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London Design Biennale: Empowering young people to take control of their emotions

Interview with Dr Jess Williams, Postdoctoral researcher for Purrble, on exhibiting at the London Design Biennale

King’s features in Eureka, an exhibition of design-led research taking place across UK universities, as part of the 2023 London Design Biennale from 1 – 25 June. The King’s showcase 'Seeking Connection' features Natural, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences research projects, taking the viewer on a journey from the smallest cell to the vastness of the universe.

We met for a Q&A with the minds behind the research to find out more on the projects, what it’s like to cross the bridge between research and design, and how their research paints a brighter tomorrow for the way we form connections with ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

We spoke to Jess Williams, Postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Informatics and a member of the project team behind Purrble, a new smart toy designed to guide emotion regulation for young people struggling with their mental health. Together, we talk about the feeling of making a difference in the lives of vulnerable children and the impact that interdisciplinary research can bring.

Dr Jess Williams

What is the impetus behind Purrble and what do you hope to achieve by its creation?

Whoever you are, the ability to cope with strong emotions is a really important part of daily life and research has shown that this ability is linked to crucial life outcomes like how healthy or wealthy you are. This is especially important for children, as those who develop these self-regulation skills early have a much smaller likelihood of developing mental health conditions later in life, including depression, anxiety, or conduct disorders.

Purrble was designed to directly help children and their families develop these skills in the moments that they need them, e.g. help control their emotions in times of stress. The benefit of our ‘worried pet’ is that you remove the need for in-person teaching or interventions by trained adults, which not all families can afford or access.

Through Purrble, we hope not only to help children get a handle on feelings of anxiety in the moment, but help kids realise that actually they are able to control their own emotions in the long term.

Purrble 1

How have you found being part of the team bringing Purrble to life, and how do you feel about exhibiting it at the London Design Biennale?

It’s been exciting being part of the King’s team working with Purrble. It really is a conversation starter; when people ask what I do, I get to say “part of my job is seeing whether a robot can help young people with their emotions”. That tends to grab people’s interest pretty quickly!

For me, Purrble comes to life when I speak to young people who have engaged with our studies and use the toy in their daily lives. Our recent work has been with highly anxious students and minority youth who have a history of self-harm.

Speaking with participants who have had Purrble for a long time and seeing them use it to help them regulate their own emotions is a wonderful feeling. Stroking Purrble so they’re better able to ground themselves and stop negative emotions taking over in that moment is a really emotionally impactful and important part of this work for me.

It's incredible having Purrble be part of the London Design Biennale. First, being able to showcase the device and our research in the area to the public. Second, I love interactive exhibits so helping to include additional sensory, tangible aspects to the Biennale is great! Purrble at the Biennale might be particularly exciting for children, which is one of the key areas of research one of the fantastic PhD students in the team, Nikki Theofanopoulou, has explored. She’s found that Purrble can be helpful for children to manage communication with parents around emotions. So, fingers crossed, Purrble will draw young people in and empower them to start conversations about their emotions.

Purrble 2

'Seeking Connection' is all about the power of interdisciplinary work, pulling together research from across the university and beyond. What has an interdisciplinary approach brought to Purrble?

Purrble was born from interdisciplinary work! It’s essentially the brainchild of psychologists, designers, human robot interaction experts and children themselves, with all of us drawing on our separate expertise to understand how it can best serve different groups.

For example, I sit between human-computer interactions at the Department of Informatics here at King’s and at the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Nottingham. This is to foster interdisciplinary collaborations and thinking. We also work with leading academics across a whole span of specialisms to round out our expertise, such as Professor Ellen Townsend (self-harm and suicide) from the University of Nottingham and Professor James Gross (emotion and emotion regulation) from Stanford University. We’re also joined by clinicians and public platforms like Sprouting Minds who have been instrumental in feeding their views and experiences of Purrble back into the design process.

Finally, young people themselves are part of the interdisciplinary approach we take with Purrble. Children were involved in our design process of Purrble, and in our research we always look to put children at the centre of the way we approach design and build Purrble with them to support their needs.

Purrble 3

What's next for Purrble?

The next step for us is running large randomised controlled trials with highly anxious students and LGBT+ youth who self-harm. I’ve also just set up a trial with a colleague from the University of Glasgow, Dr Seonaid Cleare, to explore how Purrble might help young people who have ADHD. We’re really excited about that. Given the toy’s tactile element, being able to hold and stroke Purrble might be helpful with symptoms like excessive activity or restlessness.

But this is just my work! So I would highly recommend if people want to know more, they follow the whole group’s work online.


If you could say one thing to visitors coming to see Purrble at the Biennale, what would it be?

Hang out, cuddle, and enjoy Purrble! As you handle it, take the time to reflect on your own emotions and how you might regulate them in your day-to-day. We hope that by finding Purrble at the Biennale, you might have a moment to yourself against the streets of Central London.


Purrble will be on display at ‘Seeking Connection’ at the London Design Biennale, Somerset House from 1-25 June. For more information and tickets, visit the London Design Biennale website

In this story

Jess Williams

Jess Williams

Postdoctoral researcher

Seeking Connection

Research from across King’s features in Eureka, the exhibition of design-led research taking place across UK universities, as part of the 2023 London Design Biennale. On display from 1 – 25…

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