Behind the scenes look at CARROT, the A.I. construct that shames you into submission

Last week, developer Brian Mueller of Grailr released CARROT Weather, the fifth app in the popular CARROT series. The star of these apps is the unforgettable CARROT, a sarcasm-wielding robot with a heart of weapons-grade plutonium. CARROT is known for her cutting comments that shame you into compliance while helping you meet goals like being fit or waking up on time. The Artificial Intelligence behind the app has a colorful history, and we were able to talk with developer Mueller about how his main character has evolved from a bespectacled Corgi to a faceless construct. 

Kelly Hodgkins: The early app mockups featured a well-dressed Corgi with monocles and top hat. It's a very butler-ish character that is radically different from the A.I. construct we all know and love. How did that happen? Why did you transition away from the canine and towards the sentient robot? Was it a gradual change or an abrupt decision? Did you consider any other versions of CARROT before settling on the circular character? 

Brian Mueller: It was a very abrupt change, as my original concept for the app was extremely complicated and would’ve been completely impossible for me to build myself. Once I finally realized this, I decided I needed to throw everything out and start over with something simple that I could finish in 30 days. I stripped the app down to its most essential feature - a to-do list with a central character who rewards you for getting stuff done - and jettisoned everything else, including a much more complicated user interface. The corgi character, Sir Waffles, was one of the first things to go just because animating him would have been a ton of work, especially since I had no experience animating anything whatsoever.
One thing that did carry over from Waffles was his sarcastic personality - I really liked the idea of the central character making fun of the user for taking too long to get stuff done. I already had this concept of rewarding the user for completing tasks, so I thought it might be interesting if the character got mad and yelled at you if you were slacking. This whole CARROT and stick philosophy gave me a good idea for a name for the app, and I just happened to capitalize CARROT and thought, “Hey, that sorta looks like an acronym for a robot or a computer.” After that, the design and personality for the final character came almost instantly. 

KH: CARROT has a distinctive personality -- where does that come from? Are the snarky witticisms created by you or do you have a comedic alter ego? Perhaps an evil partner lurking in the shadows? 

BM: CARROT’s really a combination of my mom, my sister, and my wife. A lot of the dialogue comes straight from them. I have a background in screenwriting - that’s what I was going to do before I stumbled into iOS programming - so it’s a lot of fun to write the sarcastic dialogue. I also like to throw in a lot of pop culture/geeky references as well.

KH: Where does CARROT's voice come from? It sounds a lot like Siri, so I assume it's not a recorded voice. 

BM: CARROT’s voice comes from the iOS software developer kit’s speech synthesizer.

KH: You posted up concept art from the earlier version of CARROT, do you still use storyboarding or similar mockups to flesh out the CARROT character? How do you plan what CARROT will say and when? 

BM: I use a combination of Sketch and Photoshop to do all the design work. In terms of the dialogue, most of that is just based on context - if it’s snowing in CARROT Weather, then she will draw from a pool of snow-related dialogue; if the user lost weight in CARROT Fit, then she will draw from her congratulatory dialogue pool. 

KH: In the development process, which takes longer -- coding the app or developing the CARROT personality? 

BM: It depends on the app, but usually creating all the content - the dialogue, the characters, the rewards - takes a very long time. I probably spent three times the amount of time on the content for CARROT Weather compared to the time I spent on the coding. Sometimes I’m a little jealous of “normal” developers, I get to the end of the coding and I’m exhausted but I still have all the content to add in. And then once that’s done, I have to do the funny marketing videos, etc. It feels like running a marathon sometimes.

KH: Will CARROT's personality soften or toughen in future iterations of your apps? 

BM: Oh, she’ll probably only get meaner and grumpier as time goes on.

KH: With the addition of CARROT Weather, there are now five apps in the series (To Do, Alarm, Fit, Hunger and Weather).  Will there be any additional CARROT apps? 

BM: Probably! Right now, I’m focusing on improving the current crop, though. Lots of exciting stuff coming up, including Apple Watch versions of the apps.