Children as Inventors of Happiness Technologies

Click to expand the infographic!

Happiness is a practice. People can achieve happiness by applying specific skills to their interaction with the world. These skills include gratitude (reflecting on and expressing thankfulness for positive aspects of one’s life), mindfulness (practicing awareness and acceptance of the present moment), and problem solving (reflecting on thoughts and feelings to find alternative interpretations and solutions). About 44% of school in the U.S. include programs that teach such social and emotional skills to children (e.g., Penn Resiliency Program), and a number of investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of these approaches. However, one of the challenges faced by school-based programs is that they provide few (if any) opportunities for children to extend the practice of these skills to their lives outside of the classroom. Technology may help address this gap by providing engaging opportunities to revisit happiness practices outside of the classroom and integrate them into the everyday lives of children.

Prof. Stephen Schueller (Clinical Psychologist, Northwestern University) and I partnered to consider and design new technologies to support children in practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving skills. While Stephen has a great deal of expertise in positive psychology and I know a fair bit about designing technology for children, we also wanted to make sure that our approach represented children’s voices, priorities, and values. We collaborated with the Y.O.U. (Youth & Opportunity United) summer program to train twelve children in becoming “Happiness Inventors.” Through fourteen 90-minute sessions, we worked with the children to understand their definitions of happiness, to teach them age-appropriate gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving exercises, and to provide them with the knowledge and structure to become inventors of new technologies to help kids practice happiness skills. Through these session, children brainstormed over 400 ideas and developed many of these ideas as sketches, prototypes, and videos. The video the children made documenting a few of their outcomes is below.

By conducting a content analysis of the children’s work, we found a number of important implications for future technologies aiming to support the practice of happiness skills. First, we found that children’s interpretations of positive psychology concepts like gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving may not always match adult interpretations and perspectives of these concepts. For example, many children’s interpretations of happiness across all three concepts revolved around external influences on happiness, such as getting practical help (e.g., with homework) or avoiding unpleasant situations. These may not be typical concepts within positive psychology, but these concepts are worth considering when developing interventions for children. If a child’s mental model of happiness and how it can be achieved does not match the model forwarded by a particular intervention, the intervention’s effect may be limited for that child. Researchers should make the effort to engage with the mental models of the particular child audience and, if necessary, work on changing counterproductive belief structures before deploying positive technology intervention.

Second, the children’s designs pointed to a number of specific features and engagement approaches that may increase the appeal of positive technologies. One noteworthy example is that children often imagined technological solutions that could understand and react to various internal states, such as thoughts and emotions. Indeed, a growing number of efforts are attempting to glean psychological and emotional states from various affective computing technologies as diverse as EEG, galvanic skin response, and automated sentiment analysis on social media. Positive technologies that make use of such features may have particular appeal for children who are still learning to understand and interpret their affective states and the affective states of others. Another noteworthy aspect is in the number and diversity of approaches that the children posited for encouraging sustained engagement with interventions. While gamification and social interaction were two important approaches that have been considered in a number of previous interventions, there were also a few surprising ideas. One of these surprises was sensory engagement. Many of the children’s ideas posited that somebody could be motivated to engage with an intervention simply because it was beautiful and appealing to the senses, whether it be visual, aural, olfactory, or haptic. This is not a well-explored approach in the design of positive technologies and it would be interesting to know the smells associated with happiness (our participants suggested some, which included warm chocolate chip cookies and the smell of one’s own bed).

Finally, another design insight from this investigation emerged from observing the types of technologies that children cited in their inventions. It was clear that children were not drawn to interventions for laptops or desktops. At the very least, the implication of this is that web-based interventions for children should be designed using a mobile-first paradigm. However, we should emphasize that this is just a stop-gap solution, as even mobile-first web-based solutions struggle to achieve sustained engagement. Indeed, there may be an opportunity to increase engagement by thinking outside the box (or the computer, as the case may be here). The children in our study suggested a number of solutions that went beyond apps and websites. These instantiations included wearable accessories and apparel, toys and gadgets that may operate independently or in conjunction with a phone app, smart furniture and home infrastructure, robots and drones, and public kiosks and displays. It may be fruitful for designers to consider their positive technology interventions not as “sites” that children “visit,” but rather as tools that live alongside with them in the real physical world.

There’s a lot more in our Journal of Medical Internet Research paper, so check it out if you’re interested!

Pocket++: Changing Pants to Fit Phones

A very long time ago, I complained that women’s pant pockets are too small for a smartphone. Since then, smartphones have only gotten bigger! Here’s what it looks like when I try to fit my phone in my pocket (that is a regular iPhone 6, not a 6+!):

My phone won't fit in my pocket!

My phone won’t fit in my pocket!

Since then, I’ve created a number of rough prototypes to address this issue and finally came up with a solution that I see as the most efficient way of dealing with it. Namely, change your pockets! Here is what the solution looks like for me:

Now, my phone fits in my pocket!

Now, my phone fits in my pocket!

It fulfills my criteria of being comfortable while both sitting and standing, not being something I have to carry (i.e., a purse), and being easy to access. You can do this yourself if you have a sewing machine (hand-stitching won’t hold up to long-term wear, as I found out). However, the good news is that it’s also really easy to “outsource” the solution. Simple steps:

Measure how much of your phone sticks out and add one inch. That's how much more pocket you will need.

Measure how much of your phone sticks out and add one inch. That’s how much extra pocket you will need to add.

  1. Put the phone in your pocket and measure how much is sticking out with a ruler or tape measure. Add one inch to this amount (for comfort and future phone size increases). Do this for every style of jeans/pants that you want to alter (since pockets seem to vary drastically in size).
  2. Take to a local seamstress to alter. All they need to know if how many inches to extend each pocket (which you should have from step 1). You just need one pocket extended on each pair of pants. Image below shows what the pocket looks like from the inside. If you’re in the Twin Cities area, I recommend Blue Serge (the cost is $10 per pocket, but you could get a bulk discount to $7 if you bring more than two pairs of pants).
A well-sewn pocket is a thing of beauty!

Final outcome. A well-sewn pocket is a thing of beauty!

My favorite thing about this approach is that not only was I able to finally solve my smartphone problem, but that I was also able to support a wonderful seamstress in my local community. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t have a million types of pants and hates carrying a purse, see whether this solution works as well for you as it has for me!

Note: Mini blog post this month as I’m pretty caught up in teaching, an apartment move, and the upcoming wedding. But, I hope to be back in full force in June!

Cross-Cultural Parenting and Technology

My parents had two primary sources for parenting advice: my grandparents and the Dr. Spock book. If you are a parent today, you know that this is no longer the case! Millions of sources in printed literature, online, and in your local community all have opinions on how you should parent! How do parents manage so many diverse opinions? What happens when the values of the parents conflict with their community, with other family members, or even with each other? We thought that cross-cultural families (where the two parents are from different cultures or who are raising their child in a different culture from their own) may have a particularly salient perspective to offer on these important questions.

The idea for this project grew out of a workshop on family technologies. Over the last two years, I’ve had the honor of working with three great collaborators — Sarita Schoenebeck, Shreya Kothaneth, and Liz Bales — to try to understand cross-cultural parenting and to find opportunities for technology to help. All four of us are members of cross-cultural families (in one way or another) and we wanted to learn more about this fascinating phenomenon, so we interviewed parents from 18 cross-cultural families all around the United States. We investigated how these families respond to conflicts while integrating diverse cultural views, as well as how they utilize the wealth of parenting resources available online in navigating their lives. In our upcoming CHI 2016 paper (available as a pre-print here), we share what these parents told us about how these families find and evaluate advice, connect with social support, resolve intra-family tensions, incorporate multicultural practices, and seek out diverse views. But, what I want to share here are three design ideas for new technology that were inspired by these interviews. We think that they may not only be good for cross-cultural families but may help all kinds of families better integrate multiple cultures into everyday life. We show some very preliminary sketches of these ideas below:

Some ideas for new technology inspired by our interviews with cross-cultural families!

Some ideas for new technology inspired by our interviews with cross-cultural families!

For me personally, this project was fascinating because I got to talk to so many interesting families. It was gratifying to think that maybe cross-cultural families could inspire ideas that could help all families and bring us all a little closer. What do you think, would you use any of the ideas we suggested in the paper if we went ahead and built it? Let us know below!