Six Strategies for Including Children as Stakeholders

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.

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 just to answer questions.

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).

    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.

Whitelist Chat as a Strategy to Protect Children Online

The ability to interact with other players is one of the most compelling aspects of online multiplayer games. However, in games for young children, there are obvious privacy and safety concerns in allowing unrestricted chatting. The state of the art solution, implemented in practically every online community for kids is “whitelist” chat (on some websites, combined with live monitoring). Whitelist chat means that only real dictionary words are allowed (bonus: helps spelling!) and certain real words (e.g., names of place and numbers) are excluded from this list. As an enthusiast of children’s online communities, I’ve been fascinated by the many ways that children have found to get around these restriction. In this blog post, I will use the children’s online game Petpet Park as an example, though honestly it could be one of any number of communities (Roblox, Club Penguin, etc.).

In Petpet Park, children play a creature who does quests around town, plays mini games, buys clothes and toys, and decorates their own little corner of the world. The website combines a strict set of whitelist restrictions and live monitoring to ensure safe chat. However, kids always find a way!

Petpet Park

A screenshot from Petpet Park. Children create creatures that can do quests, play games, and chat with each other.

petpet park taboo

Creative combination of real words and referring to cultural landmarks as a way of conveying real locations — a taboo topic on children’s websites.

Consider the public chat to the right (username removed for privacy). This person has found a creative way of combining real words (“train i dad” = Trinidad) and references to cultural landmarks (“cowboys” = USA, “place with that arch” = St. Louis) to discuss places of residence (a taboo topic on a children’s website). I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Petpet Park. In fact, I was impressed that this discussion was almost immediately shut down by a live monitor (booting the over-sharing child off the server), but this behavior is quite common and the damage could be done before a monitor steps in. Here are some common ways that I’ve seen children getting around the rules:

  • Typing a single letter on each chat line to spell out a forbidden word. (Not possible on all websites — Petpet Park does not allow this, for example)
  • Using the letter “i” to convey numbers. (e.g., “I am i i i i i i i years old”)
  • Spelling out a non-whitelisted word using first letters of allowed words. (e.g., “Read only first letters. My name is Like Amazing Nutty Almonds.”)
  • Using the meanings of allowed words to convey forbidden information. (e.g., “I go to the school that’s named after the guy that flew the kite.”)

The point that I want to make is that no online community is going to be 100% safe. In particular, the state of the art whitelist strategy is only effective when augmented with live monitoring (and even then, it may be too little too late). Safe chat is not a replacement for parental engagement and keeping open lines of communication about online rules. The other thing to remember is that no online filter will ever be able to enforce empathy and kind interaction online or be able to protect the child from being excluded or hurt by others. Both conversations should be an important part of raising digital citizens.

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.