We’ve been creating a digital storytelling module for young people affected by conflicts. Over the past few months, we’ve gone through a few rounds of drafting and editing, and have a prototype ready (thanks to our instructional design volunteers and our collaborators from SMEX).

Holding dear to our hearts the design principles of “design with users” (see principles page), we made plans early on to include users in the planning, developing and implementing processes, and develop the product in an incremental and iterative manner. Last week, our team visited University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) to work with the research team and Kidsteam, which is a group of 8-12 year old designers. Our purpose is to involve children in the design process, understand their expectations and uses of the product, and gain valuable insight as to how children would design the product for children.

The Cooperative Inquiry Process

Cooperative Inquiry is an innovative process (developed by Allison Druin and her colleagues at the University of Maryland) that allows children and adults to partner with each other as they design technology for children. We were excited to meet and work with a team of brilliant child designers at HCIL. The session proved to be hugely intriguing and thought provoking. Here’s a step-by-step recount of the design session.

1. Warm-up

Children and adults gather together around a table to have snacks. We chat casually and were amazed to see a 3D printer in the lab in action.

Photo by Zhiyao Ma, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ
Photo by Zhiyao Ma, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

2. Circle Time

Everybody sits in a circle to introduce themselves, and ask the “question of the day”. In our session, the question was “do you know what UNICEF does?” Only two in the group had previous experience with UNICEF. We proceeded to show a few videos by UNICEF goodwill ambassadors and oneminutesjr program.

During circle time, all adults and children sit on the floor in a circle to make sure there is no power dynamic and to create an equitable environment. In this photo, the session leader is temporarily sitting on a chair for the purpose of showing the video. Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ
During circle time, all adults and children sit on the floor in a circle to make sure there is no power dynamic and to create an equitable environment. In this photo, the session leader is temporarily sitting on a chair for the purpose of showing the video. Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

3. Design Activity 1 – Exploring the website and content

Children formed groups of two, each group with an adult co-designer, to explore the website and the storytelling module created. They were quick to point out what was fun and what bored them. Adults quickly jotted down ideas on sticky notes, which were promptly put on a white board and categorized.

Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ
Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

4. Review “Likes/Dislikes/Design Ideas” themes

One of the adult co-designers summarizes the main design themes that emerged from Kidsteam’s interactions with the prototype module. For example, they offered feedback on site navigation issues and visual layout.

Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ
Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

5. Design Activity 2 – Designing your own storytelling app

Child co-designers then collaborated with their adult partners to document and draw their own designs for a storytelling website. Thanks to friends at Sticky Jots who provided drawing pads (that look like iPads) for Kidsteam.

Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ
Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

6. Sharing of Design Ideas

Children each presented their own designs and listened to each other’s comments.

Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, NYHQ
Photo by Mini Kim, Innovation Unit, NYHQ

7. Debrief

Adult researchers and co-designers gathered together for a debrief after the child co-designers finished their work for the day. They provide unique insight regarding children’s interactions with the product and their ideas for improvement.

How is it Different from User Testing?

Now that we’ve talked about the importance of being iterative and constant testing with users, and noting that both user testing and cooperative inquiry are iterative design processes, they both apply to the designing of products for kids, what are some of their differences?

  • A “design process” for children and adults

Cooperative inquiry is a design process that facilitates children’s participation in creating technology solutions. It’s inclusive, inviting and friendly for children to participate as equal partners in the design of technologies that are targeted for children. It allows children to have a voice in creating products for themselves and offer insights that would not be possible in a field that is often dominated by adults..

  • Involving children as testers vs. design partners

Children play different but equally important roles. In user testing, literally, children are provided with semi-finished products, instructed to use the products, and provide feedback on how satisfactory the product is for their needs. In cooperative inquiry, children and adults work together equally as partners throughout the process, and they contribute to the prototyping, testing and production of each iteration, from inception to launch and beyond.

Way Forward

Cooperative inquiry has great potential to be extended beyond technology. The process can be used to create products and solutions for children across sectors, and is especially valuable for UNICEF and any organization that is devoted to creating solutions, systems and products for children. This process involves children throughout the design process, rather than at the later and semi-final stages.

This innovative process brings the inner designer out of every child. It builds on and nurtures children’s acute observations, unrestrained imaginations, and user-centered design thinking. In the meantime, design ideas that come out of this process can challenge existing frameworks and materialize into valuable attributes of new products/systems. Indeed, the Cooperative Inquiry design process can be an active game changer in enhancing the design of technology for the world’s children.

By now you might be curious about how children design for children? In Part 2 of the series, we’ll highlight some of the design ideas around digital storytelling by children.

Written by:

Zhiyao Ma, Analyst, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ
Minsun Mini Kim, Design Lead, Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

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