Design for Early Learning

Design research with parents of young children

Parenting in today’s age is different than ever before. Our understanding of child development has amassed a great deal of literature; how might we help parents sift through and use this knowledge? Are the stresses of parenthood actually exacerbated by the possibility that there is now, with modern science and knowledge, a “right” way to raise a child? Let’s find out.

Part 1: Laying the Foundation for the Next Big Thing

Point of View

“I’m worried he’s not saying as many words as he is supposed to right now”
 — Ada L., mother of 2 y.o. boy
“At home, we tend to look at what is lacking […] We saw during a playdate that our son’s friend was recognizing numbers, so we started practicing numbers more”
 — Julian Y., mother of 14 month old boy

For newly minted parents, there are pain points galore. The question becomes, from what angle might be the most advantageous to help parents foster good habits for their child’s early development?

The mothers interviewed pointed to a lack of certainty around whether they are doing a good job parenting, especially in terms of their children achieving developmental milestones at certain times. This brought up feelings of stress, guilt, and anxiety, so much so that multiple parents described having to convince themselves they are are doing a good job:

“You ask yourself, am I being a good parent? There’s not a great way to know. But someone told me that if I am asking the question at all, that I care and that makes me a good parent. That makes me feel better” 
— Ada L., mother of 2 y.o. boy

The concept of tracking and monitoring comes immediately to mind as a way to give rich feedback to parents and actionable insights on what to do next for their child. However, the kind of feedback that parents are currently used to getting is highly personable — from observing their child during interactions or from reports from their caretakers. An app or device wouldn’t be an intuitive representation of their child’s growth. Mothers who receive advice and guidelines, even those who actively sought it out, describe having to adapt what they learn to their children and family situation. Even parents who routinely look to “evidence-based parenting” resources for information still go through a screening process to see what will work for their children and family situation.

When I catch a new word, I update my notes app with all his words on it.
 — Ada L., mother of 2 y.o. boy

The best defense is a good offense — by increasing quality engagement with their children, parents will intuitively get the feedback they crave on how their child is developing as they spend time with their child.

Key design principles:

  • flexibility and experimentation: parents notice how much their baby changes in the first few years of life, and how they have to change their habits regularly as the baby’s needs change. This requires an experimental attitude towards many aspects, including playtime and education.
  • engage the child: when asked how do they know what is right for their child (food, toys, school programs) parents look for cues from the child. If the child is engaged, the parent will be too — just as long as they see the value in the activity (see next).
  • convenience = keeping a lean operation: for new parents, convenience takes an interesting form: convenient things often cut out unnecessary parts of life. Your hands are full (literally) when you have children: things of marginal value get nixed. One mother interviewed often eats drive-thru food for dinner on the way home from work, while her son gets fed dinner at day care. And when her son is too fussy to take to the grocery store (which is often) she’ll order groceries from Amazon. Another, when in doubt on what to prepare for her child, simply opts for organic varieties of food, taking some of the guesswork out of cooking.
This is what we want to avoid (source)

Current Solutions and What’s Missing

  • The Starling is a “FitBit for words” — a unique tool for tracking language exposure for your baby. The onus to figure out how to increase that exposure is still on you.
  • Vroom has a nice suite of activities for parents to try to increase language exposure, focused on interactions that can easily incorporate into your everyday life.
  • YouTube is now a go-to for many parents, to help keep their child “engaged”. iPads can be a lifesaver for traveling families with young children. The content and methods of interaction, however, is questionable. Arguably, this is the wrong type of engagement on the whole.

What’s missing is a jumping off point for parents to try adopting a habitual activity and then to be able to iterate on it to make it their own. Seemingly, recent Stanford graduate thesis project Goodnight News does an exceptional job at this — a story-time activity that is different every time, yet a consistent in it’s set up to help family form a ritual around engagement. I appreciate that this engagement activity is in a book form factor, which might convince parents of its “educational” value.

What also might be missing is an embodiment of “granularity” of progress or milestones for young children. The Pull-Ups case study showed that anxiety over child development was assuaged with an “intermediate” step between diapers and being potty-trained: training pants. This framework fits well with moms’ wish to be able to feel good about doing their best, not the best.


A key assumption to test is that gradual observation of their child is better than a sort of milestone visualization towards informing parents. A potential behavior change hypothesis might be:

If parents see a certain kind of visual milestone feedback, or, are asked to reflect on their actual interactions with their child, then are they more or less likely to feel responsible for their children’s development and activated to continue trying new things with them?

Part 2: Digging into Needfinding

Next Research Objectives

The next phase of research needs to inform and solidify that there are actionable aspects of “engagement with children” that can be designed for. More specific pain points and intuition on what engagement sessions between parent and child entail and mean to for parents is needed.

  • What energizes parents to keep finding ways to engage with their children? What is fun for parents? (Is childcare actually fun? Can it be?)
  • When and why do parents use TV and/or YouTube for their children?
  • What motivates different parts of families’ routines? Why are certain things prioritized the way they are?

Next User Interviews

  • Fathers: what role do they play in a mother’s experience? To what extent do they share the sentiments that their partner does? What unique needs or perspectives do they have?
  • Families across SES: Demanding jobs or limited childcare options can drastically change the experience of raising your child. For instance, addressing knowledge gaps or fostering a minimum level of engagement may be a higher priority for parents with less resources, or experience (i.e. young, new mothers). Higher SES parents might need more affirmation that what they are already doing is usually okay, rather than guidance or instruction on how to help their child more.
I wasn’t a stranger to child raising, I changed my brother’s diapers as a kid, and yet I really didn’t feel ready.
 — Yanet C., mother of 5 and 7 y.o. girls

While it might seem that there are more vulnerable parents who could use more support than others, it was intruiging to see that bringing a baby home is daunting for anyone, no matter your background.

Example Questions

  • What are some things you enjoy about playing with or teaching your child?
  • Tell me about the last play session you had with your child; could you show me, could we play with them right now?
  • When do you think your child is learning the most? How can you tell?
  • Can you tell me the frustrating parts of taking care of your child? What would it be like if those parts weren’t there, how would you behave with your child differently?

Part 3: Reflective Design


How models are connected

Looking at Markus’ Culture Cycle model, and Barry’s Use-Usability-Meaning model, there’s an interplay. The Culture Cycle describes how the Self, Interactions, Institutions, and Ideas influence each other, together showing how a culture can evolve (or stay rigid). Use-Usability-Meaning is a framework anchored in Interaction: it dissects what an Interaction is (Use), how it is used (Usability), and why it matters to someone using it (Meaning). What it also does is give insight into how it is that an Interaction can be such a powerful pillar of the Culture Cycle. The Meaning behind an Interaction provides the conduit for the Self to influence the Ideas of a culture. Why we do something, and the Meaning we take away from an product experience, is what sticks with someone and influences the perception of the Self and then their Ideas/values. The Use of a product Interaction what actually happens, and influences our physical Selves. The Usability of a product determines if we are actually able to complete the Interaction.

Use-Usability-Meaning overlayed onto The Culture Cycle. Use-Usability-Meaning provides the conduits for an Interaction to influence other parts of culture.

Addressing every level

The Culture Cycle plays a big part in shaping the experience of new parents. Much of the parent experience is charactierized by questions parents have as they raise their child (Google is their friend!), and what they feel capable of doing. Below shows an approximation of the current culture of parenting, and what it could be with greater engagement experiences for parents with their children.



“Not everything is play, we have to incorporate some learning in there too”
 — Ada L., mother of 2 y.o. boy
“When their super young, you have to do everything while they’re napping […] With my first one, it was really difficult because I was afraid to do all those things, like, I can’t even go to the bathroom! Like do I bring him in with me, do I carry him, that’s kind of awkward…? […] With my second, I’ve learned a lot more, I’ve been more kind of relaxed with things. It’s okay if they cry for a minute or two.”
 — Koklynn Y., mother of 5 y.o. boy and 1 y.o. girl
“Even though I know it’s kind of impossible to do as a first time mom, [I would tell a first time mom] don’t be afraid to mess up. You’re always feel guilty that you’re not doing what’s best for your kid, or whatever you’re doing is going to mess them up, and it’s a really heavy toll, I feel like on moms [in particular], it’s really heavy on you when you’re trying to decide and do what’s best.”
 — Koklynn Y., mother of 5 y.o. boy and 1 y.o. girl
“It’s about knowing that you are doing the best that you can, and that’s all you can do.”
— Koklynn Y., mother of 5 y.o. boy and 1 y.o. girl
“With interactions with other moms, we don’t really talk about the guilt or the stress, it’s more about ‘oh my kid’s walking now, or my kid’s riding a bike’ and you’re like, ‘should my kid be doing that?’”
 — Koklynn Y., mother of 5 y.o. boy and 1 y.o. girl
There’s lots I wish I knew before having my children […] there’s even things I was told 100 times, and I guess I didn’t understand fully, but I just had to experience it for myself.
 — Yanet C., mother of 5 and 7 y.o. girls
I wasn’t a stranger to child raising, I changed my brother’s diapers as a kid, and yet I really didn’t feel ready. I started to appreciate [my mom] on a new level, once I had the baby blues and was so sleep deprived, I was so nervous about everything, dropping her, bathing her, I was glad my partner was so good at some of these things.
 — Yanet C., mother of 5 and 7 y.o. girls


Social connection:

  • One mother spent ours on an anonymous forum for new mothers throgh her employer (Google), thankful that she could feel like she wasn’t alone in certain questions and issues she was having with her first born. On the flip side, connecting with friends in person never seemed to amount to “heart-to-hearts”.
  • New, young mothers in the Nurse-Family Partnership program enjoyed having an experienced nurse paired with them to talk to and bounce questions and ideas off of.
  • Another mother loved her parent group at her Kaiser hospital, so much so that she kept going back until her son was aged out of the program. She was grateful for the more experienced moms who shared their stories, while affirming that she could make her own decisons. She wanted to be that voice, to give back, so she kept going until her son was 1 years old.

Where moms say they find information:

  • Google
  • BabyCenter App + Website
  • Aptly timed newsletters from hospital
  • Your Parenting Mojo podcast: “evidence-based parenting”
  • family, friends, blogs

Alternate POV:

On the flip side, if we want to design feedback mechanisms for parents to understand how their child is developing, there needs a strong mapping to their actual children. Too much hand-waving could be non-inspirational, seeing as they currently get these cues from their children themselves.