Adults are not good proxies for understanding the needs and experiences of children. And yet, I see the “proxy” approach surprisingly frequently in studies of home and family, health informatics, education and other HCI domains. I’ve recently written a case study on this topic for a new edition of an HCI textbook (Baxter, K., Courage, C. & Caine, K. 2015. Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research. Methods, Tools and Techniques. Morgan Kaufmann) and I want to share some of the ideas here.
When seeking to understand families and children, it is critically important to include children in the research activity. While it may be tempting to use parents as proxies for gauging the family’s needs, this is insufficient for understanding the complexities of the family dynamic. In my own work, I’ve seen many examples of non-consensus and many instances where parents’ perceptions of their child’s experience diverged from the child’s. I provide several examples in the case study, but here I instead want to focus on six specific strategies to help researchers include children in user studies:
- Working with children requires special considerations while preparing the protocol and assent documents. Children are not able to give informed consent, which will have to be obtained through their parents, but the assent procedure gives them the opportunity to understand their rights and what will happen in the study. It is important to emphasize to the child that they can withdraw from the study, decline to answer any question, or take a break at any time. In designing both the assent document and interview protocol, keep specific developmental milestones in mind. In my experience, I have been able to interview children as young as 6, however I always check the comprehension level of the protocol by piloting with friendly participants in the target age group.
If you interview in a lab and you wear a lab coat, you’re gonna have a bad time talking to kids.
- To encourage children to be open and honest, the researcher should actively work to equalize power between the child and the researcher. Children spend their lives in situations where adults expect the “right” answer from them. To encourage the child to share honest opinions and stories, the researcher needs to break through this power differential. There are a number of details to consider here: choose an interview setting where the child has power (e.g., playroom), dress like an older sibling rather than as a teacher, encourage use of first names, and let the child play with any technology that will be used (e.g., audio recorder) before starting. Above all, emphasize that you are asking these questions because you do not yet know the answers, that the child is “the best at being a kid,” and that there is no wrong way to answer any of the questions.
- Parents make the decisions in a study that concerns their children, which introduces a unique constraint. As a researcher, you will have to respect the parents’ decisions: you may not be able to interview the child separately and you cannot promise the child that anything will be kept private from the parents. However, you can explain to the parents why it is important for the child to have a chance to state their perspective in private. In my experience, most parents are willing to provide that private space, especially when the study is being conducted in their home where they worry less about the child’s comfort.
- Children may struggle with abstraction, so ask for stories about specific situations. For example, instead of asking, “how do you and your dad talk on the phone when he’s traveling?” ask, “what did you tell your dad last time he called you?” It may take more questions to get as all the aspects you want to discuss, but it is much easier for children to discuss things they recently did rather than provide an overall reflection. This is most important with younger children, but is a good place to start with any participant.
Children talk more during show-and-tell than if you just ask them questions. (That’s my brother, by the way!)
- Additional effort may be necessary to engage a shy child and one way to do so is to encourage the child to show-and-tell. For example, “Show me where you usually are when you think about your mom?” or “Show me some apps that you use with your dad on your phone?” Use the places and objects shared as stepping-stones to ask more nuanced questions about feelings, strategies, and preferences.
An example of a child’s drawing of technology (a holograph robot for communication).
Lastly, incorporating drawing and design activities may help the child get into the “open-ended” nature of the study, be willing to be a little silly, and reveal what may be most important to them. For example, I asked children, “What might future kids have to help them stay in touch with their parents?” These drawing are not meant to produce actionable designs, but will reveal important issues through their presentation. Listen for key words (e.g., “secret” = importance of privacy), look for underlying concepts (e.g., “trampoline” or “swimming pool” = importance of physical activity), and attend to common themes such as who would be interacting with their future device, where, and how often.
I hope that these six strategies demystify some of the processes of including children in a study. Please, let me know if you have any additional advice or any experiences in working with kids that you’re willing to share.
Earlier this October, I had the wonderful opportunity be one of the eight thousand women attending the Grace Hopper Conference and Celebration of Women in Computing. I came back home to a lot of questions about some of the press coverage of what happened there. So, here is my take on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good. I always come back from Grace Hopper feeling inspired and energized. Four reasons for it this time… (1) I’m getting to have more opportunities to give back and share advice instead of just asking for it. After a long conversation, an undergraduate woman told me “I’m seriously thinking about grad school now and you’re about 90% of the reason.” Wow! (2) Through the CRA-W, I got to give a talk about “How to Get Your Dream Job” with Jaeyeon Jung. It was probably the largest and definitely the most enthusiastic audience I’ve ever had! (3) It was so inspirational to attend talks by women like Shafi Goldwasser and Megan Smith and Maria Klawe! It’s hard not to go fangirl over this! (4) Last but not least, the dancing. The dancing at Grace Hopper is always amazing! It is totally an experience that every woman in computing should have!
Dancing at GHC is always amazing!
The Bad. Certainly, this year’s Grace Hopper came with quite a bit of controversy: a male allies panel went awry; Microsoft’s CEO said that women shouldn’t ask for raises. And yet, even these issues give me hope for the future. First, yes, the male allies panel had problems: the format shut down discussion (e.g., no Q&A) and the panelists made some very naive statements (see: “how to be a bad ally“). However, many overlook that these men took the feedback to heart and organized an ad-hoc panel the following day where women spoke while the men listened. Second, yes, Nadella did not handle the question about raises well on stage. But, he was there, he apologized right afterwards, and he launched a campaign to address the issues involved. I really believe that the net effect from both of these “bads” is positive. It both draws attention to issues of women in the workplace and makes me optimistic about male allies’ abilities to learn from their own mistakes and make positive changes.
The Ugly. However, one topic that was not well addressed at this year’s conference was the ugliness surrounding GamerGate. It was mostly discussed in the hallways over coffee rather than in any sort of formal way. We need to address this head on. We need to stand with Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and any other women who face threats and harassment online. I am committing to doing what I can to bring a panel on GamerGate (hopefully with all of these women above) to Grace Hopper next year. Honestly, I have no idea what I am doing on the logistics side (I’ll basically be cold emailing them) [Update: all three women have tentatively agreed]. Also, I am a bit scared to become a target, but if these women can live it, I can brave the small risk. This panel needs to happen. If you have any advice, let me know.
Goldy Gopher welcomes me to U of M
One thing I learned from my new colleagues at University of Minnesota is that we don’t end meeting, we declare victory on meetings. I started this job on August 25th and I think it’s a great time to declare victory on the first month and reflect a bit.
Here are some things that stand out the most to me from these first few weeks:
- Student Are the Best: I find that my motivation and energy are benefitting tremendously from contact with students. Guest lecturing to promote my new seminar, editing CHI papers together, running a project meeting, helping with fellowship apps — all of these activities are really fulfilling for me on an emotional level and beneficial to my research on an intellectual level. I can’t wait to teach next semester!
- First Grant Is Hard: While I’ve written smaller grants before, this was my first time writing an NSF grant. The process felt different and I needed a lot of guidance. Luckily, I had a lot of help: NSF program directors (Kevin and Wendy), U of M staff (Julia and Claudette), professors at U of M (Brent, Loren, Joe, and Amy K.), and old friends from GT who shared their past applications and successful proposals (Amy V. and Erika). Even though this grant could only have one PI, I feel like it took a village and I’m incredibly grateful for all the help.
- Time is Limited: I’ve heard this a billion times, but this month really drove the point home. There are tons of opportunities but there are only 24 hours in a day. I want to do this while still maintaining my commitment to my own health, sanity, and work/life balance. I did say my first “no” to a major opportunity this month, which I hear is an important skill to learn. One challenge for me over the next few months is in pursuing the right opportunities and learning how to protect time for the activities I find most important: working with students, writing, and hands-on research. From those who have been doing this for awhile: any advice on keeping your time from getting fragmented? any advice on picking opportunities and saying yes or no?
- Emotional Support is Key: Honestly, just knowing that many of my good friends are going through the same thing is a big help. Some of my friends have started a “Professor Cohort 2014″ group on Facebook (let me know if you want to join) and it helps me remember I’m not the only one facing the anxieties and the challenges. I’ve also connected with some of the new faculty in other departments through the new faculty orientation and a few social outings since then. And of course, old friends are gold — Eugene and Kurt will always be my first line of support (can’t wait for our reunion at the GVU Foley Scholars Dinner at the end of October!).
Will I still have time to blog in this new life? I better! This is one of the things that connects me to students and emotional support. It gives me a new perspective on my research. I also think protecting this time to write will be a good test of how I’m balancing the various priorities of this job — whether I’m being successful at keeping the “urgent” from getting ahead of the “important.” In a way, every post will be a declaration of victory!