Co-designing with kids — let’s design with them, and for them

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I’ve been working with a team of kids aged 6–11 years old for about one year doing everything from designing environmental games to looking at what makes technology “creepy” to children. Throughout this process I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a design partner, and want to share my thoughts in hopes that more organizations will adopt principles of co-design. Here is a short video about KidsTeam — the co-design group.

In co-design you work with the people you will be designing for from the beginning, and throughout the process. Have you ever done some initial research, designed an entire product, and then tested it with users only to find it should be COMPLETELY different? This can be a nightmare, especially when your solution doesn’t seem to meet their needs. In co-design we can learn what people actually need and what would be useful for them — by working with them as design partners.

Why this matters

In our world today so many things are marketed to us. You walk down city streets, head into a store, or simply look online and you’re bombarded by things you should buy. Some of these things are very useful, and some things you end up buying wondering why you’d ever purchase it — it ends up unused and thrown or given away. Do you remember this classic saying “keeping up with the Joneses”? Basically a benchmark American saying referring to the wealth and success of your neighbors, how much they have, and how much more you should have to be valuable. We fill our lives with stuff, and all this stuff accumulates to the point we need storage space to hold it all. Think about all the storage lockers in America, landfills, and growing house sizes needed to accommodate our obsession with material goods. There is a growing movement right now about “tidying up” and “simplifying” your life. By taking things away, you can actually create room to grow as a person. You value what you have, and the things around you hold meaning. I believe that this drive to market products, and our desire to consume is closely related to the concept of co-design.

In co-design if we were going to design a new education technology for 6-year-olds to learn about nature, we would actually work with the 6-year-olds who’d be using the product. And, we wouldn’t even assume this is what they needed until partnering with them to understand their needs more deeply.

Here’s how this could look

Here’s an example of how this could look! Let’s say we want to get children more connected to nature, and we are looking specifically at kids who live in urban areas and don’t have access to natural areas. Using co-design principles we could gather a group of 6-year-old kids at the very beginning of this question and talk about it with them. We would pair older design partners with small groups of kids and that group would collaborate together. The kids could explain what they know about nature, what they like about it, what they are curious about — whatever comes up related to this topic. Big blank sheets of paper could be given to the groups and we’d ask the kids to design something to connect them to nature. With the adult and kid design partners working together, they would bounce ideas off each other and each be able to contribute to the design. In the end the kids could all explain their ideas, and the adults could work to synthesize the information by writing it on a board, using stickies, or other methods. This would start a discussion where the kids and adults could talk about what they learned. The adults working could further analyze the information from the design activity, and present ideas for concepts moving forward to the kids. These concepts could then be further developed by the partnership between the kids and adults. By the time the group was done, the product developed would be made by a 6-year-old, for a 6-year-old. Instead of showing these kids a fully developed app interface for example, they would have been involved in co-designing throughout the entire process.

Now, one big hiccup that seems to be difficult for companies to want to adapt is the perceived time and resources it would take to involve people in this process from the beginning. My thought is that you can either fully develop a product you think people want, and then end up changing things at the end when it’s more solidified — or, you can bring people in at the beginning to set yourself up for a more people-focused design from the start.

People can adapt this model of co-design to fit their needs, and there are many design methods that can be used in the process. If you’re designing with children, people who have autism, or seniors the methods will all be different. If you start with your users in mind from the beginning, and collaborate throughout the process it will greatly impact the outcome of whatever you make.

Here are some methods I have learned from designing with kids. These techniques were initially developed by researchers in this field, and I’ve had the privilege of working in a group that uses these models.

The child + adult relationship

This can be tough because throughout life we are taught that kids are supposed to listen to adults — they are the authority figures. In classrooms kids are taught to be quiet, absorb information, and not ask too many questions that challenge adults. We need to change this dynamic when designing with kids so they feel like they can express themselves — and, are valued just as much as adults. To think that kids and adutls are “equals” is not the right mentality either. Kids and adults are at different stages in their lives, and are not the same. So, it’s not about making them the same, it’s about showing kids they are the “experts” in this field. Kids are experts at being kids.

When we are designing with someone we are creating for them — not us. They are experts at knowing what would be useful for them, even if they don’t know how to express it yet. An example of how groups could be structured is with a mix of children and adults (maybe 3 kids and 1 adult). In this group if the kids have an idea, say “making the screen change colors when you touch it”, the adult should not detract from their idea by saying “that won’t work” or “that doesn’t make sense”. If they don’t understand someone, they should ask the kids “why” they want to do something and learn from their response.

Now, kids can be crazy sometimes — especially when they just want to play. If they are not focusing on the design task, and are distracted doing something else, there are a few things adults can do. One option is saying, “we are designing for ______________________ thing right now, do you think doing that is going to help us think of an idea?” For example, I was designing with kids thinking of new ways to tell stories and it was very interface focused. One kid in my group kept building chains of markers by linking them together, and didn’t want to focus on the interface task. I asked him, “what are you building right now”, “what do you like about building that marker chain”, and “could we apply this to our design somehow?”.

Honestly, there’s no magic formula for designing with kids. It’s messy, and a fine line between being too authoritative and acting as a partner with them. It takes practice, but being mindful of your own behavior is important. And, as an adult the role is not just to get ideas from kids, it’s about working with them. So, do’t be afraid of sharing your ideas too. Tell the kids, “hey, what if we added a character to tell the story”, and listen to their responses. Sometimes they will get excited and say, “yeah, that would be super cool” or other times they’ll say “that’s creepy, I don’t wanna do that”. Listen to them, question their ideas with “why” statements, and contribute your own ideas too. They are the experts at being kids and pretty great at thinking of ideas if you give them the chance.

Forming a bond

Just like in life when you’re meeting someone for the first time and have to work with them, it can be awkward and may not feel natural at first. It can take time to understand who they are, and how they personally work. A great way to bond with kids is to play, talk, and eat with them. In the group I worked with, we’d always start off the sessions chatting and eating chips together. Having snacks first gives everyone the chance to share something and feel more connected. I think play is important too. Maybe start the session with icebreakers or games that can get the adults and kids laughing and playing together. This can take some experimentation to see what game is right for you.

Dependent on your design goal you can orientate the game to fit into that topic. For instance, if you’re going to be designing a game to get kids active, you could make your icebreaker be designed to get people moving — the human pretzel comes to mind (but that may not be right for the moment, so it really is about you deciding what feels best). This “play” period with snacks and talking is the introduction to your design session. It’s building a foundation so you feel comfortable together, in a creative space, and ready to think of ideas.

Getting into the mode of “play”

We are taught to be serious, objective, and think of “practical ideas”. Designers often get the rep of being “blue sky thinkers”. I will admit, while I can be an idealist, I think that getting into modes of experimentation, play, and blue sky thinking can be extremely valuable when working with kids — and, when designing with any group of people. Stretching your thinking and developing a space where people think big and abstractly can often lead to ideas that are very practical and attainable, but it was that expansive style of thinking that led to the actionable plan. Letting kids know that they can express any idea is important, and as adults we should not dismiss their ideas because we may not understand it or think it is “too crazy”. It’s mix of thinking these playful thoughts and then working as a connected group to decide what we can do with those ideas to make them into a reality.

The toolkit

The best part of design methods is that they are flexible, customizable, and anyone can create one. There are whole books written classifying different design methods like “the interview”, “bodystorming”, and “think-aloud-protocol”. They’ve all been made to make sense of people and different situations. With kids, the group I’ve worked with uses methods they have developed for kids around the age of 6–11 years-old. If you look online you can probably find some ideas of methods developed for different audiences and age groups. Some methods we’ve used have been “stickies” where you evaluate a product or idea by categorizing your thoughts into “like”, “dislikes”, and “design ideas”. For example, if we were talking about a picture on an interface and a kid didn’t like the icons on the screen, we’d write that down as a “dislike”. The point of this is that adults and kids BOTH write down their ideas together. At the end, these are grouped together on a wall into clusters based on common themes — like an affinity diagram.

Another method is called “bags of stuff” where kids are given bags of random things like colored paper, buttons, feathers, markers, etc. and they can use these materials to make a prototype of an idea. A great method for getting kids active is called “line judging” where the wall will be labeled with three parts “agree, don’t know, and disagree”, for instance. The kids can hear ideas or look at images and move to the part of the wall they identify with. This a good activity for getting kids moving, and can be customized for any design gaol. Something to be aware of with this activity is that sometimes there can be a potential influence for kids to move to the area where the most people are. This technique could still be experimented with to find other ways of doing it.

Lastly, a technique I’ve heard of which I thought was really cool was an adult would ask a kid to explain something to them, like headphones, as if they were a martian and didn’t have any concept of stuff on earth. So, the kid would be able to explain something to the martian knowing that whatever they said was okay. This helps to break away from the “kid/adult” relationship dynamic, and really makes the kids the expert in this scenario.

Designing for all

Designing with people is powerful. There is so much room to design with people, especially groups that often don’t get to contribute to the design of products. How incredible would it be if our design groups could include people with differing ranges of disability so from the beginning we considered how to make our products more accessible? With all the co-design techniques out there, I believe it is possible and a way to make our world more welcoming of the diversity that is all around us.

For more information about KidsTeam, you can view research papers here and a news story here.

Interaction design student passionate about health, sustainable food, and co-design — find me at sarahkstrickler.com

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