Co-designing with Children

Designing for Children

Early engagement in the digital world

April 2, 2012

I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my career to conducting user experience research using participatory design methods. Throughout my years as a UX professional, this research practice has taken many forms. in both industrial and academic settings. Certainly, many of my most rewarding and insightful research experiences have included children as co-designers in a product development process.

Children are naturals for co-designing. In the right context with the right tools, kids have no problem unleashing their wildest ideas and dreams to create previously unimagined product concepts.

But conducting co-design sessions with children is no easy task, and a good amount of preparation and knowledge must go into such sessions. To learn how to do co-design with children, you must first understand both what co-designing with children in a product development context means and the theory behind this approach to design.

Champion Advertisement
Continue Reading…

The Background Story

The term co-design—now in common use in both design and research contexts—derives from the work of Elizabeth Sanders and others on participatory design and co-creation. Sanders defines co-design as “collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process” [1] and has developed many different tools and methods to enable co-design in different product development settings.

Specifically, in the area of co-designing with children, the work of Alison Druin and others has provided many frameworks and methods that allow you to work with children as partners during a design process. In Druin’s paper, “The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology,” [2] she explains the different roles in which you can involve children in a product development process, using the diagram shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Alison Druin’s roles for children in designing new technologies
Alison Druin’s roles for children in designing new technologies

At different stages in a product development cycle, co-designing with children may include some combination of all of these roles. However, this article focuses mainly on including children in the design process as informants and design partners.

The Research Methods

Next, I’ll discuss some co-design methods that you can use with children at different stages of the product design process. The appropriate methods may vary depending on the purpose of your research. My goal here is to give you an idea of what methods to use to meet the specific needs of the researchers and designers on your UX team. (This is not an exhaustive list of research methods. Explaining each method in depth would require a separate column.)

Methods for Developing Self-Awareness

Sanders recommends that, before you conduct any co-design sessions, you should do a series of self-awareness exercises that allow participants to reflect on everyday activities that they would normally take for granted. The results of these exercises can serve either as inspiration for an on-site research session or as a guide to digging deeper into areas that the design team considers to have more innovation potential.

With children between the ages of 7 and 11 years of age, workbooks or journals that they can take home and fill out work well. For older children, more recent experiments include using online research tools and storytelling using videos or pictures that children have created.

Mobile diary studies that portray a-day-in-the-life data are an effective tool when conducting research with teenagers or the parents of young children who are not yet able to go through a research exercise on their own.

While doing such preparatory research exercises is not always possible, because of time or budget constraints, they provide a valuable opportunity both for the design team to learn more about the kids and their world before starting the co-designing process and for the kids to start preparing for the on-site creative exercises.

If the children with whom you are working have been using a product for a long time and are deeply passionate about it, you can usually bypass these exercises. Chances are that these children will already be full of ideas about how to improve the product by the time you talk to them and eager to share them with you, so they won’t need to do any warm-up research activities at home.

Methods for On-site Research

All co-design sessions require the use of stimuli or a toolkit that facilitates discussion and spurs creative thinking. When a design research team is working with children, the creation of these toolkits requires secondary research into psychological and developmental guidelines for children in various age groups, as well as images and words that children understand and can relate to easily. Plus, you should do a pilot test with kids to assess how well your toolkit is working.

If you are conducting user research sessions at frequent intervals throughout a product development cycle, you’ll be able to refine your toolkit as you go through the process and become better acquainted with young participants.

The user research methods that I’ve presented in this column are generally appropriate for children 6 years of age or older, with the exception of the mixing-ideas methods.

Discovering Emotions, Feelings, and Dreams

Discovering emotions, values, ideas, dreams, desires, and ideal situations is a crucial part of user research during the early stages of the design process and usually requires generative research methods. There are numerous ways of doing generative research, each of which presents different challenges when working with children, as follows:

  • collages—You can get children to create collages to elicit discussion of the intangible—feelings and emotions. Children typically create collages by choosing images from a large set of visual stimuli.
  • context mapping—This method lets you understand a child’s world—what she values or likes and how she perceives different aspects of her life, a brand, a system, or an experience. As when creating a context map with adults, a representation of the child is at the center of the map. Layers start to form as the child first represents what she considers most important or closest to her. Variations of this approach include doing context mapping as a game, using specific shapes or colors.
  • storytelling—You can elicit storytelling in a number of ways when working with children. Storyboards, simple drawings, modeling, image cards, role playing, fantasy games, and mixed-materials toolkits can help you to understand future experience journeys and ideal processes as stories.

Recently, I have used a variation on these approaches, involving a rapid visualizer or illustrator in the sessions who attempts to represent what the children are imagining. In this case, the children act as creative directors, guiding the illustrator in his creative effort.

Conceptualizing Products

As your design process progresses, the user research methods that you use should evolve from generative methods to formative methods. This means that you can involve children in shaping and refining the initial ideas for a product, as well as concepts that have started to take a more tangible and pragmatic form. The following are some methods that you can use during the conceptualization phases of a design process:

  • low-tech prototyping and mockups—You can use prototyping materials of any shape, color, and size as stimuli for co-creation sessions with children. One example of the many variations of this approach is providing pieces of a user interface prototype, so children can build their ideal product concept from them—just as they would build a puzzle. If you’re working on large systems like virtual worlds or complex applications, create prototyping stations for different parts of the product and let kids rotate through those parts they would like to work on.
  • cooperative inquiry—Alison Druin and her team at The University of Maryland developed this method. [3] It combines more traditional user research methods, including contextual inquiry and participatory design, with what she refers to as technology immersion, within the context of conducting research with children. Variants of this technique include the following:
    • mixing ideas—This approach aims to involve younger children—that is, children who are 4 to 6 years of age—in a design brainstorming process by encouraging each child to generate ideas and combine them with the ideas of others in a group. The final step of this process involves combining all of the pieces of ideas that a group has generated to create one big idea that provides a final, more structured direction for continued exploration as part of a design and development process. [4]

      sticky-note frequency analysis—You can use this method to evaluate a technology product or prototype with both children and adults. Each member of a group evaluates a product or prototype by writing what they like or dislike about using it on sticky notes, then placing the notes on a wall, where either the group—or an individual researcher—uses affinity diagramming to find patterns and trends. [5]

      layered evaluation—Use this method to generate ideas through an iterative co-design process. With this approach, participants start developing an idea during the first sessions and continue building upon this initial work in successive research workshops. [6]

Methods for Online Research

New research methods are emerging that take advantage of online social-networking platforms and allow hundreds of users to co-design a product. Such methods are generally referred to as open innovation or crowdsourcing initiatives. These methods differ from the co-design methods I described earlier in that they use a virtual platform. Plus, the initial process feels more like a contest.

The main goal of open innovation or crowdsourcing is to allow a great number of participants to submit ideas. Then the company conducting the research chooses just the best ideas for further development.

A more in-depth co-design process starts when a company begins its actual product design and production cycles, inviting the authors of idea to be part of the entire product development process until the company launches the product.

A recent example of this approach in the children’s toy industry is LEGO CUUSO, a platform that allows people of all ages and from any geographical location to submit their ideas for new LEGO models. LEGO chooses the best ideas by their popularity, as ranked by all users of the platform. Those projects that get 10,000 votes or more are the ones that LEGO considers for final development.

Figure 2 shows the LEGO CUUSOO open innovation platform, on which fans of LEGO bricks and LEGO Minecraft, a popular digital building game, initially conceived a project that combines the two products. LEGO now has this product under development.

Figure 2—LEGO CUUSOO open innovation platform
LEGO CUUSOO open innovation platform

Online methods also include the development of platforms by companies to provide channels of communication that enable iterative co-design with users online. Such sites are usually password protected and allow a user board comprising individuals who have had great exposure to a product or brand to participate in its design. These platforms facilitate the sharing of sketches, prototypes, and ideas without participants’ needing to be in the same geographical area.

The Materials

All of the toolkits that researchers employ when using co-design methods with participants who are on site have a central component like those I described earlier. You should always combine your toolkits with other arts-and-crafts items such as colored paper, foam, glue, scissors, stickers, markers, crayons, play-doh, or cardboard.

The Place and Time

Unlike online methods that you can use at any time and in any place, you should conduct on-site co-design sessions in a place where children feel at ease. This generally means going to wherever children are, whether at school or at home.

However, if you work at a company that kids recognize and they are familiar with your products, visiting the headquarters and meeting the design team there can be an exciting journey for them.

In either case, sessions should take place in a room with plenty of space in which children can move around and have easy access to materials they can freely use in creating things. You should typically plan for a one-hour session unless you are working with children who are either experienced with or very passionate about your product—in which case, the sessions can last for two or three hours.

If time and budget permit, the first session with a participant should be more relaxed, providing an opportunity for a child and his or her parents to meet the team and get acquainted with the space, the materials, and the kind of work they’ll do. The research team can ask them about favorite toys and hobbies and get ideas for play activities with which they might start the process.

Children’s Age Ranges

As in any research project, you’ll find that some participants are more expressive than others and that they’ll react differently to a variety of circumstances. The following is a summary of basic guidelines that you should take into consideration when designing with children. However, you should always plan ahead how to make every child feel involved, how to deal with short attention spans, and how sessions might vary depending on whether you conduct them with individuals or in group settings.

Some Final Thoughts