Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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. .

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