Getting Kids to Invent in a Giant Single-Day Workshop

Recently, I organized an invention workshop for AT&T’s “Take Our Kids to Work Day.” This involved three 45-minute workshops and almost 300 children (ages 7-15)! I’ve never designed with children on this scale and I wanted to share how it worked and some lessons from it (as well as share my materials, in case anybody would find that to be helpful).

What We Did: I gave a quick presentation on the 5 steps I take to invent, using the ShareTable as a concrete example. The kids were divided into 2 teams of 4 people at each table and each team had a different design challenge. They then had 20 minutes to come up with ideas and draw some inventions. Finally, they presented their best idea to the other team at the table, taking about 5 minutes each. I circulated throughout the rooms, focusing on the teams that were sitting back, instead of leaning forward.

What Worked:

  • Doing such large groups meant that I could very quickly get an understanding of whether something was working. For example, in the first workshop there were 4 teams that had the design challenge of a system that helps a shy kid who moves to a new school. All 4 teams really struggled with this challenge, so I was able to pull it out and replace it with different challenges for the two subsequent workshops.
  • Design challenges that focused on more physical ideas, like fun on car trips and taking care of pets, yielded a larger variety of ideas.
  • I got names and emails of families that might be interested in trying out new technologies. This is a great solution to age-old recruitment problem!
  • The prompt that worked best, directed to the whole group, was: “If you’re having trouble coming up with a good idea, write down a really bad idea. Cross it out and write the opposite of it.” See example below:

[Bobby] was thinking about ideas for better car trips. (1) He wrote down "I can't think of anything" in the middle of the page. (2) I make the suggestion that he think of a bad idea first, he writes "something that hijacks your car." (3) I tell his to cross it out and write the opposite of it, he writes "an app to help you find your car." He sees that as a good idea, gets excited and quick comes up with and draws 3 more ideas.

[Bobby] was thinking about ideas for better car trips. (1) He wrote down “I can’t think of anything” in the middle of the page. (2) I make the suggestion that he think of a bad idea first, he writes “something that hijacks your car.” (3) I tell his to cross it out and write the opposite of it, he writes “an app to help you find your car.” He sees that as a good idea, gets excited and quickly comes up with and draws 3 more ideas.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Very large groups meant very little one-on-one time with me. In general, the groups that I spoke to during the design session produced better ideas and were able to push past the initial “obvious” idea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to every team.
  • It was easy for the more shy kids to sit back and not participate, since there was little hands-on supervision from adults during the design exercise.
  • I was hoping to be able to do repeat sessions with kids who put down their names as being interested, however it seems that there are legal issues with having parents bring children to work outside of a formally organized event. So, it is likely that I will not be able to follow up with the children from this workshop in-person.

Why Do This: Designing with children is actually a great way to get ideas. Designing with a big group is great way to understand the ideas that would be valued by that culture. The kids are probably not going to come up with the next thing that you will patent, but with a little bit of translating, you can get to some interesting underlying nuggets. For example, take a look at these four ideas:

Four ideas from the workshop. These may not be directly implemented, but they can tell us a lot about designing in these domains.

Four ideas from the workshop. These may not be directly implemented, but they can tell us a lot about designing in these domains.

Now, let me try to translate what I got out of them: (1) We may not be able to make a translator for dogs, but perhaps there could be other ways of making the invisible visible, such as displaying physiological variables. This would be interesting as a contribution to the burgeoning field of pet-computer interaction. (2) Almost every team that worked on the translating problem came up with some variations on glasses and headphones (this one also came up with a typing glove), which shows that children might be quite comfortable with wearable computing, so that’s not a bad bet for the future. (3) Most teams that worked on the remote best friends idea, came up with something that was embodied, could interact with the remote space, and could participate in play. These are all excellent ideas to include in any technology for remote contact in the home. (4) There were a lot of variations on physical activities in cars (pools, slides, trampolines, etc.). While it’s probably impractical to go off and try to make this actually happen, this points to the idea that what kids really want to be able to do in the car is something physical. Hmmm… DDR for the car? *runs off to the patent office*

So to summarize, I think there is a lot of value to be had from even one-off invention workshops with children (as long as you’re willing to do some translating of the final ideas). Regardless of where you work, you may be able to organize one of these in the context of a take your kids to work day. Even if you end up with a giant group, it’s still doable and there are even some advantages to it.

Favorite IDC Papers on Family Communication

One of my favorite conferences, Interaction Design and Children (IDC) is going to be in NYC this year! Full papers are called for on January 22nd and I hope to see a lot of great stuff this year (definitely excited about the paper I will be submitting :-)). In the meantime, I wanted to reflect on some of my favorite IDC papers of all time. These are the ones that have directly influenced my own work and I wanted to share them with others who are interested in family communication technologies.

The first paper is about Mediated Intimacy in Families and it is a qualitative investigation of how parents and children build closeness. Dalsgaard et al. emphasize the importance of emotional and physical expressiveness in all relationships. But they also found differences: parents and children build closeness through play together and care provided by the parent for the child, rather than through reciprocal exchanges and setting of public and private boundaries (as in strong-tie relationship). These insights led quite directly to the work that I’ve done with the ShareTable, where my goal was supporting the kinds of care and play activities that might be done remotely.

Freed et al. used a doll house to investigate how children think about remote communication. This image is from their paper and belongs to the authors.

Freed et al. used a doll house to investigate how children think about remote communication. This image is from their paper and belongs to the authors.

The second paper is about children connecting with peers through tangible characters in doll houses. Freed et al. built a pair of doll houses where toys could call each other, mail letters, and videochat with each other. This is a cool idea and an interesting way of investigating how children think about remote communication. The dollhouse approach turned out to be quite compelling to the kids, with most of them engaging in some level of shared play and finding the experience engaging. I had already been engaging with the idea of communicating through play, but seeing this work eventually inspired me to think about physical arrangements for videochat that could support narrative and pretend play.

Raffle et al. investigated asynchronous messaging with toddlers. This image is from their paper and belongs to the authors.

Raffle et al. investigated asynchronous messaging with toddlers. This image is from their paper and belongs to the authors.

The last paper is about asynchronous messaging with preschoolers. If you had asked me before this paper was published whether I thought that asynchronous communication with toddlers would work, I would probably have been very dubious. It’s just not that easy to communicate remotely and it seems much easier to connect with a person than with a message! I have to say that this paper has changed my mind. It presents three prototypes for asynchronous contact that thoughtfully explore what it may look like to engage toddlers with remote relatives asynchronously. This hasn’t led me to do a new paper or a new project (yet), but it reminded me not to underestimate the power of creative ideas and the ability of children to adapt to new ways of connecting.

If you like these papers, you might thing about checking out IDC in NYC this year. I’ll definitely be there, so let me know if you want to meet up.

Reflecting on the ShareTable Deployment

The ShareTable was my Ph.D. thesis project and the paper about its deployment will be presented at CSCW 2013. Since everything is officially accepted, I thought that I’d give y’all a preview of the paper and summarize a few of our findings. I’m also going to give an overview of our process, which may be helpful to other students who are in the same boat.

A diagram of the system components and photos of the ShareTable in the homes of participants.

We wanted to address two common issues in remote parent-child communication that we discovered through interviews with divorced families: (1) children don’t feel empowered to initiate the interaction and (2) its hard to have a longer interaction because just talking is boring for the child. To address these challenges, we designed and deployed the ShareTable — a system that provides easy-to-initiate videochat and a shared tabletop task space — in four divorced households.  We compared the families’ previous communication practices (from a 2-3 week diary baseline study) with their use of the ShareTable system. Throughout the month of its use, the families employed the ShareTable to participate in shared activities, share emotional moments, and communicate closeness through metaphorical touch. The amount of parent-child communication more than doubled for both families because doing activities together was more compelling than just talking. Additionally, children initiated a much greater proportion of conversations over the ShareTable than they had previously done with the phone. However, the ShareTable did also introduce new concerns over privacy and new sources of conflict about appropriate calling practices between the parents. Overall, our experience showed that the combination of videochat and an activity space provided a compelling medium for communication with young children. A similar approach may be useful with other types of geographically-separated families, as well as in supporting children in remote play and learning.

I also wanted to reflect a bit on the whole process. While I was working on this project, I frequently felt frustrated and like things weren’t moving along fast enough. Indeed, there were a lot of times that I ended up backtracking on ideas, rewriting the code (twice completely ), and reconsidering the best way to approach the whole idea. However, reflecting back on it, that’s a kind of progress as well and perhaps that’s what research is all about. Indeed, even in the slowest of years, I made some progress on the overall idea. Sketches (while they almost seemed a waste of time while I was doing them) turned out to be a great way of getting early feedback on my ideas, considering alternatives, and most importantly attracting good people to this project. The design would not have been possible without Stephen Cuzzort, Hina Shah, Hendrik Mueller, Brian Di Rito, and Berke Atasoy. The implementation would not have happened without Stephen Cuzzort, Jee Yeon Hwang, Sanika Mokashi, Shashank Raval, Duane Rollins, Jasjit Singh, and Anthony Tang (even if not everybody’s code ended up in the final system). And there was no way I could have deployed it in the homes without Sanika Mokashi, Yi Han, Eugene Medynskiy, Kurt Luther, David Quigley, Caleb Southern, and Jay Summet (there was a lot of truck driving and furniture-moving involved!). And, of course, my advisor Gregory Abowd was there every step of the way.

The process of developing this system took several years, granted with a lot of side projects and learning along the way.

So, if you are currently a Ph.D. student and you’re feeling like you’re climbing a never-ending mountain, keep at it, you’ll feel great when you reach the top! In the meantime, try to find good people to help. Even though it’s only my name on the thesis, the giant list of names above shows that I couldn’t have done it alone. Ask for help when you need it!