Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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.

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