How working with kids makes me a better designer

Laraine Domingo
Jul 5, 2016 · 4 min read

For the past year, I’ve been volunteering with The Dance Ability Movement. They provide dance classes for children and teens of all abilities, including those with special needs. I grew up doing ballet for 10 years, so dance has always been a passion of mine. Giving back to the community and working with youth through dance has been very fulfilling.

To my pleasant surprise, interacting with the young dancers has taught me quite a bit from a design perspective. Always analyzing how and why certain solutions work, practicing empathy, and observing human behaviours.

The following techniques help us and the kids in our classes. What if we were to apply these to designing for adults?

  1. Spot Markers
  2. ‘First, Then’ Statements
  3. Behaviour vs. Words

Spot markers

Some of the kids in our classes just need to move. Run actually. They can’t seem to stay in one place! To help them stay grounded, we place round, coloured markers on the floor. We guide them to find their marker which acts like an anchor for them. This works well when in formation for a dance routine or center exercises.

Adults are the same way in that they also need to wander. I don’t just mean physically. I think we can all agree that sometimes our mind has trouble staying focused.

Recently, I was running some research interviews for a project I’m working on. While preparing the questions, I was concerned about interviewees going off tangent or not giving me the insight that I needed. That’s when I came up with the idea to introduce interview spot markers.

I created flash cards that were laid out in front of the interviewees. If they weren’t sure how to approach a question, they can refer to the cards. For example, they could tell me if they’re talking about the past, present, or future. This helped me understand where the insight is coming from, while anchoring the interviewees to stay grounded in our conversation.

I even noticed that since the flash cards were tangible, interviewees felt comfortable pointing to them or picking them up while talking.

‘First, Then’ statements

The #1 common phrase you’ll hear in our classes is “When are we going to play freeze dance?” “Is it time for freeze dance yet?” What works well for these types of requests is to use ‘First, Then’ statements. “First we’re going to do our floor stretch. Then we will play freeze dance”.

We also use a picture chart to help them visualize the class agenda. Then the kids can anticipate when we’ll play freeze dance, as opposed to left hanging thinking it’ll never come. Or be frustrated because they don’t know why it’s not happening right this moment.

Adults also like to be in the know. We often hesitate to commit to something if we don’t know the full picture.

In user-experience design, I find the concept of ‘First, Then’ statements useful. Especially in multi-step processes, such as filling out a form or training module. Indicating where users are in the process makes it seem more manageable, which helps reduce drop-off rates.

For example, “Step 2 of 10” gives the same indicators as a ‘First, Then’ statement. Loading bars also help as a visual aid. Especially if they are divided into sections as opposed to one long loading bar to represent the entire process.

Methods like these give users a sense of progress towards their desired goal.

Observing behaviour vs. listening to words

Without fail, every class starts with at least one of our kids refusing to leave their parents. When we ask “Don’t you want to join all your friends in the circle?” they’ll give an adamant “No!”

But the funny thing I’ve observed is that even though they say “no”, their bodies are facing towards the studio, leaning and peering in. They’re pretty much inside the room but just can’t fully let go of their parents. Even though they say they don’t want to dance today, their body language says otherwise.

Adults behave the same. How many times have we said something like “I’m going to workout more” but don’t actually do it? Countless. Actions speak louder than words.

When designing experiences and interactions, user-testing to observe behaviours is key. Surveys and interviews are great for research. But I like to use prototyping and minimal viable products because they encourage behavioural feedback.

These methods put something in people’s hands that they can interact with. Or present real life situations where the product could be applied.


What intrigues me about kids is how they’re still very raw. They haven’t been shaped enough by society to influence what they say, how they dress, and how they react. Learning from these authenticities has helped me design for adults because it gives insight on natural instincts and behaviours.

But the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from our young dancers is to use imagination and creativity to pursue your passions, despite any obstacles in your way. Adults not only need to foster this in youth, but also practice it ourselves more often.


Thanks for reading. If you have stories about how kids have inspired you, I’d love to hear them!

Laraine Domingo

Written by

Designer who’s practicing better communication by reading and writing more | brainoflaraine.com

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