obstacle in achieving goals together with the community.

    "Language is all about listening."

    "Communication is understanding, understanding is trust."

    The Knowledge Worker

    Working at a multinational company, the Knowledge Worker is excited to share her domain but quickly becomes frustrated and anxious as she struggles to keep up with her peers. As her team bounces back and forth ideas, the mental load of translating while speaking is overwhelming and she often finds that she can’t express the nuances in her ideas.

    "Translating and thinking both take a lot of brainpower, and I can't do both at once."

    "Missing one word can change the context of the entire conversation."

    Insights and Approach

    We visualized the personas experience using journey maps, specifying specific touch-points and pain points where we should focus. From the interviews, we synthesized the key findings into three main insights of how our users approached translation. These insights became the design principles to guide our design solution to support our user's needs. We would frequently reference the design principles to align our team when it came to design decisions and priorities, driving the key concepts of the mobile app's experience.

    We drew concepts from strategies that users had already developed, such as having a handy list of common phrases, calling a local friend, or practicing scenarios with a host family. These concrete behaviors and understanding of the user's environment lead us to our approach:

    We sought to combine human strategies with the power of Watson's cognitive computing.


    Prior to designing any interfaces, we collaborated together to brainstorm and prioritize concepts. Through various design thinking exercises, we produced user need statements, concept metaphors, feasability maps, and storyboards.


    The User Experience Designers sketched out numerous iterations of the interfaces in varying fidelities. Early designs were tested with users through paper prototyping to rapidly evaluate our concepts. Once tried and tested, the designs were translated into mid fidelity wireframes in Adobe Illustrator and tested again with interactive prototypes.

    Visual Designs

    The Visual Designers collaborated with the User Experience Designers to translate the wireframes into hi-fidelity mockups. These hi-fidelity designs were also used to help share our story to the stakeholders.


    We met with the Watson stakeholders weekly to share feedback, drive alignment on the design decisions, and discuss future strategy. This collaborative effort between design, engineering and business allowed us to remain transparent, identify risks early, and construct a collective vision.