Pillow Talk

Working for J. Walter Thompson NYC as a UX Design Jump/Start Intern focusing on Product Design, Product Development, and Rapid Prototyping.

Check out the promo video! prod. by Dylan Malburg.

01     -     Background

As a UX Design Intern at J. Walter Thompson NYC, I brought my experience with product design and development to a variety of campaigns. My feature project, and most technical, was the collaborative design of the Pillow Talk product with Ense NYC.

02     -     What is Pillow Talk?

Pillow Talk is a joint project between advertising powerhouse J. Walter Thompson and Ense NYC. The project struck core interests for both companies; JWT’s expansion into digital and high-tech marketing allowed them to put plenty of technical resources into the project, and the innovative use of their technology gave Ense plenty to be excited about.

Pillow Talk is a conceptual IoT device that demonstrates
the strikingly emotional capabilities of well-designed tech. 

PIllow Talk is an all-in-one smart pillow device. The backbone of the device’s hardware is an onboard Raspberry Pi Mini, connected to two headphone speakers resting deep within the pillow. Using Ense NYC’s seamless API, users can leave messages to the device through the Ense App. The end result is a surprisingly personal interaction, made possible through empathic design.

03     -     What is Ense?

Ense is a refreshingly new social network, which was conceived when two musicians needed a simple way to record and keep track of song ideas, and has since turned into a social voice platform for everyone.

Ense boasts a stellar and easy-to-use API. Using this API allows for the Pillow Talk device to receive a message from anyone with the Ense App.

Introducing Ense! by Ense Inc.

04     -     Product Design

When I started working on Pillow Talk, it was simply an idea, but the vision was clear; we wanted to make an IoT device, combined with a pillow, that would best utilize Ense’s voice-sharing API. From here, working closely with the lead creative on the project, we made key design decisions that allowed the device to exceed our expectations.

Low-Profile Hardware

The technical components of the device (the raspberry pi mini and buried headphone speakers) were both picked specifically for their low-profile form factor. Considering that the technical components were going to be located inside the pillow, we knew they had to be as unobtrusive as possible (or else, what’s the point of the pillow?). To complement our vision of unobtrusive hardware, we went for a wedge-shaped pillow, which allowed us to place the pi and its enclosure at the rear-bottom of the pillow, as far away from the user’s head as possible. We wanted the user to feel like they were using any other normal pillow, and by mitigating the tactile presence of the hardware, we accomplished just that.

"Invisible" Buttons

In line with our low-profile hardware design, the interaction design of the device is what really makes it stand out. Instead of opting for traditional or a separate control mechanism, we chose to use professional-grade conductive threading to create sewn-in “buttons” on the top and sides of the pillow. Functionally, they’re buttons, but according to users that we had test the device, they couldn’t even feel that the buttons were there. It just “worked” (with plenty of troubleshooting, which I’ll explain later). For many of the users we observed, the controls were intuitive. With the left and right sides of the pillows acting as the previous/next track buttons, respectively, users quickly understood how to operate the device. Technical stuff aside, the resounding feedback from people was that using the invisible buttons was “really cool”.

Thoughtful Programming / API Integration

Without good software, the good hardware doesn’t have much purpose. When considering, “how should this device work?”, we referred back to the theme of our design – simple and intuitive. We decided to do away with extensive controls, and instead have one playback process that the user becomes familiar with, knows how to control, and learns over time. We modeled the programming of the device like a voicemail – upon connecting to Ense and downloading the new voice messages, the pillow plays back the voice messages in order, newest first, when the user lays their head down and presses the invisible playback button. 

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Overhead view of the finished Pillow Talk prototype.


High-level overview of Pillow Talk's hardware components, and how they interface.

05     -     Product Development

As the lead developer on the project, I was responsible for both the hardware and software development, of which each presented a unique set of challenges.


The hardware development was by far the more tedious of the two development tasks. I’d had plenty of prior experience working with electronics and microcomputers, but the new set of requirements set forth by the need for the device to be low-profile made the hardware development a new and challenging process for me. The most challenging part of the hardware development was the conductive threading integration.

The conductive threading, in theory, functions simply. The thread picks up on changes in its electric current as a result of human contact, and that change is sent to the device, processed, and treated as the push of a button. In practice, however, the different components that were key to the thread-as-button functionality were quite sensitive and required extensive fine-tuning before they worked properly.

Another big challenge in the hardware development process was creating the enclosure for the Raspberry Pi and other components. Given the need for a unique and low-profile form factor, it was clear that a custom solution was needed. The in-house 3D Printer at J. Walter Thompson was available, and with the help of other people in my department, we were able to print a structurally sound, lightweight enclosure. This process was arduous, however, due to a slew of printing errors. Trying to print 14 hours worth of material on a small, consumer-grade printer wasn’t ideal by any means.

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3D-Printing the enclosure for the Raspberry Pi Mini and Capactative Touch Sensor.

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The Capacative Touch Sensor (front) and Raspberry Pi Mini (back).


Throughout the software development is where I learned the most in terms of technical skills. Because it was my first time creating non-web software in a work environment, I had to learn a lot on the fly. While I was pushing my knowledge of Python to its very limit, I also had to learn API handling, data storage, and digital interaction best practices to create a successful prototype.

The development process was iterative. I started by targeting big functionalities. This included being able to use the Ense API to download an audio file, and programming the basic functionality behind the conductive thread buttons. After getting these foundational components to work, I looked at some more specific development tasks. Programming the file storage/access logic was big in this step, and was key to ensuring that the device would remember which messages were “new” versus “old. After coding through these functionalities (and hitting plenty of roadblocks along the way) I was able to focus on the interaction development. During this process, I’d ask myself – “What do I want the device to do when the user does X? Are there any fringe cases that would need to be considered in advance?”. It’s at this point that I added the built-in voice guides and fine-tuned the conductive threading, increasing the threshold for a “click” after user testing revealed a few instances of false positive clicks.

The development of the device was the most frustrating, yet most rewarding part of working on Pillow Talk. Being called upon to learn all of these new and unfamiliar skills was daunting at first, but through trial and error coming out with a working prototype truly made me feel happy, like the hard work and weeks that I’d put into it really paid off. 

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Screenshot 2018-08-02 at 6.31.30 PM

05     -     Conclusion / Final Thoughts

Pillow Talk serves as an example of the successful overlap of technology and empathy. To create a device highly technical, yet also highly emotional, was the goal of JWT when this project was commissioned, and is the driving force behind the design and development of the product. This project taught me the value that a human-first approach can bring when designing a product, and the organic emotional experiences it can help facilitate.


Working on Pillow Talk was, through and through, a rewarding experience. Starting off as a fresh new intern, I was called upon to learn a collection of hard and soft skills – from data caching to project management – as I was doing them. It wasn’t easy by any means, and there were a number of days where I doubted my ability to see the project to completion. However, the support of other employees in times of doubt and challenge allowed me to push past the negative and come out with a working prototype. Working on the project in this way significantly improved my comfort in taking on tasks and responsibilities, both at school and in the workplace.