How to involve children in the design process

What are the advantages and challenges inherent in working with children in the design process for creating games or apps? How do you stop them getting bored, and get useful information? This case study looks in detail at a project that tried to do just that, and provides some handy tips at the end.

(Images from a different project working with children at Games Britannia, reproduced with kind permission from Mark Hardisty)

I am Monica and I am a UX Researcher working at City University London. My interest is in how technology can enhance learning in children and adults. I finished the Masters course in Human-Centred Systems at City University London in September 2012. For my dissertation, Designing applications for children, I worked with children aged 4-5 years old to design an iPad application to learn the names and sounds of the letters, and to read and spell simple words. Here is a brief description of what I did, what I found out and why I think children should be involved in the design of technology.

Children at Games Britannia workshop. Mark Hardisty

Children at Games Britannia workshop. Photograph: Mark Hardisty

The method

Different methodologies, methods and techniques can be used when designing technology for children. I chose to use the Cooperative Inquiry methodology because it has the highest user involvement compared to the others. Cooperative Inquiry has been developed by Dr. Allison Druin and her colleagues at the University of Maryland. It treats children as full design partners over the whole duration of the design process, equal to the professional adult designers on the team.

A combination of techniques is used in Cooperative Inquiry, which are listed in the table below, according to the design’s goal. There is not a magic formula for working with children, but rather a philosophy and approach that can be used to gather data, generate ideas, design and develop prototypes.

Goals for Co design Cooperative Inquiry Techniques
  1. Idea generation
Observation – Design team adults and children observe others using technology (Technology Immersion)
Interviewing  – Design team adults and children interview others using technology (Technology Immersion)
Critique other systems using sticky notes
Brainstorming – of ideas
Mixing Ideas – merging individual ideas into bigger ideas
Layered Elaboration – use of acetate sheets to generate ideas though an iterative process
Low-tech prototyping with art supplies (pens, papers, sticky notes, etc.)
  1. Setting expectations
Wear informal clothes – adults should wear informal clothes, like children do
Adults at the same level of children (to make them more confortable) – sitting down on the floor or at the table, with children
No hand raising – everyone is equal
Use first names – and not Ms, Mrs or Mrs
All ideas are good ideas – there is not such thing as a bad idea
There are not right and wrong answers
  1. Reflecting as a group
Group presenting
Adult debriefing


Following the Cooperative Inquiry methodology and all its techniques, two sessions were organised with the children: a games session and a design session.

Games session

The main aim of the games session was to observe the children (the users) doing their normal tasks, their hand movements, to capture the details of what they do, and to explore which games and activities were more interesting, challenging and kept them focused.

The children played six different games that each featured aspects of children’s behaviour that we wanted to observe and learn more about. So for example, in the Parking Spot game,  the aim was to observe how children move objects on a flat surface. Each child was given an A3 piece of paper with each letter of the alphabet drawn in a different parking spot. They were also given a car each. The Teaching Assistant, present at the session, pronounced the name and sound of five letters. The children had to find the correct parking spot for each letter.

In the Cups game the aim was primarily to observe where the children’s attention was (on the cups, the letters or the sweet) and also to reward them with a sweet. Letters were written on the cups. They were turned over on the table and a sweet was hidden underneath one cup. The children had to change the position of the cups and find the correct spelling of the word. Once they had done that, they had to find the sweet and eat it.

The Find all letters game was the last game the children played. The aim was to find the yellow letters and spell correctly the name of the animals and/or object shown in the paper the children were given.  The game was chosen again to observe how children would find the letters, how they would move them and what they would do once they found them.

The children were given an A3 piece of paper each with a square in the middle and pictures of animals and objects on the edges of the square. They were also given some letters written on small yellow papers. Unfortunately, the game didn’t work as planned as there were too many letters and the children had difficulties to find the correct ones. The children were then asked to write the name of the objects instead of finding the correct yellow letters.

At the end of each game, the children were asked some questions to understand if they enjoyed the game, what they liked the most, what they didn’t like, and if they found the game easy or difficult. At the end of the session, each child was given some chocolate egg surprises, as a thank you for participating.

Design session

The main aim of the design session was to generate ideas for the design of the iPad application and to create a low-fidelity prototype. The children were asked to dress up with their favourite costume. One child dressed up as a Spanish flamenco ballerina, one as Ben10, one as a pumpkin and we also had a Peppa Pig.

I started by explaining the purpose of the session. The children were told that they were “inventors of technology” to help them understand that their ideas are very important when designing new technology. They were also told that they were going to design and draw an iPad application. I explained the meaning of design (drawing what something will look like, for examples, the builders who build houses, first they draw the house on a piece of paper and then they copy and build the house) and the meaning of an application (a game). They were all familiar with what an iPad is.

I began the brainstorming by asking questions about the children’s characters and costumes. Questions like what do you think <character> had for breakfast this morning?, do you think <character> went to school today?, what do you think <character> did?, did <character> learn the letters? and how did <character> learn the letters? were asked to give them a starting point from which to find ideas for the design of the iPad application.

They were also asked to draw their own ideas on the A3 piece of paper in front of them. The purpose was to mix the four ideas into only one main idea. This technique is called “Mixing Ideas” and is applied in Cooperative Inquiry. It is a technique used to merge individual ideas into a bigger, collaborative idea. Unfortunately, this did not work as children aged 4-5 years old who are very egocentric and jealously protective of their own ideas. It is difficult to understand the concept of putting together each individual’s ideas to form a bigger idea.

The children kept drawing on their own piece of paper, and some of them started to be bored and impatient. At this point, it was time to change task. It is difficult for children at this age to stay focused on the same task for a long period. They were offered some Playmobil figures and stickers to play with and generate more ideas. They were also given an iPad prototype made of cardboard and white paper of the size of the iPad screen to create the low-fidelity prototype.

Unfortunately, the design session was terminated earlier than planned due to the children getting impatient. I preferred to terminate the session earlier rather than pressure them and make them upset or disturbed. All children were given some books and chocolate, as a reward for participating, which, of course, were very much appreciated!


The games session went very well. The main aim was to observe the children’s hands movements on a flat surface, to capture the details of what they do, and to explore which games and activities were more interesting, challenging and kept their focus. They were familiar with the games played and understood well the problems and what they were asked to do.

There were lots of hands movements, from left to right and from right to left, lots of enthusiasm and participation. They kept repeating the sound of the letters. There was a little bit of surprise, which kept them interested and motivated. And there was also a little bit of reward too: the sweets in the Cups game and the chocolate at the end of the session!

The children liked the majority of the games. The activities they liked the most were joining, finding, colouring, drawing, parking and writing.

The observation and analysis of the games session culminated on a set of requirements to be met by the iPad application.

The design session didn’t go as well as the games session. The main aims were to generate ideas for the design and create a low-fidelity prototype.  Four ideas were generated:

  1. Peppa Pig learned the letters with a clown
  2. The pumpkin eats fire from his tummy
  3. Ben10 guesses the letters, which go into his head
  4. The Spanish ballerina learned the letters with the teacher, whiteboard and songs

Although lots of activities were planned and organised to keep the children motivated, as mentioned, the session was terminated earlier than planned due to the children getting tired, bored and impatient. For this reason the low-fidelity prototype was not created.

I took into consideration the children’s ideas mentioned above and the requirements gathered from the games session to create the application as wireframes.  The application was not actually turned into a fully coded application, as I was more interested on the process of involving children in the design of technology, rather than the final product.

Conclusions and tips

“It is not easy for an adult to step into a child’s world, and likewise it is not easy for a child to step into an adult’s world” by Dr. Allison Druin

Children's game mindmap at Games Britannia. Photograph: Mark Hardisty

Children’s game mindmap at Games Britannia. Photograph: Mark Hardisty

Children have preferences, likes, and dislikes, needs and wants, which are different from adults. This is why we should include them in the design process, to facilitate usability, improvements, creativity and innovation. It is important to involve them in a relevant and useful way, considering their age and stage of development.

Working with young children is not easy. For example, they are very enthusiastic but also get distracted very easily. Here are my final tips for successfully working with children:

  1.  Have clear goals in mind. Ask yourself what you want to achieve from working with children and how to achieve it. Do you just want to observe them doing their normal activities and tasks? Which age should the children be?
  2. Do your research. Before starting the project, do some user, product and market research to better understand what you want to achieve
  3. .Be organised. Due to their school and family commitments, it is not always possible to work with children for a long period of time. You need to try and make the most of the children’s available time. Sessions need to be well planned, unexpected events can happen and the planned work should be changed accordingly.
  4. Organise lots of tasks and activities. Children, especially young children, cannot concentrate for a long period. They need to be kept busy otherwise they become bored and not participatory. Stimulate their imagination organising activities according to their age.Try to work with children of the same age. Although all four children who participated in my project were attending Reception class, their ages were different. Laura was 4 years old and the other three children were 5 years old. One year of difference in younger children makes a big difference in their personality and development.
  5. Make the children feel important. Explain who you are, what you are going to do and why, wear informal clothes and remember to sit at the same level of them.
  6. Thank and reward the children after each session. Books are always a good idea and children love them!
  7. Keep in touch with them, the school and parents for future collaborations


Co-designing with Children by Catalina Naranjo-Bock, UXMatters

Approaches to User Research When Designing for Children – by Catalina Naranjo-Bock, UXMatters

Druin, A. 2002. The Role of Children in the Design of New TechnologyBehaviour and Information Technology, 21(1), pp.  1-25.

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One Response to How to involve children in the design process

  1. Fausto Fonseca September 5, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    Thank you for this!


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