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MESS Days: Working with Children to Design and Deliver Worthwhile Mobile Experiences

By Janet C. Read

If designing usable products for people is hard, designing products for children is even harder. Children have a more difficult time conveying what they want, we have a harder time working out the important factors of what they say, and they (especially younger children) tend to be rather non-critical. “Did you like it?” the developers invariably ask the children. “Yes. It was great!” is the inevitable reply.

The Child Computer Interaction Group at UCLan in Preston, UK, is a dedicated research group that concentrates on the specific area of usability and user experience design for children’s technologies. Formed in 2002, the group carries out research and development projects that focus on the creation and understanding of interactive products for children aged three to sixteen. Our work is collaborative, working with researchers across the globe, but also, and more interestingly, working with children and their teachers in immersive design and evaluation activities.

In several projects we have used our own pioneering approach with children, called MESS (Mad Evaluation Sessions with Schoolchildren) days. MESS days are events where a whole school class of children take part in a series of activities that typically include evaluations of products, design sessions, small research studies, and activities that are purely for fun. What is unique about MESS days is that we occupy a whole classroom of children for anything between an hour and all day, depending on the work being done. The MESS day epitomizes our approach to research and interaction design with children—that it will be messy, that it should be inclusive, that it should be fun, and that it should be fast paced and constantly refreshing.

The UMSIC Project
Recently we have used the MESS day approach in the EU-funded UMSIC project. The UMSIC (Usability of Music for Social Inclusion of Children) project plans to deliver novel mobile music-making applications that can be used collaboratively by children—especially those who are new immigrants in a European country or who have attentional difficulties. In the UMSIC project, the development of the technology is far removed from the design, both in terms of location—UK and Northern Finland—but also in terms of context—designers used to working with children, developers used to working with Java.

Design: Obstructed Theater
In the early stages of the UMSIC project, we held MESS days to gather ideas for designs for mobile products as well as to test out new concepts and new interaction techniques. For example, in one session, around half the children spent their time designing mobile music products using paper and cards, pipe cleaners, glue, and other prototyping items (see Figure 1). At the same time, the other children in the class tried out and commented on existing mobile music products including iPhone apps, Nintendo DS games, and PC applications.

Fig 1

To initiate the design session, we employed a method that we call “Obstructed Theatre.” Obstructed Theatre is a modification of a method first used at Newcastle University in design work with adults; in their variation, two professional actors talked about a technology product that was hidden from view. In our own version of this technique, we adapted it for children by having two twelve year olds videotape a short sketch of a situation in which the mobile device would be used. Keeping the item hidden, we then used this short video to kick off the design session. This method allowed us to convey the key requirements for the product to be designed without giving anything away about how it should look.

Evaluation: The Fun Toolkit
In our evaluations of competing technologies, we were interested in the way children used them, the features they tended to use, and the ways in which they interacted with the products. For this we mainly used observations and kept notes of interesting things. However, we also used the Fun Toolkit, a set of tools we specifically designed to help us overcome the “Yes, it was great,” syndrome that is known to occur in user experience evaluations with children. The Fun Toolkit includes three simple tools, the Smileyometer (see Figure 2), Fun Sorter (see Figure 3), and Again Again table (see Figure 4). By combining the results obtained with these tools, it is possible to determine which products and features the children prefer.

Fig 2-4

Paper Prototyping
As the project progressed, we drilled down into the design space that surrounded the specifics of the product that was being designed—the JamMo. All along we knew that this would be a mobile application to be built on a Nokia touch screen device. Having gotten some general ideas from children relating to the arena of music making, we used our second series of MESS days to get a better understanding of interactivity in the mobile context.
In these MESS days, we again engaged the children in different activities. In a design-focused activity, we looked at the interface designs of the JamMo and asked children to create a set of “screens” and then position them on a “mockup” device (see Figure 5).

Fig 5

Just as you would with adult participants, we used this “paper prototype” to test that the interactions and flow of visuals and sounds would succeed once built. Since studies with children and touch screen interactions are rare, we also included a MESS day activity to check out the optimal sizes for interactive items on the small screens.

Children: Not Simply Smaller Users
As mentioned earlier, one of the interesting aspects of the UMSIC project was that the developers and designers were geographically and contextually separate. This created some problems conveying requirements, design ideas, interaction rules, and ideas for new concepts. It is not straightforward to take something that has been created or suggested by a child and make it understandable or relevant to a programmer. All too often the connection from child-centered design to child-centered product is lost in translation.

In the UMSIC product, by virtue of persistent communication and by communicating ideas in drawings rather than text, a good number of the design features requested from the design team made their way into the final product. A turning point in the design space was when the software programming team came face-to-face with children users for a prototype product exercise in the UK. More than any of our other communications, this event really made the users come alive for the development team. They came to realize that the children were not simply smaller users.

Including Children in Real Projects
Our research group has spent considerable time studying the usefulness and the usability of MESS days in the product design process. We have come to realize that their use varies according to the context of the work. In real software development projects, MESS days need to be structured around the development teams. In addition, products from the MESS days need to be carefully translated and made relevant to the developers. This model, including activities for children, is shown in Figure 6.

Fig 6

This model can be broken into three phases:

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

Designing with children adds a new dimension to user experience design and usability testing. Challenges still exist in finding appropriate ways to convey design requirements and design ideas across the divide from designer to developer; there is still work to be done in understanding how children can best contribute across this divide.UX

Janet C. Read is a reader in child computer interaction and director of the Child-Computer Interaction research group at University of Central Lancashire in the UK. She is also an editorial board member of the Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction. In 2008, Janet co-authored the text book Evaluating Children’s Interactive Products. In 2009, she edited a special edition journal on the design of mobile technologies for children, and contributed a chapter to the book Mobile Technology for Children. She can be reached at JCRead@uclan.ac.uk.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2011.

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