A Quick Note on participatory design for children: How and Not to

Participatory design (PD) emerged about 25 years ago as a distinct set of design and research practices rooted in a Scandinavian approach to systems design, commonly classed under the label of ‘cooperative design’, which emphasized designers and users actively working together in a process aimed at improving the quality of working life. It has become a popular method in HCI. An increasing amount of exploration of practices and theories is exhibited in the rise of the Participatory Design Conference, inaugurated in 2002. Nearly half of the 1,500 papers published in the Interaction Design and Children Conference (IDC) – a leading academic venue for designing for children - mentioned `participatory design’ in their abstracts or main papers. Before applying PD in our research and design for better AI recommender algorithms for children, we had a quick reflection about how and what not to when applying this very popular method. This reflection is based on the following seminal publications in the PD and IDC community:

1. Frauenberger, Christopher, et al. "Interpreting input from children: a designerly approach." Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. 2012.

2. Vines, John, et al. "Configuring participation: on how we involve people in design." Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2013.

3. Halskov, Kim, and Nicolai Brodersen Hansen. "The diversity of participatory design research practice at PDC 2002–2012." International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 74 (2015): 81-92.

4. Frauenberger, Christopher, Judith Good, and Wendy Keay-Bright. "Phenomenology, a framework for participatory design." Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference. 2010.

In this post, we share our learning about the community’s thoughtful reflection about what participation should mean, what the role of children as participants should be, and how to apply analytical frameworks to guide our interpretation of children’s input.

What is participation?

The review of PD literature by Halskov and Brodersen [2] shows that although `participation' has been commonly referred to by publications in the PD conferences between 2002 and 2012, it is often not clearly defined. Most literature made mention that their study participants participated in the design process (at certain design steps), without elaborating in what form their participation took place.

For our research, where the vulnerable populations are going to be involved, we must put careful thought into the participation of children in our research and design process

  • Who: what kinds of children - from mainstream education institutions or those catering for special education needs; children more likely with strong digital literacy skills or those less likely; children from KS2, 3 or 4

  • Where: should the interactions take place online, in school settings, or in the research labs? How can we overcome the barriers of not being able to emerge ourselves in the context that is familiar to children, which can be critical for observing their experiences?

  • When: how long should the design session be, and how should the interactions with children be situated against other activities of theirs? When should children be involved in the design and evaluation process?

  • How: how should children's input be effectively elicitated, with them leading the process and at the same time, having a realistic expectation of their inputs and avoiding overburdening them?

Participation cannot be a simple and implicit process and children's role in this must be clearly articulated and justified.

The role of children in PD

Users cannot be overburdened. We cannot expect children to take up equal responsibility for creative design and to articulate ideas in a designer way. Druin's seminal work in 2002 described that in the design process child participants can be users, testers, informants, as well as design partners.

  • In the role of user, children contribute to the research and development process by using technology, while adults may observe, videotape, or test for skills. Researchers use this role to try to understand the impact existing technologies have on child users, so future technologies can be changed or future educational environments enhanced

  • In the role of tester, children test prototypes of technology that have not been released to the world by researchers or industry professionals.

  • In the role of informant, children can play a part in the design process at various stages, based on when researchers believe children can `inform' the design process. Before any technology is developed, children may be observed with existing technologies or they may be asked for input on design sketches or low-tech prototypes. Once the technology is developed, children may again offer input and feedback.

  • Finally, in the role of design partners, children are considered to be equal stakeholders in the design of new technologies throughout the entire experience. As partners, children contribute to the process in ways that are appropriate for children and the process.

Children can be included at various design stages as an informant; however, how to design activities to include children in the design process and interpret their inputs is critical to the quality of the process.

A Phenomenology-based approach for participatory design

Research by Frauenberger et al in 2010 [4] illustrated how phenomenology can provide a useful theoretical framework to involve children as informants throughout the design process. Design should not focus on supporting immediate expectations, but give a holistic consideration of the experience, knowledge, and culture that we live in. Frauenberger et al emphasized the importance of considering the `design context' we give to our children participants: 1) considering the different prior knowledge, memories and sensory information that children might already have regarding a design context; 2) considering the shifts between the design context, e.g. their real experiences, physical world, and the digital world; and 3) considering children's experience in one context (such as drawing on paper) may not be directly translatable to that in another context (such as digital objects on a touch-screen).

Frauenberger et al also articulated how phenomenology provides a foundation for interpreting inputs from children from a holistic view, instead of heavily focusing on children's immediate experiences, which can be influenced by the weather of the day or their particular prior knowledge.

These foundational thinkings about how to apply participatory design provide important fruits for thoughts for our design project, in which we would like to include children first as users to assess how they currently experience AI-based recommender systems; and then as informants, to help us design good video recommender algorithms/systems so that they are more transparent and less intrusive to their data privacy.

24 September 2021