Designing for the young learner

Frances Brown

A child selecting apps on a tablet.

Photo by Igor Starkov on Unsplash

The challenge of understanding the young mind is one I relish as a design researcher. There is no room to be complacent - children are perceptive and sharp, hungry to learn and quick to point out when things are wrong. At the same time they're susceptible to influence, easy to discourage and very vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Designing for children takes great skill and sensitivity - the potential to unintentionally do harm is high, so it's not a challenge to be taken lightly. The area of edtech, in particular, requires careful, thorough research to ensure that technology designed to help and support isn't creating disadvantage instead.

The mysteries of the developing mind

Of all the areas I studied as part of my degree in applied psychology, child development was the one that caught my interest the most. The way in which a baby goes from a helpless, languageless being to a walking, opinionated dictator within a couple of years always struck me as a sort of wonder. What amazed me more was how little is understood about how that process of transformation really works - there are theories about how the brain unlocks the mysteries of grammar and syntax, for example, but none fully explain how children master the incredible complexities of language in such a short time. The origins of other skills - reading, playing music, the ability to engage with abstract concepts - equally evade understanding. 

Carrying out research with children with Down syndrome at the University of Bristol and children with autism at Trinity College Dublin showed me the many different ways children can overcome barriers - sometimes enormous ones - to develop skills and gain control of their world. It also made me realise how many of those barriers are put in their way by the lack of adaptation and ingenuity in the systems that were supposed to support them. 

When I trained as a primary teacher, the reality of trying to design and adapt educational activities to suit the capabilities of a range of growing minds really hit home. Some children would grasp things right away, no matter how flimsy the explanation, while others would require a much more tailored approach. Every teacher knows the joy of the ‘lightbulb moment’ - that look a child gets when they finally grasp something they’ve struggled with. Those moments can be hard to come by and making them happen requires constant creativity and persistence. Something teachers always search for are tools to cut down repetitive effort and boost real teaching input - essentially, less slog, more lightbulb. When I was a teacher, many tools promised to make life easier, but few really hit the mark.

The challenges of researching with children

After I moved into the world of design research, my teaching skills stood me in good stead when LEGO asked me to test some of their new digital products. Researching with children requires special skill -  there is always a natural power imbalance between researcher and child that has to be taken into consideration. While children can be more honest and open than adults, they can also struggle to articulate their thoughts and feelings fully and may require more careful support and prompting in their answers.

When it comes to translating research insights into design recommendations, research with children requires a much more sensitive and considered analysis than research with adults - many more factors need to be taken into account. Children rarely have full control over their own choices and environment for example - they don't generally buy their own toys or choose their own school. While they may have their own opinions, dreams and attitudes, the reality of their lives is usually much more subject to the needs and wants of their parents and the other adults in their lives. Everything has to be interpreted with two very different users in mind - it doesn't matter how enthusiastic and positive a child is if the parent objects or disapproves. And with edtech, there's a third user in there - the teacher - with their own goals and requirements. 

The value of research in designing for the young learner

Now that my own children are in primary school, I’ve had a taste of the technology that’s come on the market since I was teaching - times tables apps, homework apps, parent communication apps. Some of it is simple and brilliant - I wish it had been available years ago when I was struggling to sort out school trips or test maths skills. Some of it isn’t so good - promises of tailored education can ring hollow when yet another not-quite-right worksheet appears in the homework, making everyone frustrated and grumpy.

What bothers me most are the missed opportunities - the almost-great platforms that frustrate and annoy me and my children through small but significant design problems. Being who I am, I can’t help thinking ‘do some research!’ At the very least there are some things I've learned from my years as a psychologist, teacher and researcher, that I’d love companies to bear in mind when designing edtech for children:

  • Users, young and old, tend to blame themselves when they can’t engage with technology. Every researcher has heard many variations of ‘oh I’m so rubbish at this’ while testing a product, when it’s actually the software that’s causing the problem. It’s not great for adults, but it can be particularly damaging for children, who start to believe they’re ‘rubbish at maths’ because they can’t make the glitchy maths software work.
  • Sometimes the solution is far simpler than you think. In all areas of technology, not just edtech, there is a bias towards complex, feature-heavy solutions. Often these solutions create problems rather than solve them, by giving the users another frustrating job to do. There is massive potential for technology to support education effectively - often in very simple, straightforward ways. All that's needed is a real understanding of how teachers work and the ingenuity to spot genuine ways to support their expertise. 
  • Gamification needs to be used with caution. When a child is struggling to master a skill, games with inbuilt goals and targets can serve as a constant, stressful reminder of how poorly they are doing in comparison to their peers. Even when games aren’t intended to be competitive, children can still try to outdo each other, leaving the less able children feeling like they can never succeed.
  • Resources that are not quite right can do more harm than good. Worksheets and activities with slightly different wording, a different layout, or an additional element that wasn’t covered in class can cause unnecessary stress and confusion, making a child doubt their ability to complete a task.
  • Digital does not always mean better. Problems such as a lack of suitable devices, technical glitches, having to share devices with parents or siblings and broadband issues can mean that the new and improved technology causes the type of arguments and money worries that a simple piece of paper and a pencil never would. Children should never lose out because their circumstances mean that their ability to engage with digital resources is limited.
  • Simply observing users in their own environments can reveal a wealth of valuable insights. LEGO learned this lesson quite late in its development as a company, but reaped the rewards on a massive scale. As LEGO realised, observation not only tests the validity of ideas, but also reveals new possibilities, by highlighting gaps in the market and by giving a rich contextual understanding of what tech needs to do in order to genuinely meet user needs. 

My talk on the practicalities and pitfalls of researching with children will give you some useful advice on how to design and carry out effective, actionable design research with children. 

If you'd like to run ideas by our research team, or you think research could help your product, get in touch - we're always happy to chat and share our expertise.