Kirsikka Vaajakallio, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Jung-Joo Lee
When the children started playing the design game, we soon noticed that a boy was missing from one of the groups; he was crawling under the table while the rest of the group continued the game as if nothing had happened. Our strategy to support equal participation was obviously not working. We started to feel anxious. Suddenly the situation changed as the kids moved on to build artifacts. They all gathered around corners of tables; they were standing close to each other, touching the variety of make tools, starting to talk. Creative corners had emerged.
Children as Co-designers
The situation described above is from a co-design experiment that we organized with children. Co-design, or collaborative design, is rooted in the tradition of participatory design (PD); hence it typically refers to an activity in which potential users are empowered to bring their ideas into the design of new solutions. The notion of co-design is also conceived as a collaborative knowledge-sharing and creation process, in which the skills and experiences of various participants are brought together to reach novel solutions. In co-designing, the role of professional designers or design researchers may vary from that of active participant to almost invisible facilitator. However, regardless of the variations, two fundamental needs remain: to enhance participants’ creative thinking and to support dialogue between participants. Thus, one of the cornerstones of co-design is facilitating creative, generative collaboration .
In the experiments discussed in this article, we refer to co-design in PD. Here the potential users, children, are designing in teams but without a professional designer’s direct influence. Instead the setting, tasks, and design material were designed to enhance children’s creativity, collaboration, and contribution to the design process. The aim of our study was to explore how co-design methods and tools developed mainly for adults were applicable when designing with children.
Our experiences in engaging adults as co-design partners have highlighted three guidelines for organizing co-design sessions: amplify participants’ creativity; set the stage for constructive negotiations; and ground future possibilities in current situations. We have found make tools , design games , and in-situ ideation  helpful in achieving these guidelines. Make tools refer to tool kits including, for example, Velcro-covered building blocks and images. We have found them especially useful in enabling people to express themselves by creating artifacts from the given materials and giving a focus to the co-design activities. Design games, on the one hand, provide playful settings for multi-disciplinary teams to explore design opportunities together. On the other hand, rules and game pieces create constructions to support the dialogue. By in-situ ideation, we mean placing co-design activities in a user’s everyday environment to ground ideas to the user’s context. In addition, the use context can facilitate the co-design by revealing design opportunities embodied in people, environments, practices, and tools.
In this article we compare how similar approaches and tools have worked with the children, and present our observations on co-designing with children and compare them with our experiences with adults. We implemented these tactics in design experiments with children ages seven to nine in 2007 and 2008, in a primary school in Finland . Both experiments took place in a classroom, and the children worked in groups. Both experiments applied make tools. In the second experiment, design games were also applied.
The Joy of Creation
In our first experiment, we asked the children to create “a learning buddy” in groups of four. The make tools in this case included blocks, pre-cut pieces of cardboard, and buttons with various symbols (question marks, snowflakes, and words including “help,” “error,” etc.). The outcomes were robot-like creatures with imaginative functionalities such as wings for flying and “a spelling corrector.” In the second experiment, make tools were utilized to build a magic tool that helps the children to save the planet from pollution (the school had a specific theme of environmental awareness, and we adapted it to our purpose).
When designing with make tools, children started to get inspired and to generate ideas through touching and building: We saw only one boy drawing his idea first and starting building afterward. Children also reshaped the given materials and crafted them into new shapes as they needed. This activity was something we had not observed among adults. Make-tools buttons with different symbols evoked associations. Children, similarly to adults, used them for new features in their designs. For instance, one group explained their design as follows: “When the picture of a gift box is pushed, the device says comforting words, and when the picture of a snowflake is pushed, it gives some information about the North Pole.”
Even though children seemed easily engaged by the make tools, we found that the children maintained their focus on the building activity itself rather than using the creation to reflect on their everyday issues. We will discuss children’s weak ability for reasoning in more detail later in the article.
Challenges in Facilitating Group Dynamics
The children were seven to nine years of age and not yet accustomed to teamwork at school. They worked based on personal intuitions and interests rather than collaborating with team members. In cases with adults, design games have been useful for facilitating group dynamics [1, 5].
Children also reshaped the given materials and crafted them into new shapes as they needed. This activity was something we had not observed among adults. Make-tools buttons with different symbols evoked associations.
Thus, in the second experiment, we implemented a design game as part of the session to investigate if a gamelike structure with turn-takings and rules could support more equal participation than observed in the first experiment. The eco-game was designed for the children to build user scenarios of their everyday life related to environmental issues.
Children were guided to throw the dice and move their game pieces on the game board in turns. The playing cards had instructions on discussions and scenario building. In addition, there were several scene images with blank speech bubbles: When it was their turn, the children chose a scene image, told their own stories based on the image, and then wrote quotes on it. The image was then placed on the scenario board. When the board was filled with six scenario images, the children earned a key to open the “treasure box” (a locked bag with make tools in it) and moved on to the next step, the make session.
Contrary to our expectations, the game rules did not lead to equal participation among the kids. In some groups more dominant children kept throwing the dice and taking the scene images without waiting for their turn. Some groups skipped throwing the dice and focused only on filling the scenario board. Some children only added text and stickers to make images look more fun and nice.
These observations are quite opposite to the ones of adults; Johansson has claimed people are more willing to follow game rules than a facilitator’s instructions during co-design sessions . The kids’ way of not following the rules may partly be the result of too complicated a task. We learned the children did not clearly understand all the instructions and the meaning of the game.
Although group collaboration proceeded more dynamically in the make-tools phase, we also observed some challenges: One girl took the make-tools kit under her arm and allocated the materials according to her rules. Sometimes collaboration was taken very literally. For instance, in one group the children took turns when opening the treasure box: The first child put the key in the lock, the next one opened it, the third opened the bag, and the fourth then took the make tools out.
In addition, we observed the children’s basic skills, such as writing and drawing, varied so much that the game became an obstacle to equal participation. This resulted in frustration and lack of interest: For example, one boy preferred to stay under the table during the most of the game, as earlier described.
Less Reflection, More Improvisation
Design games are used to assist teamwork by guiding players to explicate their moves in the game; participants think aloud, negotiate, and justify different solutions. Design games also help in immersing participants into the topic and grounding ideas on their life. They usually pave the path for more generative tasks later on.
In our second experiment, the eco-game took place before the make session to help immerse children in the pollution issues in their everyday lives before building designs. However, we found this reasoning to be challenging for children. Children improvised while building.
Boy: “Give me some cotton wad… I will make ears for this… It became Elvis!”
Girl: “Add the music button to it ... then if you push the button it will start to play songs by Elvis.”
Linking everyday and imagined worlds in a meaningful way was challenging. The activities of playing a game and designing remained separate. When presenting their designs, the children had difficulty saying why they had included certain features. We infer that, for children, how their designs look and support imaginative figures in their heads, such as Elvis, is more important than how their designs provide solutions. Unlike when co-designing with adults, there was no need to allocate plenty of time in the end for discussions and reflections for the children. In fact, the building phase took more time than we expected and presentations less time.
Challenges in a Classroom Context
In our earlier experiences concerning in-situ ideation, the use context has proved to be a fruitful source of novel ideas. Moreover, by utilizing their everyday environment, users can be the experts in the situation, thus creating a more relaxed atmosphere. The classroom setting where the co-designing took place was a familiar place to the children, but at the same time the classroom rules inhibited a creative and collaborative mood. (This constraint has also been discussed in other studies [6, 7].) In normal learning situations, children should not talk freely and walk around without permission. In addition, the children were sitting too far away from each other for easy collaboration. In the make-tools sessions, we provided tangible design materials to be shared. This helped in provoking collaboration because the children moved and gathered in one corner of the table for better access to the materials.
In our first experiment, we chose the topic “designing a learning buddy,” expecting the children to connect their design to the classroom context in which their everyday learning practices take place. Even so, children were not able to utilize the context.
Facilitator in a Flexible, Sensitive Multitasking Role
Facilitating a co-design session is often exhausting. Being in the classroom with 20 children makes it even more so. We should have been able to be in many places simultaneously to help with cutting and gluing, solving social problems, clarifying tasks, and following the planned structure (not to mention playing the roles of observer and researcher). What may be obvious to a primary school teacher surprised us: 20 children make an overwhelming amount of noise.
Organizing co-design with children demands greater flexibility from methods and researchers than with adults. Even among children of the same age, abilitiesphysical, mental, and socialdiffer significantly. There are also certain gender divergences: In our experience the girls tried to please us more than the boys.
A girl: “Attach that [Elvis thing] to that [the device] ... this is group work ... it has to be part of the group work. It has to be part at least when we present or they will get a bad image of us.”
Our focus in the two experiments introduced here was not on the outcomes of the co-design efforts but on what happens during the process. This perspective came from our interest in learning about reasoning and discussions behind designed artifacts in order to better understand users’ needs and desires. One of the main outcomes is that working with children is not so different from working with adults after all, but many challenges in creative collaborationsuch as group dynamics or participants’ differing personalities and skillsbecame more visible among children. Sensitivity toward what inspires and makes sense to different participants is even more critical with children. Kids have not yet built up a mature ability for constructive conversations and negotiations within a group, which are prerequisites in co-designing with a group of people. We believe our observations will be useful lessons for any co-design situation with some reservation: Every case and meeting is unique, depending on changing elements such as locations, people, tasks, and tools.
2. Sanders, E. B.-N. “Scaffolds for Building Everyday Creativity.” In Design for Effective Communications: Creating Contexts for Clarity and Meaning, edited by Frascara, J. Allworth Press: New York, 2006.
6. Druin, A. “Cooperative Inquiry: Developing New Technologies for Children with Children.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: The CHI Is the Limit. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1999, 592599.
Kirsikka Vaajakallio is a design researcher and a doctoral student in the School of Art and Design at Aalto University, Finland. Her background is in industrial design and she specializes in user-centered design. Her research focuses on co-design processes and design games in multidisciplinary projects.
Tuuli Mattelmäki is a senior researcher in the School of Art and Design at Aalto University, Finland. Her background is in industrial design and she specializes in developing methods for user-centered design. Her doctoral thesis, “Design Probes,” was published in 2006. Mattelmäki’s publications include articles about probes, empathic design, co-design, and design for user experience.
Jung-Joo Lee is a design researcher and a doctoral student in the School of Art and Design at Aalto University, Finland. She has a background in industrial design, and her latest research focuses on the role of technology in facilitating human-to-human interaction by applying research-through-design.
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