Kidsteam: Co-designing Children’s Technologies with Children

I haven’t been a child in a long time. Although it was one of my first roles as a person, I really don’t remember a lot of details. If you asked me to think like a child, I might be able to remember bicycles, games, and various action figures. If you asked me to think like a child of today, I’d be at a total loss. In my experience, today’s child is watching TV without a television, decorating their toys’ virtual room, and typing without knowing how to spell.

children and adults sitting in a circle

Figure 1 (top). Kidsteam discussion.

children constructing models

Figure 2 (bottom). Our Bags-of-Stuff technique in action.

Because we don’t think like children, we need to collaborate with them when developing technologies targeted at kids. At the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL), adults and children work together as part of Kidsteam to design new technologies for children.

Participatory Design and Cooperative Inquiry

Participatory Design is a high-level, overarching methodology that involves end-users in the design process. One of the seminal studies in co-design occurred in the early 1980s when the UTOPIA project was launched to enable newspaper workers in Sweden to participate in the design of new graphics workstations integral to their jobs. By working with end-users, developers were able to identify requirements and create systems that enabled these graphic artists to perform their work more effectively and efficiently.

Cooperative Inquiry is a subset of participatory design that we use at the University of Maryland to design with children. The philosophy of cooperative inquiry is that children should be partners with adults, adults and children are equals, and everyone’s input is important.

How Kidsteam Works

Kidsteam meets twice weekly after school during the school year, and we do a two week, full day camp in August to get us ready for the upcoming year. Our children come from public and private schools, various social-economic ranks, and differing academic achievement. They are volunteers who commit to one school year with us.

The structure of Kidsteam sessions is always the same. We start with a snack, form a circle, introduce (or reintroduce) ourselves, answer a sometimes-but-not-always-related “question of the day,” talk about what we’re doing for the day, design, and then come back together to discuss (see Figure 1).    In order to foster an environment conducive to partnership, adults dress down in jeans and t-shirts and everyone sits on the floor during discussions and design sessions.

Our Partners

At Kidsteam, we work with partners inside and outside of the University who are interested in designing children’s technologies. One of the most exciting parts of Kidsteam is that we get to work with our academic, industry, and government partners at different stages of the design process. Ideally, we should work with them from concept to finished product, but if that doesn’t occur, we still have an opportunity to help them get back on track with an existing design that just isn’t working.

I remember one partner who created a design for an international project for children to share stories. They had fantastic designers who knew how to design and build web applications for adults. When they showed Kidsteam what they had, a small insurrection occurred. Their word choices, button sizes, and metaphors were all clearly “adult” designs shoehorned into a kid-size package. We worked with them to rethink what they had and where they should go. By involving Kidsteam in the design process, their product became better because kids know what they want and like better than adults do. After all, we haven’t been kids in a long time, and we were never kids with all of this technology around us.

child's model

Figure 3 (top). An outcome of the Bags-of-Stuff technique.

child's drawing

Figure 4 (bottom). An outcome of the Layered Elaboration technique.

Our Techniques

Our team uses different techniques for co-design depending on where our partners are in the design process. We develop most of our techniques in-house and adjust them as needed. Some of our techniques work well for “blue sky” design sessions where there are no constraints, while others work better for existing designs that just need some tweaking. We’ve worked with one of our partners, the U.S. National Park Service, to design the online Web Rangers program, and helped the International Children’s Digital Library develop their interface for searching and discovering books.

One of the team’s favorite techniques is called Bags-of-Stuff, which is a method we use to build low-tech prototypes. Our Bags-of-Stuff are made up of craft supplies like cotton balls, pipe cleaners, fabric swatches, yarn, and construction paper. We keep the supplies in five gallon, reusable storage bags. Prior to design sessions, we separate the group into three or four teams and give each team a bag. Once we have the bags, we dump their contents on a table or the floor and start designing (see Figure 2). This technique works really well for blue sky design sessions. We often pose the design challenge as a physical object that the groups need to build; for example, a device to let kids tell stories with their grandparents, or a school of the future (see Figure 3).

Following the design session, the group gets back together and each child-adult team describes what they’ve built. One person, usually an adult, but sometimes a child, is designated to write the Big Ideas on a whiteboard. As the teams explain their prototypes, the functions, features, and concepts of the designs are written on the whiteboard. When all the teams have presented, we try to identify ideas that are common in all of the designs and concepts that might be used as building blocks for the future.

When we end up creating disparate ideas, we employ a technique called Mixing Ideas. In this technique, the existing designs that teams created are disassembled and reassembled into new designs. We may disassemble the prototypes into smaller pieces or cut up designs using scissors. This is a great method for working with younger and newer designers who may have trouble collaborating with others. Once the teams have new designs, we meet and do a Big Ideas session on the whiteboard.

A new technique that we are using is called Layered Elaboration. It is useful when we’re designing screen-based technologies or working with a large problem that has several smaller parts. In this technique, teams create designs using a piece of paper and markers. The teams explain their ideas to the larger group, switch designs with another team, and add an overhead transparency on top of their piece of paper (see Figure 4). The new team elaborates on the previous team’s design by drawing and writing on the transparency with permanent markers. The teams then come back together to explain their elaborated designs and exchange again. Much like our other techniques, we end the design session by capturing the Big Ideas on the whiteboard and identifying the common and interesting concepts.

These techniques are powerful at helping us create new designs, but as the design cycle continues and our roles take on more focused aspects, we need another set of tools. In this scenario, we use sticky notes to provide feedback to our partners with a technique that we uncreatively call Likes-Dislikes-Design Ideas. In this technique, our partners usually bring us something tangible like a mock-up or prototype. We break into teams of one child and one adult and use the prototype while recording our likes, dislikes, and design ideas on the sticky notes. We only record one thought per sticky note because we collect and arrange them on the whiteboard. As they are coming in, one or two adults cluster the individual notes based on similarity, and categories begin to emerge. These categories provide our partners with a frequency analysis of issues, areas to focus on, and new ideas to improve the designs. Dislikes often outnumber the likes, so you may want to prepare anyone that uses this technique for the inevitable!

The most important part of all of these techniques is the discussion that happens after the design session. I would like to emphasize that it is a discussion and not just a report of what each team has made. Questions are asked, new ideas are formed, and members elaborate on concepts mentioned by other groups. It is during these sessions that our partners often have an “a-ha moment” or epiphany on what to do next.

adult and child at a computer

Figure 5. The online tool that allows remote collaboration.

The Future

As technology is becoming more global, we need to make sure that users from around the world can be part of these discussions. During the design of the International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL), children from different countries participated through the mail and site visits by ICDL staff. Unfortunately, we can’t take all of Kidsteam to participate in co-design sessions around the world, and sending items through the mail is painfully slow.

That is why our lab is currently working on new web-based systems that will enable Kidsteam to work with children and adults remotely (see Figure 5). The systems support asynchronous collaboration, which means that children in Maryland can design with children in India even though there is a substantial time difference. We are trying to bring the low-tech prototyping experience to the Web so that more children and adults can participate in the design process. The prototyping tool will be an online version of Layered Elaboration and allow child designers to build on each other’s ideas without having to be in the same place at the same time. We are using our own techniques to design these tools to make them as useful and user-friendly for children and adults as possible.

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