XXIII.4 July - August 2016
Page: 65
Digital Citation

How to survive creating an intergenerational co-design group

Jason Yip, Lindsey Arnold, Alysse Gallo, Kung Lee, Caroline Pitt, Kiley Sobel, Sijin Chen

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Participatory design (PD) with children is not a new method within design research; it has been used with children of all ages (e.g., [1]), abilities (e.g., [2]), and contexts (e.g., [3]) to create new designs for children. A lot of great designs, from's Do Not Touch Button to the International Digital Children's Library (, have relied on bringing children to the forefront of design. However, there is often a hidden unglamorous process in starting and running these teams. Researchers have studied some of the difficulties of co-design [4], but there is a lot that isn't covered about the heavy and messy startup costs. Knudtzon et al. outlined a case study of starting the first three months of an intergenerational co-design group at the University of Maryland (UMD) [5], but there are a lot of nitty gritty details that need further elaboration. Here, we will provide advice, tips, frustrations, strategies, and revelations on what it's like to start your own co-design group with children.

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Jason (lead author) started at the University of Maryland's (UMD) KidsTeam group as a doctoral student. After apprenticing from 2010 to 2014 at UMD, he brought his insight and experience to the University of Washington to create KidsTeam UW. KidsTeam UW focuses on co-designing with children (ages 6 to 12) new technologies for children [1]. From October 2015 to February 2016, we engaged in 25 after-school design sessions (90 minutes each), twice a week. KidsTeam UW is currently made up of undergraduates, master's students, doctoral students, postdoctoral scholars, and professors. We spent our afternoons with four boys and six girls co-designing numerous projects, meticulously documenting the process.

Internal review boards, recruitment, and the summer months. The early months of a project can be a major scramble to make sure everything is in order. For any U.S. institution interested in publishing findings in co-design, an institutional review board (IRB) must approve the design and ethics of the research. We cannot stress enough the arduous nature of this process, especially since the project required frequent close contact between children and adults on our campus, without parental oversight. We recommend working very closely and early with your ethics boards to make sure issues such as child safety, privacy, legal copyright, and recruitment are in order. We had many extensive back-and-forth correspondences with IRB.

The time it takes to get IRB approval can greatly impact your research timeline, particularly recruitment times. We started in February 2015 and began recruiting as soon as we received approval in May 2015. Initially we wanted to run a summer program to get the children well versed in co-design before the school year. However, due to the delay in IRB and children already having a busy summer, we had to cancel plans for the summer training.

Running the early sessions. Because we were unable to run a summer session, we spent most of Fall 2015 trying to develop relationships and co-design skills with the children. We highly recommend running summer sessions to avoid some of our initial startup problems. Early sessions of KidsTeam UW in Fall 2015 were very difficult because we had four inexperienced parties: the children, their parents, the researchers, and the director.

First, as with many new PD participants, none of the children had any idea what co-design was. Even though we explained it in detail to children and parents, some children thought co-design was a computer programming course. Until they had direct experience with the techniques, it was extremely hard for them to grasp the ideas we presented. The children's lack of familiarity with co-design combined with a group of unfamiliar adults and children made early collaborative efforts tough for all involved. In the early weeks, we had to reacquaint the children and the adults, as well as reintroduce the design techniques and routines.

Since KidsTeam UW is different than home or school, we also had to provide constant reminders about our expectations. For instance, adult facilitators are not teachers; we had to remind children that they too had the authority to create new ideas. We are also not direct peers, so on various occasions we asked the children not to be so playful with us (e.g., touching our hair, grabbing onto us). During this adjustment period, parents are also learning about KidsTeam UW, as well as figuring out how to carpool and get their children to the university.

The adult researchers also varied in how much experience they had working with children. Because every adult was new to co-design, we were not always sure how to approach challenging situations with the children. In our field notes, many volunteers indicated feeling conflicted about developing equal partnerships with children, but still needing to implement rules while respecting us and the space. For instance, in the early weeks the children tested boundaries, such as taking snacks from each other and causing mischief (e.g., roughhousing, kicking others). We quickly realized the need to institute firm guidelines to control the room, but without being overly restrictive. We also learned that aspects of the room decoration were simply too distracting; for example, having colorful mats on the ground provided too much distraction for the children. They would grab the mats and use them to hit each other. We had to quickly shift our process to not include mats on the ground anymore.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some activities made the children withdrawn and shy. We needed to help children present their ideas to the group. In the beginning, a significant amount of scaffolding and prompting was necessary to get the children to open up and share their thoughts. Children were learning how to give a presentation, and their inexperience showed, with some speaking too long while others were very shy and said only one or two sentences. Here, too, rules must be enforced to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak and to contribute.

Finally, though the lead author (director) had co-design experience, there was subtle overarching knowledge he was in the process of learning. For example, figuring out the flow of a design technique and managing the progression of a co-design activity is very different when you learn and assist with the process as a graduate student compared with when you have to oversee everything as a head researcher. Overall, the best advice we can give is that in the early weeks a lot of patience must be developed and a lot of grace must be given. Every team has a different flow and different personalities. You may have to try a variety of things to see what works best for your group. It also takes time to develop personal relationships with the children.

Issues with collaboration and risk-taking. Collaboration is the single most challenging aspect of running KidsTeam UW. At the outset, we needed to spend time getting to know the children and understanding their group dynamics. This was an important process for determining co-design activity groups because randomly pairing children together does not ensure they will work well together. For instance, our youngest child was a six-year-old girl and our oldest was a tween girl who just turned 12. Their co-design pairing did not always work well since the oldest child often became irritated with the younger one's behavior. Two children (boy, age 7; girl, age 7) in our group were friends prior to KidsTeam UW. We had hoped their prior relationship might encourage collaboration. However, both children would be rambunctious, often playing around together rather than focusing on the co-design task. In fact, this pairing caused the normally shy girl to become somewhat more outgoing and distracted.

Collaboration with adults is tricky too. Some of the adults focused more on asking the children to design but forgot that they too have a role in the design process. It can be difficult to get out of the authoritative mindset and treat the children as collaborators. The adults needed to stop trying so hard to get the children to focus and instead start developing their own designs. The children would often see what the adults were doing and get interested and refocus on the task at hand, adding ideas to what the adults started in the prototypes. This type of scaffolding can be incredibly helpful once the team gets used to it.

Last, even though co-design is meant to encourage risk-taking, some children have trouble extending their imaginations. In one case, a child (boy, age 9) continuously made cubes for his designs (e.g., paper prototypes as cubes, drawings as cubes) because this is something he was already comfortable making. He talked about other very interesting concepts but did not build upon them. For this child, it may take a longer period with the co-design group before he feels comfortable taking risks and building prototypes using new and different ideas.

Impact of design on children. Older, more established co-design teams may be able to show the changes in the prototypes quickly; and children more experienced in co-design may recall the impact they had on a prior design project and share their enthusiasm with others. However, early co-design teams are often in the beginning stages of the design process and thus may be unable to show off the influence the children have on a product design. In our case, because both KidsTeam UW and our projects (and collaborators' projects) are brand new, it was difficult for us to show the direct impact children were making on our designs and get them excited about the influence they had. It was not until February 2016 (four months after the first KidsTeam UW) that we were able to show changes to a particular design based on children's feedback. Needless to say, having the children see the direct changes they influenced eventually did help to support and excite the team.

Some tips and advice. Overall, starting a new co-design group is difficult, but it is worth the effort. We conclude with some brief advice and tips from our early implementation experience.

First, the learning curve is very steep, and every stakeholder is involved in this curve. New collaborators will also experience these growing pains. We highly recommend recording everything in field notes and videos for later reflection. Doing this allowed us to have concrete data to review and learn from. We found it is also necessary to debrief quickly after every session to gather thoughts and lessons learned.

Second, every co-design group has its own dynamics, so pay close attention to how the children interact, not only with each other but with the adults as well. Not every adult can be paired with every child initially. Some children may have to be paired with adults who can handle stronger personalities and defuse difficult situations. Adults also provide scaffolding that can help children reach new heights of design understanding.

Third, always remember that children are intelligent and surprisingly astute. They both want to impress you and push the limits of the rules and boundaries. Even though it is a design partnership, clear rules and boundaries must be set to establish routines and culture quickly. Children will pick up on your emotions and reactions, so confidence and clarity are key for good communication and collaboration.

Finally, things will go wrong all the time in completely unpredictable ways! Everyone will have bad days. The key is to be incredibly flexible and patient. Though we explained that routines should be established quickly, rapid changes are also necessary to adapt to surprises. These changes may include alterations to how the room is laid out, changes to logistics in the flow of activities, and even tweaks to established design techniques.

back to top  References

1. Druin, A. The role of children in the design of new technology. Behaviour and Information Technology 21, 1 (2002), 1–25.

2. Foss, E., Guha, M.L., Papadatos, P., Clegg, T., Yip, J., and Walsh, G. Cooperative inquiry extended: Creating technology with middle school students with learning differences. Journal of Special Education Technology 28, 3 (2013), 33–46.

3. Yip, J.C., Clegg, T., Bonsignore, E., Gelderblom, H., Rhodes, E., and Druin, A. Brownies or bags of stuff: Domain expertise in cooperative inquiry with children. Proc. of the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children. ACM, New York, 2013, 201–210.

4. Van Mechelen, M., Zaman, B., Laenen, A., and Vanden Abeele, V. Challenging group dynamics in participatory design with children: Lessons from social interdependence theory. Proc. of the 14th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children. ACM, New York, 2015, 219–228.

5. Knudtzon, K., Druin, A., Kaplan, N., Summers, K., Chisik, Y., Kulkarni, R., Moulthrop, S., Weeks, H., and Bederson, B.B. Starting an intergenerational technology design team: A case study. Proc. of the International Conference on Interaction Design and Children. ACM, New York, 2003, 51–58.

back to top  Authors

Jason Yip is an assistant professor at the Information School in the University of Washington. He is a senior research fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. His research examines how technologies can support parents and children learning together.

Lindsey Arnold is a graduate student and researcher with KidsTeam UW. She holds an M.A. in counseling psychology and is enrolled in the University of Washington's human centered design and engineering master's program. She is passionate about making a positive impact in children's lives via psychology, user-centered design, and social robotics.

Alysse Gallo is a master's student in the human centered design and engineering program at the University of Washington and a researcher with KidsTeam UW. She holds a B.A. in practice of art from UC Berkeley and has a background in animation. She is fascinated by the intersection of human-centered design and technology.

Kung Jin Lee is a graduate student in library and information science at the University of Washington. As a member of KidsTeam UW, she has researched in designing new technology for children. Currently her focus is on implementing new technology for children in the library. She has also been doing research in emergency information management and metadata.

Caroline Pitt is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington Information School. Her current research interests focus on how technology can be used in informal educational experiences to engage communities and connect to broader contexts.

Kiley Sobel is a Ph.D. student in human centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. She is interested in human-computer interaction, child-computer interaction, families and media, and inclusion. Her current research focuses on understanding technology's role in helping kids with and without disabilities play together.

Sijin Chen is an undergraduate in the informatics program with a concentration in HCI at the University of Washington. She is interested in research related to user experience, mainly focused on the younger generation.

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UF1Figure. The first sessions of KidsTeam UW were both messy and a learning experience for all.

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