What if Kids Were Designers?

By Jack Cole, Director of Design

For the past 6 months here at Motivate Design, we’ve been focusing on evangelizing the power of asking “What if?” to help unlock the creative potential that exists within all of us.

Most of that evangelization has been working with and advising professionals dealing with the day-to-day obstacles that keep them from problem-solving in a creative way. We encourage participants to tap into their inner child so they can “Reframe” their thinking, putting them into a mindset that is open to that “gray space” — where opportunity resides.

It’s a combination of techniques that we produced in-house, which are outlined in our soon-to-be-published book: Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think. From the outset, we’ve talked about how our techniques are applicable — for corporate America — for anyone in and outside of the workforce — including, and maybe most especially, for our young people.

That’s why when we recently had a Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day on-site in the Motivate office, it seemed like the perfect chance for us to try our first youth-based version of the What If Technique.


To be honest, I was the one who actually made the suggestion to host the event since I wanted to bring my 8-year-old daughter, Lilly, with me to work for the day so that she could finally, just maybe, understand what it is I actually do during the day. My wife is a teacher, so it’s easy for Lilly to understand what that means because she sees and interacts with them every day. And going to my wife’s school is the best school day ever for a kid because she only goes to the classes she likes: Art, Gym, Lunch, Recess, Art (again!), Music, Computers. So despite several of my attempts to explain my job in the past, Lilly was a little bit fuzzy on the details of my profession.

Similar to what we do with our full-day WIT Studio sessions with professionals, showing kids like Lilly what user experience is and how we ideate is more impactful than just talking about it. We get them fully immersed in a problem, and then watch as they step outside of convention to arrive at something completely new and exciting. Once they go through the sessions, they realize it’s super fun to be a UX researcher and designer, especially in a New York-based design agency!

We were also lucky enough to have a long-time client and friend of the agency come and visit with her 11-year-old daughter Michele, and her friend Olivia, also 11.

WHEN I GROW UP, I WANT TO BE _____________

With three girls who share a love for creativity and an aspiration to do something in the art/design realm (Michele was the most eloquent and specific in her career goals: she wants to be an app designer; Olivia aspires to design interiors like she sees on HGTV’s Property Brothers; Lilly had stars in her eyes proclaiming she wanted to be a “famous artist”), the entire Motivate team that ran the day knew these girls would give us all a run for our money — despite their age!

So after a short, 11-year-old-level 101 session on the principles of user research and design, our moderators Emily Chu and Abigail Muir set the stage.

Like any WIT Studio, both Motivators and kids needed to start with both a problem and challenge statement. We chose a common experience that anyone — and adults — can relate to: brushing your teeth.


“Brushing your teeth is important. But it isn’t really fun. People don’t look forward to brushing their teeth and they aren’t excited about it.”


“How might we make people excited about brushing their teeth?”

Armed with some basic knowledge about user research, the girls knew that redesigning the tooth brushing experience would require more than just sitting down and drawing out their own vision of what they want in a toothbrush. They would have to step outside of themselves and build empathy for their target audience. But how?

The Motivate moderators Emily and Abby created a persona for the young designers to focus their concepts around: a girl named “Emma”, close in age and similar in background to each of the girls, but with some distinct interests and activities.


From there, they moved on to what we at Motivate call Empathy Mapping: considering how and what Emma would typically see, do, think, feel, and hear during the twice daily activity of brushing her teeth. The girls all quickly agreed that the general environment/location would be Emma standing in the bathroom in front of the mirror (Although Christo Claassens, one of our oddball Motivators threw them a curve when he said he typically likes to sit while brushing his teeth. After a lot of giggling and general hilarity, the girls all agreed this practice was likely an outlier, and they chose to focus on the most common experience).

Next it was time for Michele, Olivia, and Lilly — hypotheses in hand — to test their initial thoughts and assumptions in the real world. Each girl was tasked with interviewing other members of the in-office Motivate staff in order to get some other perspectives on general tooth brushing practices. Then, together with Motivate chaperones, they went out into the field at a local drug store to observe the existing products in the toothbrush space. The team considered several aspects of the products available: design of toothbrushes for children and adults, the accompanying cleaning tools, price, product placement, marketing, etc.

Like the rest of us, kids can get cranky when they miss a meal. So after a pretty active morning, the team took a break for pizza, pasta, and cookies. It turned out to be quite the working lunch, as the girls couldn’t stop talking about what they saw and heard, the things that met their expectations, and the things that surprised them.

After lunch, we moved onto the fun part — three action-packed rounds of ideation through asking What If!

Whether it was the excitement of the morning or the food, it was clear the creative fire within each girl had been stoked. Unlike many adult professionals we’ve worked with, the girls appeared to have an endless supply of ideas tumbling out of their orange notepads, each piece of paper raising new and interesting possibilities for how to create a better toothbrush and overall brushing experience for Emma, the end user persona.


After the creative dust settled, the collective team moved onto the next phase: multiple rounds of refinement using a scaled model of what we call the How-Wow matrix in order to identify the idea that had the greatest potential for conceptualization moving into initial design sketches and prototyping.

The day ended with the trio of junior Motivators presenting their full set of research, discoveries, and conceptual models for an end product to the entire Motivate Design office. Their confidence and genuine enthusiasm was infectious, leaving all attendees in the conference room blown away.

Motivate Founder and CEO Mona Patel observed the activities at different points throughout the day and came away impressed with how comfortable and relaxed the girls were while they presented — not to mention how much they truly considered both user needs as well as turning a generally mundane task into a pleasurable, goal-oriented experience.

All in all, it was an inspirational experience for anyone who works as a UX professional. Three young girls had walked into the Motivate office knowing nothing about design or research and what the day had to offer, but they came away with at least a little sense of what it takes to brainstorm and do good design — and how enjoyable that can be. Plus, the day confirmed the central premise of the WIT Studio: creativity and innovation are out there for anyone to eager and willing to tap into. Once people free themselves of their own barriers, the potential for innovation is exponential.

And as a father, the day was confirmation that what we do can make an impact on the lives of people of all ages. I never enjoyed sitting through New York City rush hour traffic more than that day because Lilly was totally energized and literally What If’d on other ideas the entire way home and up until she went to sleep. She even explained the concepts produced by her and her fellow designers to her 4-year-old sister who actually believed that the new toothbrush was real.

My role as a design leader at Motivate Design is to expand our offerings to the educational space in order to be the catalyst for creative problem solving in not only our children, but also among educators — teachers, principals, etc. — who are confronted with their own set of barriers on a daily basis.

Because at the end of the day, with this year’s theme for Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day being #MPOWR”, it only seems appropriate for us to consider the theme as a mandate for all of us as UX professionals to enact upon and make a social impact for those who could benefit from our gifts and talents the most.

Interested in seeing first hand what the full-day WIT Studio experience is like? Sign up and see for yourself how others have been able to overcome their personal barriers and tap into their creative potential.

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Originally published at www.motivatedesign.com.