Designing For Trust in Adolescents and Parents’ Sanity

Within a couple of years, my oldest child (now 9), will start entering adolescence. Is he ready to walk to school by himself? Does he know how to handle strangers? Can I trust him to come home directly after school? I know I won’t be able to constantly watch him anymore, but questions around trust and safety often concern me.

Thanks to fellow student Zuzzette Foglio’s Ideation Remix Project (from Coursera’s Interaction Design Specialization Capstone Project), I had the opportunity to design an app that aims to ease communications between parents and teenagers when they are apart.

The Tug O War of Trust and Freedom

For many parents, it’s a mixed feeling when their children enter adolescence. Finally they are becoming adults, making their own decisions and taking responsibility for their own actions. Yet, at the age of 11 or 12, not many parents will simply give their teens complete independence, fearing that their kids may make poor decisions and get into trouble, or even get hurt. It takes time for kids to mature and they all mature at different rates.

To calm their own anxieties about their kids, I’ve heard from parents different ways of keeping tabs on them: texting, phone calls, following online or prying on kids’ social media activities and enforcing location sharing. However, sometimes these ‘protective’ behaviors can seem annoying, inconvenient and intrusive to teens.

So in my design challenge, I set out to answer the following question:

Can we find a balance between parents need to know and their teenagers desire for freedom?

Solution 1: let everyone in the family see each other’s locations

Paper prototype for location monitoring

To address the number one concern that parents have — where is my child? — I started with designing a map that shows everyone’s GPS location, with a brief description on the address and how long this person has been there.

This won’t be possible of course if no one shares their mobile device’s location. This is where it gets a little tricky.

Solution 2: include a trust building system

No one, whether a parent or a child, likes to be watched all the time. For a parent to increase a teen’s given freedom, the teen needs a way to earn that trust. So then I decided to introduce the concept of a Trust Score.

Final prototype on location monitoring

In this app, everyone has to share their device location by default. To encourage frequent and honest communication from teens, the app keeps a trust score in your profile. It will update the score whenever one of the parents confirms whether or not you are where you said you would be. Once you have a certain number of points, you earn the privilege to turn location sharing off. However you can still loose points and also that privilege if you later fail to communicate honestly.

This app provides a way to keep everyone in the family in check, allowing teens to slowly become independent yet offering a bit of fun and reward as well.

Solution 3: provide a simple two-way channel for permission requests

So far, it’s mostly the parents that are benefiting from this app, but without corresponding engagement from the teens, this app cannot solve the trust problem.

As teens becoming increasing independent, naturally they want to spend more time with friends. So I wanted to provide a quick way for teens to ask for parents’ permissions on the most common topics, like going out.

Initially, I thought of including a sophisticated chat component in the app. But after getting feedback from my colleague and fellow students from the course, I determined that this would make the app over complicated. Besides, it would not offer any benefit as everyone already has a default chat app that they’re accustomed to. So I tried to come up with a communication tool that provides just the minimum.

A teen testing an early interactive prototype
Parents’ response screen to a child’s request

Teens can use this ‘Ask’ form, fill in the typical information (Who, When, Where, What, How) with a few clicks, and quickly send the request to parents. This would greatly reduce the amount of time a child would take to do this over SMS.

It would only be fair that parents can also respond quickly to a child’s request. So I also designed a response screen for the parents to simply say yes or no with just 1-click. Parents also have the option to write their own response. With everyone’s response visible on this screen, no child can attempt to seek permission from just the one parent who’s more likely to say yes.

Solution 4: provide a simple emergency system

This one is for all the parents out there who are concerned about the safety of their kids while they are out. What if your teen is being followed? What if they hurt themselves? Is there a quick way for your child to let your family know when they’re in trouble and need help?

I wanted to design a panic feature that’s easily accessible, but not so much so that it can be accidentally activated. This is what it looks like now on a teen’s home screen.

Teen’s home screen

A teen can discretely activate the Panic button without having to really look at the screen. Once activated, alerts will be sent to all family members at once and will remain active until the teen turns off the PANIC state.

Panic alert on parent’s screen.

Wrapping Up

In the end, I believe that parents who find it easy to trust their teens are often ones that have been encouraging their children to be independent at a young age and offering guidance along the way. This app will not solve all the communication problems between you and your teens. But hopefully at the very least, it will offer a little peace of mind, knowing where everyone is. And with time, perhaps you’ll learn to increasingly trust your children. After all, they came into the world placing their complete trust in you. Isn’t it time for you to do the same for them?

For the curious minds, here is the app’s full prototype and a quick introduction YouTube video.

So what do you think? Are you a parent with teenagers? Where does your communication with your teenagers usually break down? Would you use this app? Can you suggest something that can make this app better? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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