Friday, January 29, 2010

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Children’s technology- where the wild things are

Maurice Sendak’s critically acclaimed children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are quickly become a classic and was widely popular as soon as it was published in 1963. It’s a story written with heart and a keen insight to the experience of childhood and, perhaps, what adults find uncomfortable about it. What’s so compelling about the story is that it seems to be written to challenge the way adults might prefer to imagine children and childhood. Similarly, this week’s readings in Children and Technology remind us that children think, act, and process very differently than we do as adults. More importantly, they act and think very different than we would like to believe they do. In The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology (Druin, 2002) Druin challenges designers not to discard incorrect or inappropriate assumptions about children:
In designing for children it is crucial to become aware of one’s own assumptions about the nature of childhood. Designers should be able to articulate their assumptions and be ready to revise them based on empirical evidence.
Druin argues that designers must study children and involve them in the design process, and outlines a number of methods to do so. Beyond understanding and including children we must challenge and our assumptions about how children should experience technology and study the impact of the technology we design on their development. [1]

Alyx’s hurt feelings
In Nathan Frier’s 2008 paper Children Distinguish Conventional from Moral Violations in Interactions with a Personified Agent he raises interesting questions about personified agents that children are spending more and more time with. Often these agents are designed to be helpful and subservient. If children view interactions with these technologies as social interactions that lack moral features this may diminish children’s understanding of “the relationship that exists between social reciprocity and morality”. [2]

Freier’s study involves 8 and 9 year old children observing a researcher play a game of tic tac toe with a personified agent. The agent was constructed from the source engine for a videogame character from Half-Life 2 named Alyx and displayed on a computer monitor. In the experiment, subjects witnessed the researcher committing two violations. One of the violations was against a rule of the game (cheating) and the other violation involved insulting Alyx (the agent).

In the experimental condition the subject witnessed Alyx expressing hurt feelings and advocating for the right to be treated with respect as a response to the insult. In the control condition Alyx appeared to be unaffected by the insult. The results suggested that when Alyx appeared to advocate for itself, children were much more likely to view the insult as a moral violation against the Alyx. In discussing design recommendations, Freier suggests that it may be better for children to interact with personified technologies that respond to possible harms and make claims to their own rights than those that do not. [2]

Carol’s temper
My five year old child, is a big fan of games on my iphone and has been playing them since he was . Recently we downloaded an application that was used to promote the October 2009 premiere of Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

The application is well designed and usable. In addition to featuring promotional material for the movie the movie, the game hosts a personified agent based on the main monster of the movie, Carol. There are a number of ways to interact with Carol. Tap Carol with a soft tickle and he will laugh, play music from your itunes collection and Carol will dance, you can select one of your personal pictures to give to Carol and he might point at the picture with a smile and laugh, throw it on the ground and stomp on it, or tilt his head back and chomp and swallow the picture. If you shake your phone, carol will fall down and look hurt and confused, poke him and he will grimace, you can even throw rocks at him… ouch. If you do any of these things Carol might throw a rock back or get right in your face and throw a punch that vibrates the phone violently and appears to crack the screen.

Here are some video demonstrations of the app:

My son had played similar games where, for example, you could stretch, squeeze, shake, and tickle sponge bob. With these games the response of the agent was clowny and cartoonish. What was different about this game was that when you hurt Carol he would respond with anger, frustration, a threatening glare, or a measured and moderately violent response. Showing him a picture could just as easily make him point at the picture & smile as throw the picture to the ground and stomp on it. It is rare in games to have agents advocate for themselves or communicate frustration or disappointment, it’s even more rare for a game like this to utilize an interface that a two year old can use.

The Where the Wild Things Are game has over 5,000 ratings on the iphone app store and many of the reviewers report that their children were highly interested in the game. I was surprised that my son was so interested in the game and went back to it time after time when I thought the novelty would have worn off. He shared with his friends and they were just as interested. It seems that an agent that advocates for itself and expresses is very compelling to young children and it would be interesting to study this further.

Many of the reviewers recommend the application as being great for 3 – 12 year olds. While others say things like “not for little ones… Fun app for adults but it scared my five-year-old when he saw Carol eat a picture of his little brother. Then he told me it’s not nice to throw rocks at people”

Personally, I felt a little uncomfortable that my son enjoyed this game so much. He was participating in an emotionally complicated relationship with the agent where they could play, laugh, and enjoy the interactions and just as easily be throwing rocks and hitting each other. In HCI for Kids, Bruckman et al site Carolyn Miller’s seven mistakes commonly made by people designing games for kids. Miller explains that designers assume children want their games to be sweet and safe (with no dramatic tension), wholesome characters, and a little preachy. It seems I have made many of those same assumptions about the kinds of games my child should be playing. So many of us must make similar assumptions about what children should have in games that may or may not be true. [3]

So, in thinking about my child and this application it’s interesting to consider Freier’s recommendation that personified agents be designed to respond to possible harms and make claims to their own rights. If so, should personified agents respond with the same diverse range of emotion and behavior (from looking hurt to throwing rocks) that people do? Do submissive and accommodating personified agents teach children to take advantage of others? Are we doing children a disservice by making these agents not human enough or is the problem that these agents are becoming too human? As young children who are beginning to develop morals and learn social behavior are being exposed to this technology, these are important questions to ask and could benefit from further research.


1. Freier, N. G. (2008).
Children attribute moral standing to a personified agent. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing (CHI 2008). (pp. 343-352). Florence, Italy.

2. Druin, A. (2002). The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour and Information Technology, 21(1) 1-25.

3. Bruckman, A., Bandlow, A., & Forte, A. (2007). HCI for kids.
In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 793-810). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cereal Box as Interface
UPDATE: I discovered this video that I thought I'd add to my response paper.

In HCI for Kids by Bruckman et. al review specially designed interfaces that are suitable for children who cannot manipulate a mouse or keyboard [3]. Along those lines, I wanted to share this video to document the advances in inexpensive interfaces for children. In the video below... cereal box as interface:

Children of the internet

Ben Casbon

Response paper covering material from:

Livingstone, S. (2003). Children’s use of the internet: Reflections on the emerging research agenda. New Media & Society, 5(2), 147-166.

A relevant question for any child nowadays is “Do you know your way around the internet?” As ambiguous a question as that is, the underlying meaning is unmistakable. The internet is practically inescapable in an adult’s life, with more and more organizations choosing to communicate through that medium. What is often overlooked, however, is that children have a much stronger connection with the internet. Sonia Livingstone quotes a UK survey amount 7-16 year olds. 75 percent of the children surveyed have used the internet, which is a stark contrast to adult statistic of 38 percent.

Children’s exposure to information and computer technology is almost inevitable, yet it has not been studied in any way commensurate with its level of adoption by the younger echelons of society. First among many questions that the author asks is ‘How to children use computers’? Computers are neither inherently serious nor are they frivolous, but they can become either in the hands of a child. A researcher cannot merely survey the content generated on the internet for children and assume that they are viewing it or interacting with it, nor do they have a ready stash of information about what children view online.

The internet can be a dangerous place, as the author acknowledges. Much of the research into how children use computers has been driven by policy imperatives, which attempt to prescribe a formula for ingesting the good parts of the web and passing over the bad.

“Do you use the internet to communicate with other people?” is another relevant question that researchers ask. Are technophobic fears of isolated pale-skinned social networking homebodies justified, or are they merely insisting on tin cans in the age of phones? Again, few researchers have illuminated this informational void. While little can be said authoritatively, it seems that children are adept at synthesizing their real life and their virtual existence. It seems that the children of the internet do use the internet to keep tabs on their local comrades more than establishing friendships with people at a distance.

An interesting consequence of this internet age is the ability for children to form their identity in an a-physical way. Little is known about the potential consequences of the ready available of anonymity of the internet or access to a wealth of inexpert enthusiasts.

Parents hook up the internet for their kids. The grand notion in many parents minds doubtless is, that their action of providing internet access to their kids will greatly further their education. Does it? Do children use the internet at home to self educate, or do they use it entertain themselves. It may be reasonably asked at some points if there is a difference. Should the free-form learning on the internet in a home environment spread to the school environment, or should the rigors and strict oversight flow from the school to the home? At this point, it is still a valid question if the internet actually DOES enhance a child’s education.

Because it is a ‘free’ environment, ICT access at home can often be inhibited by people with less than pure motives at heart. Parents may feel threatened and restrict access, or sisters and brothers may cut each other out. The effect of NOT being on the internet has not yet been quantified, yet it seems without doubt that such a thing would be harmful to a developing child. I

As previously mentioned, the internet can be a dangerous place. While this article explores many unknowns in the research, it is clear that children have access to pornography over the internet. While exposure to pornography at a young age is perhaps harmful, the potential for sexual harm is much greater. An alarming increase in the number of sexual predators online has led to even greater concern about who children contact and communicate with over the internet. But, the author questions if merely the potential for harm exist, or if these result in actual severe damage down the road.

How do you even begin to study children’s use of the internet? Do you ask their parents, or do you observe them directly? Do you do quantitative research or qualitative? The author cites three broad assumptions to guide further research:

1. Children set patterns on the internet. They figure out their own path and then follow it, thus it makes sense to make your study child-centric, as opposed to obsessing about the media itself.

2. Children interact with the internet “in day’s work.” Internet use occurs within the child’s everyday life and should be studied as such. If the researcher were to study the children’s interaction with the internet as a fascinating adventure in wonderland, that would neither do justice to the experience nor would it produce an accurate understanding.

3. Do not assume that new technology/media will replace old media. While old media may be replaced, often it will be transformed or integrated with the already existing world that the child lives in. Radio stations have web sites, and web sites have radio stations.

HCI for Kids (and My Daughter)

The article presents the design challenges related to the development of software for children. The authors detail some of characteristics that differentiate a child user type and offer techniques for including children in the design process. The authors also examine the various child-focused technologies and the role technology plays in the learning process.

The article does a good job at providing a general overview of these challenges and offers many options for the inclusion of children in the design process. It also explores some of the pitfalls that a designer may encounter in dealing with children. They used a breakdown of children’s cognitive abilities by age, developed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, to frame some of their research which I believe is a valuable takeaway from this article.

Throughout the program here at Rensselaer I often look to apply our topics to real world situations. As I reviewed this article I often placed my six-year old first grade daughter in the situations the authors discussed. Of course, my daughter is often the unwitting subject of observation from a dad who designs interfaces for a living. I’ve watched her interact with a computer, my iPhone™, TV remotes, her Leapster™ and our XBOX 360™. I’m always amazed at her ability to quickly learn something new in any of these mediums, but I suppose I shouldn’t it should come as no surprise since most were carefully designed, though not all were designed for children. For the purposes of this article, I thought I’d review some of the author’s discussion points and offer some perspective on how I’ve observed my daughters interactions within this context.

Lindsey *

My daughter is six and attends an all girls school in suburban Philadelphia. In first grade, computers are seldom used as part of her in-school curriculum, but their use will increase as she progresses through school. Each classroom is equipped with a SMART™ board that the teachers make use of for lessons, such as math games, that often include the children’s interaction. Moodle, a popular, open-source, course management system, is used as a portal for parents and students to get assignments and other school-related information. Students in later grades can use this site on their own to keep track of coursework and communicate with the teacher and other students. The Moodle page for my daughter’s class links to online tools for her reading and math homework. Lindsey typically spends 10-20 minutes a night working on the computer. Most of the applications are mouse-driven and require very little keyboard input.

Outside of the home, her first in-school experience with computers came when she was a three year old in pre-school. The computer was considered a play “station” and not used as part of the curriculum. The students did have a weekly visit from the “computer lady” who introduced the children to the computer and mouse through simplistic games.

Cognition at Lindsey’s Age

To this point, Lindsey’s exposure to computers has occurred wholly in the second stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the preoperational stage (ages 2-7). Role playing, use of substitutes for real objects in play, and the inability to view a situation from another’s perspective (egocentrism) are hallmarks of this stage. Obviously, if you’ve spent any time around children in this age group, you see huge gains from year-to-year in their ability to interact with people and objects. The initial substage of the preoperational period is the symbolic function substage that typically occurs between the ages of 2 and 4. One of the examples Piaget labels as animism is where a child can view an inanimate object having human-like traits or emotions. Most television programming for children this age exploit this connection. Thomas the Train has a cast of characters that exhibit human-like emotions through facial expressions. Veggie Tales offered talking vegetables and Toy Story was complete with an entire cast of toys who only animate when people are not around. Much of the software that I observed Lindsey using at the time cast animated characters as narrator or actor. Even in cases where a person was the main character, such as a Disney Princess, the cast was rounded out with talking candlesticks, sewing mice or flying carpets. The software itself, though, tended to focus on equipping them for their next stage (letters, numbers, colors, shapes), as would be expected if the goal of the software is to educate. I think its safe to say that all software geared toward this age group is educational – most parents wouldn’t introduce a computer to a child in this stage of development for purely entertainment purposes.

The Intuitive Thought Substage typically occurs between the ages of 4-7 and involves a child exhibiting more curiosity in understanding the world around them. At this point they have a wealth of knowledge and are beginning to see how things interrelate. Some of the software that my daughter uses now tends utilize these new cognitions. Though not necessarily deemed an educational website, Disney’s Club Penguin is an introduction to the world of massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). In it, the player creates a penguin avatar that interacts and plays games with other penguin avatars. The games are not math or reading based, they are instead logic based and some are simply chance – the equivalent of rock-paper-scissors. Coins are earned as a result of taking on jobs (such as DJing or shoveling snow) that allows players to purchase “accessories” for their penguin.

Club Penguin gives children the opportunity to interact with others, teaches them the idea that work equals money, and allows them to use their developing reasoning cognitions to play the various games.

Lindsey and Me

While the cognitive abilities progress through the early stages of adolescence, by the age of eleven, Piaget believes they reach a formal operational stage where their thinking, while not the same, is similar to an adult. Cognitive abilities aside, other factors affect the use of technology and its design. The authors point out that speech, dexterity, reading, background knowledge and interaction style are all factors to consider when designing software for multiple age groups. Since Lindsey and I use very different software when we’re on the computer, it’s difficult to determine a true apple-to-apples comparison of the role these factors play in our use. In general terms we both use the operating system (MacOS X) and a browser (Firefox or Safari) and some differences can be seen there:

· Dexterity: Lindsey has progressively improved in her use of the mouse over the years. At one time it seemed huge in her hand. Apple’s MightyMouse and MagicMouse do not use buttons, instead depressing the mouse in the approximate location of a left or right button triggers the function. This was somewhat of an obstacle for her at first and often times the context-menu would pop up when she pressed down on the mouse – which occurs when you right-click. Tracking speed usually has to be set slower for her as well as it takes her longer to zero-in on her clickable target. Many software designers for children have always made targets much larger to accommodate this issue. Though I have seen many sites, Apple among them, who have moved to larger form elements and buttons during some functions to make it easier for everyone

· Reading and Speech: Communication issues are always a challenge and I always find myself explaining to her what she has to do in order to perform a certain task in her online homework assignments. I’ve observed that many of the educational software tools out there for her age group have little in the way of instructions and when they are provided, they are typically textual. Given that she is just learning to read, this can prove problematic. While its expected that an adult will supervise some of this work, they should really do a better job of providing brief tutorials to explain how the software works – this would make it easier for both the adults and children using the product.

· Background Knowledge: There are obvious gaps here, but in a general sense I’ve found that I usually have to only explain computer-use concepts once or twice and she’ll typically “get it”. The Doodle application on my iPhone has a limited functionality set that lets you select colors, pen types, etc. There’s also a new and save function. When she uses a similar flash-based drawing application in a browser, she understands the concepts of pen and background color. Seeing some of those cognitions develop is a lot of fun from a parent’s perspective, but it also points to knowledge transference between two mediums. In Club Penguin, the concepts of earning coins and being able to spend them in an online catalog was easier for her to understand with her having chores that earns her an allowance. Though, admittedly, I feel that Club Penguin may put a little too much emphasis on consumerism that may affect her thinking down the road.

· Interaction Style: Some efforts have been made in the past to create a kid-friendly version of operating system’s user interface, but I think this has led to some confusion – the kid-friendly operating system they use at home varies from the standard operating system interface they use at school. Simple things like decreasing the screen resolution to make buttons and type larger, but remaining true to the overall interface would probably serve children better. For Lindsey, if there are certain websites she likes to visit, I will add a shortcut to the desktop to make it easier for her. Once she becomes more literate, she will be able to type in the address of the sites she wishes to visit on her own.

Lindsey in a Lab

The authors devoted a good portion of the article on effective methods for testing software with children and some of the challenges involved. Much of their discussion centered on research performed in a lab environment with use of recording technologies. Emphasis was placed on making the environment as natural as possible for children using the product; hiding cameras and other distractions. For the development of some software, this would be great. But the realities of budgets and timelines, especially for some of the simple flash-based software that Lindsey and her classmates use would prove cost prohibitive.

I believe testing should be performed and I’d be interested in seeing some alternative, low cost ideas for testing with children. I think a loose framework for recording sessions in a home session followed up by some self-report by the parents would be helpful – though, self-report is risky if a parent perceives it as a test of their children’s (and not the software’s) abilities. I just feel that the lab setting, beyond the obvious cost implications, may not give you the kind of results you’d get from a more comfortable environment for a child such as home or a classroom. Any parent knows that their children act differently depending on their setting – whether it be a classroom, doctor’s office, barber or relative’s house.

* I didn’t want to use my daughter’s real name for this, so I let her pick one.


Bruckman, Amy, Alisa Bandlow, and Andrea Forte. "HCI for Kids." The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies, and Emerging Applications, Second Edition (Human Factors and Ergonomics). Boca Raton: CRC, 2007. 793-810. Print.

"Theory of cognitive development - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. .

Children and the Internet

Many of today’s young adults used the internet on a regular basis in their youth, I certainly did. The internet made its way into my home in the mid 1990’s, when my brother and I were in our mid-teens. By this time, the personal computer had become a standard appliance or entertainment device in households, and the internet was quickly becoming a standard utility much like cable TV. Interesting enough, my family subscribed to cable just one year before subscribing to AOL. Needless to say, the Secore household quickly flooded with media.

I feel that the early internet experiences of my brother and myself were much like what Sonia Livingstone describes in her article, we preferred online activities that were centered around media that we were already familiar [1] with, (from that new cable TV and radio) predominantly music. My brother and I felt these activities were normal, because most of our peers were online at home too. Just like Livingstone describes, we become the family computer and internet experts. Our parents were always looking for ways to police and limit our activity. This was the dynamic in play in my household over a decade ago, and according to Pew Internet about two-thirds of parents with teen internet users have rules regarding how long their children can use the internet today [2]. According to my parents, their parents treated TV much like they treated the internet- it was a privilege and not a right, and there were time limits and rules in place.

In many ways, the internet to my generation is what the TV was to theirs.

This statement has a great deal of truth to it if you are just look at the internet on the surface. But in so many ways, the internet is a much more powerful media than the TV was and is, because it is so very interactive and there is a greater variety and amount of content available. There is a large amount of objectionable content that children can see on the internet, and it is all available on demand. While sexual and violent content can be found on cable TV, it is more available and accessible to children online. It’s obvious that not just the visual content (such as pornographic images) that we must be aware of, it is the space of chat rooms, instant messaging and social networking that parents and those interested in protecting children must be aware of. That said, the internet has the potential to be more dangerous for children than TV. Children cannot have an interactive conversation with TV, while they can have dialogue with strangers via the internet. Livingstone points out that children are more likely to trust online information than adults are. This trust is what allows online pedophiles or predators to prey on children online. Pew informs us that nearly a third of teens on the internet (mostly girls) have been contacted by a complete stranger online [3]. Not all of these contacts result in behavior that is considered objectionable, but unfortunately some do. Some of these “relationships” go from internet space into “the real world” and children are hurt and exploited.

Children’s internet use also raises many questions about children’s privacy. Some of today’s teens are more willing to share very personal information on the internet such as some photographs, cell phone numbers and even addresses. From my own experience, I believe that this is because they have new mediums in which to share the info (ex. Facebook or MySpace) and because it is more socially acceptable/normal to do so. There are privacy features available on social networking sites, and according to a Pew report 59% of teens have their online profiles set to “friends only.” I also assumed that teens restricted access to their profiles because they did not want their parents to view them. I assume this because I was a teenager using the internet once, and I’m surrounded by teenage family members who use the internet. My assumption is a correct one, since the same Pew report says that nearly two-thirds of teens who know their parents are aware of their online profiles set them to “friends only.” [4] We’re also confronted with the question: how private can your information/images be when if your online community so large? In same cases teens (and other populations) partake in “Friend collecting” also known in online social networking communities as “friend whoring” - adding “friends” just for the sake of growing your network [5]. Maintaining a large network of “friends” my help a child feel more popular and accepted. Pew reports that most teens take steps to protect their privacy in the areas “most obvious areas of risk” [6] and “friend collecting” is not practiced by all teens. It should still be noted that sharing any information or personal images online does create a risk. Features like “tagging” on social networking helps create a large “web” in which undesirable parties may view photos or information. Furthermore, photos can also be saved to one’s hard drive, and distributed by unauthorized individuals via alternative means.

The internet is collection of spaces that children can find many opportunities within. Livingstone points out the children perform different types of tasks on the internet at home and at school [1]. There are educational websites that children can visit and gain a lot from. When children are outside of the walls of school, they’re more likely to partake in other activities online such as social networking and chatting. The internet can break down walls and allow children (and all people) to communicate with people to have similar interests whether it is a particular band, sports figure, type of art or video game. Livingstone also points out in her paper that children mostly use their online communication to supplement their real world social circles and suggests that most contacts that children make online are local [1]. In some respect, online communication is to today’s youth is what phone calls were to previous generation.

The way in which our culture obtains information has changed, and is still changing. A number of different literacies have emerged in recent years; it’s not just about reading text anymore. Livingstone points out on page 154 that literacy is a source of social power. More activities are being performed online, such as filling out unemployment forms and filing income taxes. Today’s children will have a substantial disadvantage if they are not allowed to develop essential technology-related skills.

Children’s internet use aids them in developing identity, allows them to participate in different forums and grow their communication skills [1]. I believe that these are all important skills in one’s development; I feel that internet use helped me as an individual develop these areas to some degree. While certain aspects of the internet are “dark,” (such as the potential of isolated children becoming more isolated [1], possible exploitation and contact by strangers) children’s use of the internet and internet literacy are vital to them growing and gaining power in our society. I feel that not every child who uses the internet will become an internet addict, pornography addict, or engage in illicit or illegal activities, but some may. It’s important to remember that children got into trouble long before the internet was created.


[1] Livingstone, Sonia. Children’s use of the internet: reflections on the emerging research agenda.

[2] Parents also use non-tech solutions to protect children.

[3] Friendship, Strangers and Safety in Online Social Networks.

[4] Online Privacy: What Teens Share and Restrict in an Online Environment.

[5] Community Portal Survey.

[6] Teens, Privacy and Social Networks.

Kids as Design Partners

Being someone who, on many occasions, has been teased for her awkwardness around children, I was very intrigued by the concept of using "kids as design partners." I would keep a calm demeanor when asked to watch a child for ten minutes or so, but apparently not outwardly so as the request to have me watch them would be quickly followed by "You don't have to be afraid," or "Do you think you'll be okay?" So the idea of spending not just a single half-hour test session with them, but being engaged in a research project that will likely span many months is more than a bit daunting to me. Of course, others are much more skilled around children. And these are likely the researchers that would choose--and be chosen--to play the adult role in this design partnership.

In a research and design process that involves children as partners, they are considered "equal stakeholders in the design of new technologies throughout the entire experience," within an "Intergenerational Design Team" (Druin, 2002). Children are engaged from the outset of the project throughout, with the exception of more refined report writing. Together with the adults, they build upon ideas in a process called "Idea Elaboration," help to create and provide feedback on prototypes, serve as observers and notetakers throughout, and design the final product. It is the only one of the four roles that kids may have in designing new technologies in which they are elevated nearly to the status of adults and treated as equals. Although in each of the other roles in which children may assume (User, Tester, Informant) there exists a great deal of respect for the opinions of children, these other roles are only called in as needed. Furthermore, the power structure is very different, even for informants who may be summoned multiple times during a project.

There are many challenges in working with children in this capacity--not just for people who are afraid of kids. For one thing, these projects would require much lengthier timescales as bringing children into a design process slows everything down. With their limited availability and attention spans, they can only be engaged for short periods at a time. Scheduling often revolves around the children, such as accommodating them via an after-school program or incorporating the experience into a class curriculum. With children involved in everything from brainstorming to prototyping, observation, and analysis, there is an abundance of data to capture, which can easily lead to disarray. To combat this, multiple ways of capturing data are used, including videotaping. Children being videotaped are self-conscious in their own way, though this can be overcome by having other children do the videotaping.

Though children are invaluable for their insights and unique perspective, they lack the communication and cognitive skills to discuss their thoughts as adults would. Kid speech and adult speech differ, both in terms of vocabulary and conceptual framework. They might simply fabricate things. And even when they are earnest in what they say, perhaps they offer fanciful ideas that are simply outrageous. So there is a need for vetting of what is said, what is considered valid for impacting design decisions. Kids are encouraged to draw as well as write out their thoughts. They work on low-grade prototyping for conveying their thoughts, using this as a basis for discussions.

The primary challenge seems to be the cultivation of children and adult partnerships so that they are able to form a fruitful working alliance. A "power struggle" is negotiated so that adults do not dominate and thus avoid the usual parent vs. child or teacher vs. student relationships. To promote the sense of equality across generations, certain rules have to be followed: no hand-raising, everyone uses first names, informal dress is essential, and everyone gets paid. According to "contact theory," socializing leads to better working relationships. To encourage informal socializing, every session begins with 15 minutes of "snack time." During this time they can talk about anything that interests them, but at least relevant to the children. To minimize the effects of typical adult/child roles, there must be at least two adults and at least two kids present within each team. At the end of the day, "team reflections" sessions occur for synthesizing the day's learnings within and among the various subgroups.

Still, what is offered is only a vague sense of the actual ins and outs of the interactions between kids and adults. Also, there is little discussed about how children adapt from playing freely in standard roles as kids and students to their new roles as paid designers, usability specialists, and researchers. It is mentioned that 7 to 10 year olds are the most effective prototyping partners in that they are old enough to be verbally equipped and self-reflective while being young enough to avoid preconceived notions of how things should be (Bruckman, et al, 2008). Other than that, the effect of age is not addressed in these articles in regards to suitability as design partners.

The questions that come to my mind are: How are these children kept engaged? Is discipline ever necessary? The activities must be fun, but there is also the need to generate motivation that persists beyond a single day's work (or perceived play). With the proper motivation, one would imagine that the need for discipline would be kept to a minimum. But if necessary, what form would the discipline take? Or if children were to disengage in a disruptive manner, are there techniques for channeling their energies positively so that they can be brought back in when they are ready to do so? Druin states that it may take six months for adults and kids to develop a true partnership for optimal collaboration. How many of the kids initially invited to participate are ever asked to leave? Insofar as it occurs, it must be rather devastating. Or is the continuinty in participants less important than the fact that they have lost a member that they had already spent time developing camaraderie and a working relationship with? Mostly, what is discussed in these articles is the need for preventing and handling boredom, with a nod to feelings of frustration and disappointment.

With the aim towards producing more kid-centric designs that are high on enjoyment and usability, using kids as design partners is an unparalleled approach. As an offshoot of participatory design which believes in the importance of engaging the user throughout the design process, the adapted methodology of "Cooperative Inquiry" combines both contextual inquiry and technology immersion. It is a very time and energy-intensive approach, but with strong cross-generational working relationships formed, designs can result that are inconceivable otherwise. Kids have unlimited energy once they are engaged, and by default think outside of the box, more often asking "why not" than its reverse. "I found that the more I worked closely with children, the more I came to expect the unexpected when it came to ideas, technology directions and honest feedback from children." (Druin, 2002). For those who are unafraid, and given the proper environment, children can make great research and design partners.

~ Jenny Wang


Bruckman, A., Bandlow A., Forte A. (2008) HCI For Kids. The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook, 793-809.

Druin A. (2002) The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour & Information Technology, 21(1), 1-25.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ubiquitous Computing

Ubiquitous computing has changed the way that we interact with computers, as they become an integral part of how we negotiate the world around us. This is a shift in the previous, more traditional, paradigm of our computer interaction. Computers are now embedded in most every aspect of our lives well beyond our use of desktop or laptop machines we use for work and recreation.

In Mark Weiser’s article, The Computer for the 21st Century, he states, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” As we move to smaller and more pervasive devices and integrated technologies, this statement has certainly been proven to be true, particularly where computers are concerned.

The Abowd-Mynatt article, Charting Past, Present, and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing, references Weiser’s original project at Xerox PARC, and brings the ideas current and beyond. They note that Weiser’s vision included:

  • People and environments augmented with computational resources that provide information and services when and where desired, and that,
  • New applications would emerge and leverage off these devices and infrastructure.

They address three themes around ubiquitous computing: natural interfaces, contextual awareness, and the ability to automate the capture of live experiences and provide late access to those experiences. The dimensions of time and space play critical roles, as the goal of ubicomp must consider both environment and people. Time is another dimension that provides a challenge as the demand is for these systems to be available at all times.

Ubiquitous computing has become increasing more pervasive within the context of human daily life. It is no longer confined to the way we work, but is embedded in how we live, relate and communicate. The Internet provides a broad platform that is contextually rich in our current existence. It allows us to transcend time and space and connect and interact with one another in ways never possible before its inception. Information, even esoteric information, is available on demand via various search engines, which allows us to expand our knowledge base with immediacy. Social networking has changed the way we view human connections and made these connections more (or less) rich depending on one’s individual definition of “human connection.”

The desire for natural interfaces is becoming more of a reality as the use of metaphors is helping to drive design in that direction. The development of multi-touch devices, portability of technology, and on-demand computing also demonstrate the proliferation of computing technology that is designed to be integrated into daily life.

My concern, however, is at what cost to traditional, organic human development and cognition is this proliferation happening? What happens to us if the infrastructure fails? Is our reliance on technology dangerous to our ability to survive? At the very least, is our reliance on technology dangerous to our development?

Even in a time where much research is being conducted in the areas of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, they are both still artificial and have no organic basis as we do. In that sense, current technologies are still distinguishable from the fabric of our lives. Ubiquitous computing, therefore, in my mind, has value to us in terms of both simplifying and augmenting the human experience, but we should never become completely reliant on it because errors do occur. “In fact, it is endemic to the design of computer systems that attempt to mimic human abilities (Abowd-Mynatt, 34).”


Abowd, G. & Mynatt, E. (2000). Charting Past, Present, and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing. ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(1), 29-58.

Weiser, M. (1991). The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American, 265(3), 94-104.