Designing With Teens

Five approaches I’ve used to unpack tough topics with teenagers

What is sex?” A dozen 14-year-olds stare at me inquisitively as I stand in the center of a recreation room in Kalingalinga, Zambia. It’s hot outside. I can feel sweat beading on my forehead. What should I say? Should I answer? Should I ask someone else to respond, at the risk of the wrong information? Should I just change the subject? The irony of this situation is that I’ve spent over a week trying to get this group to open up, and now that they have, I’m not exactly sure where to take it.

Let me back up. I was in the midst of design research, trying to better understand the lives of teens living in Zambia, in order to make family planning more relevant. It wasn’t the first time I had been in a situation like this. Over the years, many of my projects have focused on challenges centered around teens, from redesigning sexual health services for young people, to bridging the transition to college for first-generation students, to designing a platform to help high schoolers explore their purpose. With any of these projects, the process starts with entering the world of teens and understanding what matters to them — their hopes, their fears, and the challenges they face — in order to design solutions that feel relevant and authentic. What our team learns becomes inspiration for what we design. Diving in hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve sure learned a lot in the process.

I’ve found that working with teens (especially around sensitive topics) might mean rethinking how we classically approach design research. After a lot of experimentation, here are five ways I’ve broken down barriers with young people to bring their perspectives front and center.

1. Follow Their Lead

What happens when we put young people in the driver’s seat of the conversation, by teaching them the skills to facilitate?

When working on the reproductive health project in Zambia, jumping into research felt daunting to say the least. How could we spark conversation on topics like sexuality, relationships, teen pregnancy, STI’s, and other equally heated topics without invading their privacy?

After the “what is sex?” question during one of our workshops, it dawned on us that we didn’t have to be the ones facilitating these discussions. We changed our approach and enlisted teens to become researchers with us. We equipped a dozen local teenagers with the basics of design research and interviewing skills, and they went out and interviewed their peers, completely independent of us. A few days later, they shared back what they learned from their interviews.

Our teen researchers were able to relay perspectives on these topics through the stories of others, which took the pressure off any one person to tell their personal tale. Their interviews also launched us into a much broader conversation about sexual health, as they started to chime in with their personal opinions. By teaching young people a new set of skills, it empowered them to take the lead in the conversation.

2. Be Vulnerable

I’ve noticed it can be easy to unknowingly set up a power dynamic when working with teens, which can hinder openness and authenticity. How can you build trust by being vulnerable yourself?

One way to do this is through shared experiences. While doing research on the topic of family planning, our team had asked teenagers why they felt nervous to schedule their first sexual health screening. Most shrugged without much response. This question obviously wasn’t resonating, and likely isolating them in the process. So after an invitation to do one at the clinic, a teen and I went together. Sitting in a white fluorescent waiting room with the smell of sanitizer permeating the air, we both felt out of our element — about to be screened by a doctor we hadn’t met before and uncertain of the outcome. As we chatted about the experience, she started to walk me through her thoughts — how stiff the environment felt, how intimidating it was to be in a room surrounded by adults, and what she would do to improve on this. That conversation likely wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t experience it at the same time.

I learned that being vulnerable together not only builds trust, but can expose key challenges in an experience that are opportunities for design. Both the research participant and I felt these issues in a visceral way as we sat side-by-side with sweat on our palms.

3. Redefine “Conversation”

A scheduled sit down discussion is rarely the way teens communicate with one another, so why should it be how we interact during design research?

While it might require learning a few new platforms, I’ve found it can be helpful to meet teens where they are. Specifically, on communication channels they are already using, whether it be Snapchat, Yik Yak, WhatsApp, or whatever else. Making the effort can actually lead to more authentic discussions that are on their terms.

We put this to the test when working with first-generation college students. We were discussing the challenges of transitioning from high school to college. After we met our research participants, we added them to a WhatsApp thread where we could continue to have discussions in a low pressure environment. Not surprisingly, we immediately saw where verbal communication fell short. The group would use emojis, memes, and videos in lieu of actually having to write out their opinions, which relieved the pressure of jumping into a serious conversation, while still enabling people to share their perspectives. In fact, this inspired a component of the final design outcome — a digital coaching program which used Snapchat videos from coaches as a communication tool with their students.

Taking this approach made it clear that some discussions are easier to have on a familiar channel. Teens could show emotion without feeling too vulnerable, and it helped us understand where to dive deeper without feeling overly formal.

4. Embrace Play

Approaching heavy topics from a light-hearted angle can ease tension and create space for unexpectedly rich conversations. How can playfulness reveal the honest moments that might inspire design?

Just because a topic is intense, doesn’t mean it needs to be daunting. In fact, I often ask myself how to bring lightness in juxtaposition to the tough stuff to break into conversation in a new way? One approach can be bringing play into the experience. A simple example arose when my team was working with a group of teen girls, talking about the challenges of adolescence. Instead of discussing it head on, each girl wrote a question or challenge they had on a piece of paper, rolled it up, and put it inside a balloon. The group then threw them all into the air, literally releasing whatever burden they had have been carrying. As these bright objects fell back to earth, chaos and laughter ensued as everyone reached for a different balloon than their own. Everyone popped their new balloon to find a different challenge, and an opportunity to anonymously support one of their peers.

One by one, we collectively tackled each of the challenges. When someone read a question about dealing with overbearing parents, half a dozen girls chimed in with input, without even knowing who was receiving the advice. It became a tool to help diffuse people’s fear of looking foolish in front of their peers, while helping bring these challenges out in the open.

5. Design With, Not For

What happens if input from teens is everpresent? How can the process of design be a continuous collaboration with young people?

While designing a platform that helps high-schoolers explore purpose in their lives, my team realized we needed input from students even more often than regular feedback sessions would allow. We would often second-guess the voice and tone of the product, wondering if it actually sounded like something they saw themselves using.

Enter Will—our ally in problem solving with an affinity for product design. At 18, Will joined our project with a unique title, “Student-in-Residence.” He was embedded in our team for a month, and in doing so, helped us unpack the topics teenagers care about and brought an authenticity to what we created. We would often hand over our writing or designs to Will to mark up, adapt, or completely change. We joked that we would give him a “Student-In-Resident Approved” stamp to use when he finally signed off on our designs and felt they were ready for a high school audience.

It was a reminder to us that age has little to do with what a person can contribute. Will was far more in touch with the audience we needed to reach and was able to bring a new perspective to even a seasoned team of designers.


While these methods stem from the process of human-centered design, I am eager to build on these learnings with parents, teachers, and teens themselves. How might we continue to break down the barrier of age and put teens in the driver’s seat more often?