How Was Your Day? Evaluating a Conversational Companion

By David Benyon, Björn Gambück, Preben Hansen, Oli Mival, and Nick Webb

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appeared in the July-September 2013 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing.
Click here to read the entire article.

A fascinating new movie entitled, simply, Her, tells the story of a lonely, somewhat depressed divorced writer who falls in love with an operating system that promises to “meet his every need.” To some, this concept may seem far-fetched and “made for Hollywood”, but the field of companion technologies is a rapidly emerging one. It may not be long before these companions are part of our everyday home and workplace settings. The article “How Was Your Day?” describes a paradigm and methodology for evaluating the main aspects of functionality and overall system behavior of one such system, the “How Was Your Day?” (HWYD) companion system. Although the study focused on the HWYD companion, the techniques in the article are applicable to evaluating other companion systems.

HWYD is an embodied conversational agent (ECA) in the form of an avatar that can discuss work-related issues in advanced spoken language dialogue. The aim of the HWYD companion is to showcase a sophisticated model of natural dialogue interaction using speech-based interface. The scenario of the HWYD companion engaging in conversational interactions with the typical office worker was chosen because it is representative of what companions in the home could offer in a few years’ time. A large screen in the home would display the avatar who would greet the users when they got home, and be capable of holding conversations centered on office-related topics.

The HWYD avatar exhibits facial expressions and gestures and can engage in long free-form conversations about events that have taken place during the user’s work day. The article contains a link to an interesting video demonstration of a related avatar.

Companions can span the spectrum of utility from being highly useful (providing information, or caring for someone) to being quite non-utilitarian (e.g., like a pet) but still providing important support to individuals. Being able to discuss your work day with your companion is very possible; falling in love, well, that remains to be seen.


David Benyon is currently a professor of human-computer systems, the director of the Centre for Interaction Design, and the faculty director for interdisciplinary research at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. He has received funding from several European funding programs and developed a number of novel theoretical ideas on human-computer interaction concerning the sense of self and place in mixed reality environments and also published on semiotics and experientialism applied to new media. He is the author of Designing with Blends (MIT Press, 2007) and Designing Interactive Systems (Pearson, second ed. 2010).

Björn Gambück is currently a professor of language technology in the Department of Computer and Information Science, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and the head of European Collaborations at SICS, Swedish ICT Research AB. He has been at the Royal Institute of Technology and universities in Saarbrücken, Helsinki, and Addis Ababa. He has managed a dozen national and international projects and published more than 100 scientific papers on subjects such as conversational agents, spoken dialogue translation, system and user evaluation, and machine learning applied to language processing.

Preben Hansen received the PhD degree in information studies and interactive media from Tampere University, Finland. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University. He works with research questions in the areas of information seeking (IS) and information retrieval (IR), including theoretical models of IS and IR processes, empirical studies of users and the use of interactive information access systems, and collaborative environments.

Oli Mival received BA (Hons) degree in psychology from Edinburgh University and the PhD degree in human-computer interaction from Edinburgh Napier University. He is a senior research fellow and the director of the future interaction network at the Centre for Interaction Design, Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. His research interests include developing, designing and implementing new forms of interface and interaction experience.

Nick Webb is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, Union College, New York. His research encompasses a range of language processing applications, including information extraction, question answering and dialogue systems, computer science education, and social robotics. He was a principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-funded Social Robotics Consortium of the Capital Region, and is co-PI of the Social Robotics Workshop, funded by the National Center for Women and Information Technology.