My Special Aflac Duck
Creating a social robot that comforts children undergoing cancer treatments.
With My Special Aflac Duck, children learn how to express difficult emotions to caregivers through the duck and the accompanying accessories. With the mobile app, children play soothing soundscapes, do medical play, and administer chemotherapy to their ducks. Provided at no cost to families, over 13,000 ducks have impacted children in the U.S. and Japan.
Between 2017 and 2020, we created both My Special Aflac Duck and My Special Aflac Duck for Medical Professionals.
The social robot helped Aflac evolve its 18-year-old brand to include brand attributes of innovation and care.
My Special Aflac Duck
(01.2017 – 09.2018)
My Special Aflac Duck for Medical Professionals
(12.2019 – 09.2020)
Awards & Press
“Children battling cancer can’t always express their feelings. Now a robotic duck is doing it for them” – Washington Post
“Aflac’s toy robot for kids facing cancer is the smartest toy of all” – The Verge
Since 1995, Aflac has supported pediatric cancer with over $157 million to date to its research and treatment. Despite their famous brand and mascot of the white duck, Aflac’s commitment to cancer research was not well-known. Aflac reached out to Sproutel to develop a product that can enhance Aflac’s brand as a caring innovator.
My Design Approach
As a design leader, I led the design process by creating a design culture where the team and the client held user experience design as its core value.
Design & User Experience
As the main lead in the user research process, I helped the team navigate the complex problem space and identify design opportunities. I guided the team to strive for a design solution that could empower and support families while also highlighting Aflac’s care for children undergoing cancer treatments.
My Special Aflac Duck project had many moving parts while working with multiple vendors (engineering, design, research, PR). I communicated the design quality expectations effectively with clear storytelling and documentation and developed a close, efficient working relationship with the team.
Throughout the project, I helped the team have a holistic view of design, product, and business goals. I advocated for sufficient user research and design investment when scoping the project. With careful planning and a thorough execution plan, I ensured that the team delivered projects on schedule and verified success with feedback from users and clients.
To best understand the cancer treatment journey, I led a three-month-long design research process by interviewing and shadowing 50 family members and healthcare professionals at Children Healthcare of Atlanta.
We identified that families coping with pediatric cancer are overwhelmed and challenged by adjusting to a new norm. Because treatment is different for every child, there are so many unknowns and uncertainties for families to keep track of. While undergoing cancer treatments, children often feel a loss of control and isolation from family and friends. Throughout this stressful time of treatment, a moment of joy in the day-to-day makes a big difference for the families.
We decided to bridge education and comfort by creating a product that could create moments of joy, connection, and calm for these families.
How might we improve the lives of children with type 1 diabetes through comfort, education, and joy?
The Final Product
It took us 18 months to create the My Special Aflac Duck. I directed all design and art in hardware and app development. I interviewed and tested prototypes with over 80 family members and healthcare professionals.
Through playing with the duck and the accessories, children learn how to express complex emotions to caregivers. With the digital app, children play soothing soundscapes, do medical play, and administer chemotherapy to their ducks. The duck also has soft fur that is removable and machine-washable.
The duck and the accessories – seven feeling cards, chemotherapy port-a-cath, and Spaceship that triggers the soundscape feature.
By tapping one of seven different feeling cards on the duck’s chest, children emote the duck and express their emotions to caregivers in often stressful and heightened settings during treatment.
Using a port-a-cath accessory, children administer medicine to the duck and feel the duck’s heartbeat.
Children play different soundscapes using the Spaceship accessory.
When creating the visual design for the world, my key principle was to design fun interactions for children with vibrant visuals and animations. I led the art direction, visual design (2D, 3D), UI/UX, and AR interaction design. I directed and oversaw the development of music and audio creation.
Children feel a sense of exploration by exploring the duck’s world.
Children tap the characters to interact with them.
Children explore different planets to listen and customize different soundscapes.
Children build a sense of control by feeding the duck.
Children create a sense of connection by bathing the duck. The duck moves and responds to touch and water temperature during the virtual bathing session.
Children do medical play with the duck-like giving medicine using the IV.
The Duck for Medical Professionals
As we distributed the product, Child Life Specialists (CLS) wished for additional training on using the duck. Taking their feedback into account, we created a new version of the product for medical professionals.
The duck for medical professionals includes additional medical play accessories, facilitation cards, an expert guide for CLS, and a Carry Case: MRI / CT Simulator.
When leading the design process, I ensured that the product was informed and reviewed by 36 child life specialists (CLS). As we developed the product, I conducted research to identify product opportunities and to inform content for the Expert Guide, Do-It-Yourself Accessory Guide, and Facilitation Cards. I hired and worked with a vendor to finalize graphic and visual design.
The product included an Expert Guide that showed an overview of the product and a Do-It-Yourself Accessory Guide.
Facilitation Cards include 17 different ways for CLS to use the duck with the patient.
Provided at no cost, over 13,000 ducks have impacted children in the U.S. and Japan. In a clinical study conducted by Children Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), the study showed that the duck decreased the child’s perceived distress by 50%. The duck served as a distraction for children and a way to communicate emotions for both children and parents.
When My Special Aflac Duck launched in 2018, the product gathered 2.5 billion media impressions with 2.4k placements.
With the program’s success, Aflac successfully positioned its brand among families and healthcare professionals as a ‘caring innovator.’ In 2022, Aflac expanded the program to help children facing sickle cell by adding sickle cell-related medical play features and accessories.
“I don’t think I have ever seen my kid laugh longer and I mean he was loving every minute of it. And the fact that [the duck] had the port too, [the duck] was able to relate to him even more. It was kind of something that, that kind of helped us to be able to explain things to him in a way that he was able to understand it too. It made our lives a lot easier in that aspect too.” – Parent
“[The duck] just brought the kids both so much joy and helped them both to understand things and it’s definitely has been a good addition to our family.” – Parent
“The Aflac ducks are a game-changer, and honestly have made me fall in love with Child Life all over again. It reinforces to me the value of play, and the importance of empowering children to retain control over their environments.” – Child Life Specialist