We’re riding a rising wave of new tech at the moment: Virtual Reality can transport us digitally to fantastic new worlds; cars can now pretty much drive themselves; and smart speakers and voice assistants are becoming an increasingly common part of people’s homes. The options for integrating these new tools into everyday life now seem limitless, and there are plenty of companies out there who are looking to help people use this exciting new tech in constructive ways…
That’s why we wanted to speak with Wunder: they’re a fascinating platform that are combining AI and voice technology in a smart speaker platform to help parents better guide and support their child’s development. We sat down with Sandra Sobanska, Wunder’s Head of Product & Partnerships, to chat about the launch of their new product – but our conversation also explored how the tricky issue of communicating the details of tech products to consumers, dealing with parents’ anxieties around online safety, and how the growing prevalence of voice tools is opening up exciting opportunities in the kids and parenting spaces…
Wunder – Deploying AI and Voice Tech to Support Early Childhood Development
Hook Research: What is Wunder? How does it help parents?
Sandra Sobanska: Wunder is the first science-based parenting assistant that uses voice technology and A.I. to give new parents with children between 0-3 years old the right information at the right time.
Wunder platform consists of a personalised app and a Wunder nursery device with a voice parenting assistant. By simply saying “Hey, Wunder” parents can activate the assistant on the go and receive help with:
- Hands-free, voice-activated logging of daily routines (e.g. feeding, sleeping, diapers, pumping) and educational routines (activities, books)
- New and developmentally-appropriate activity recommendations
- Scheduling reminders
- Turning on night light and sound machine
- And, most excitedly, tracking their level of language interactions with the baby on a daily basis, which we know is the top predictor of IQ and school readiness.
The companion app tracks everything that parents log and provide reports and developmentally-appropriate activities, books and expert tips to help parents ensure their child is on track.
Parents can also join Wunder’s guided programs where they can connect 1:1 with an early childhood specialist and learn how to add more structure and consistency to their daily interactions. Wunder programs have been curated by our Education team and are based on the evidence and recommendations from Harvard, MIT, American Academy of Pediatrics or Child Mind Institute.
HR: Talk me through how the team came up with this product – where did the idea come from? How did you refine and test that idea?
SS: Wunder was founded in 2017 by Lamont Tang, a Stanford neuroscientist and a father of 2 boys. The idea first came out of Lamont’s personal need. His first son was born with a congenital medical condition and was at risk of developmental delays if not stimulated properly.
“We’re proud to be a parent-obsessed and data-driven team and we adopt the continuous discovery process to our product development to make sure that we’re building features that solve the real problems of parents”
Knowing how critical the earliest language exposure is for the child’s growing brain, he personally experienced the lack of commercially available tools that could help him track how much and how well he interacted with his son. Additionally, as a working parent, he found himself short on time to crawl blogs and forums for reliable parenting information and wanted to build a platform that could gather information about a child’s development and deliver reliable information to parents at the right time – helping take the guesswork out of parenting.
To validate our idea we conducted a clinical trial with our first MVP and 25 families, where we built a simple NLP (Natural Language Processing) app that could tell parents how many words they spoke to their child each day and provided them with activity ideas. After 8 weeks, we observed that parents who had access to this feedback spoke around 40% more words to their children every day and, most importantly, their children had 27% better language understanding scores compared to the control group.
With this promising result the idea of the Wunder platform was born.
At our core, we’re proud to be a parent-obsessed and data-driven team and we adopt the continuous discovery process to our product development to make sure that we’re building features that solve the real problems of parents. We’ve talked to hundreds of parents and conducted two rounds of in-house testing in San Francisco where we could see parents use our first prototype of the voice assistant live. We’ve also just finished a 6-month beta of our Wunder App and identified a group of early adopters who are now helping us make the app more personalised and helpful before the official launch this summer.
HR: What have been your biggest barriers in bringing Wunder to market?
SS: We’ve always primarily been a team of scientists and software engineers so pivoting into a hardware and voice company brought its own challenges. Initially we were just hoping to build a word-tracking app, but we quickly realised that parents wanted to have screen-free interactions with their child and a standalone smart speaker was a much more desirable solution. Luckily we were able to join HAX accelerator based in Shenzhen (China) and San Francisco who helped us a lot with early prototyping as well as navigating the Chinese manufacturing ecosystem.
Thanks to HAX we were able to hire great hardware and firmware engineers (including Anik Dey who previous co-founded the first startup that created an emotionally-intelligent smart speaker!) and we’re currently at the last stages of being ready to ship the Wunder device to parents this year.
In parallel, as we were attending the StartX program at Stanford, it became clear that the voice revolution was about to take off and there was an opportunity to expand how we use NLP in our product. Not just to monitor the child’s language environment but also to assist the parent with their daily questions and routines. Building our own voice assistant, rather than using existing infrastructure of Google or Alexa was a choice that made our development process longer but it was also critical for being able to protect our user’s privacy and make sure we can analyse the audio data and improve the accuracy of our assistant over time.
HR: How does AI power up the parenting experience? And how do you see this changing or evolving moving forward?
SS: The best thing about AI-powered recommendation engines is that they can quickly learn about the user’s preferences and continuously improve as the user provides them with more data. “The best thing about AI-powered recommendation engines is that they can quickly learn about the user’s preferences and continuously improve as the user provides them with more data”
“The best thing about AI-powered recommendation engines is that they can quickly learn about the user’s preferences and continuously improve as the user provides them with more data”
In our case, we’re doing this first with activity and book recommendations. On one hand, we’re continuously checking-in with parents about their child’s milestones which allows us to recommend activities that are targeted at the things their child has not achieved yet. Additionally, parents can also select their sub-set of goals, which are milestones they want to prioritise working on. In this way, we are able to provide them with a more granular recommendation that is also aligned with their parenting goals.
Our book recommendations engine is an even more novel and exciting offering. Together with our Education Team, we’ve curated a list of over 3000 children’s books which are both entertaining and educational. We link these to specific skills and age groups that they are most appropriate for. The magic happens when the parent joins the app and begins to create their own library by scanning the barcodes of books they have at home and which are already well-loved by their child. Based on this, Wunder is then able to generate unique book recommendations which are both developmentally-appropriate, but also similar to what their child already likes!
Going forward, we’re going to be improving the accuracy of our recommendations with the data we receive from our users.
HR: Many parents aren’t particularly well-informed about concepts like AI or NLPs – in your experience, what’s the best way to introduce parents to more complex tech like this?
SS: That’s certainly true – and I think we learned it the hard way. Initially we struggled with our marketing because we were inclined to highlight the technology behind the product (as we were excited about it!) but this would generally leave the parents confused or even worried about potential implications of overly “smart” solutions.
“When we started talking to our users it became clear that we needed to speak their language and frame the benefits of AI and NLP in terms of problems that it will help them solve”
I think when we started talking to our users it became clear that we needed to speak their language and frame the benefits of AI and NLP in terms of problems that it will help them solve. This worked!
We have also noticed over the past 2 years that parents are becoming much more familiar with voice technology and implicitly understand the value it can provide. Typically 50% or more of users we interview already have smart speakers at home!
HR: Safety is a big issue in the smart speaker space. In our own research into the platform, we’ve chatted with many parents who are worried about the ‘always listening’ capabilities of smart speakers. How are you addressing these concerns?
SS: Our device is not always on. The user needs to actively turn the listening mode on by saying “Hey Wunder” followed by one of the available commands (e.g. Give me an activity recommendation).
Based on our user research, this ability to actively control when the device records and when it is not is one of the most desirable features because it makes parents feel more secure. The user can also turn on the privacy mode at any time, which will disable the microphone and ensure no audio will be sent to the cloud.
HR: In other interviews, you’ve spoken about the importance of having a ‘Supportive UI’ rather than an ‘Addictive’ one? What do you mean by that? And why is that so important in this product?
SS: One of the design principles of our product team is to always try to maximise the value we bring to users while minimising the time they need to spend with our product.
“Our philosophy is that each parent already has the best tools to help their child grow – their voice and loving presence – and we want them to see how using it more every day can help a child thrive”
This approach is a bit unconventional with the mainstream approach of trying to “hook” the user into the product and drive time spent on the app. In our case, we know that time parents spend on our app is time they are away from the child.
Additionally – in terms of reporting data on development – we are very cautious to not make the parent feel judged. Our philosophy is that each parent already has the best tools to help their child grow – their voice and loving presence – and we want them to see how using it more every day can help a child thrive.
HR: Looking forward, are you particularly excited about any emerging tech in this space? Are there any tools or processes that you think will change the way parents help their children develop?
I think there are 2 main trends in the voice industry that make me excited about what we might be able to do with Wunder in the future.
UK Penetration - Voice Assistants (EY 2019)
The first one is that voice is now becoming a new interface. This means children who grow up with Alexa at home tend to expect to be able to speak their commands out loud in the air almost anywhere and have Alexa hear them. As user behaviours change, we might be able to come up with new and exciting use cases – such as extending our Assistant to work on phones or smart watches over time to serve the parent wherever they are (not just around the Wunder device).
The second trend is the humanising of voice technology. Right now a lot of smart speakers are still a bit robotic and not very emotionally intelligent. But, especially with parenting, we know that providing mental health support and encouragement can be a very important factor in parents’ wellbeing and motivation. We’re hoping that after we launch and learn more about how parents interact with our assistant, we might be able to develop interactions where parents can receive guidance and validation from our experts when they feel low.
It sounds a bit futuristic, but we think this is not that far off!
Thanks again to Sandra for taking the time to speak with us! Wunder is launching soon – you can join their waitlist here to be the first to know about it: www.hellowunder.com
If you enjoyed this chat, you’ll probably like the other interviews in our Creator Conversation series. Alternatively, be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletters to keep up to date with all of the exciting things happening in the Kids and Media spaces.