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Editor’s Note: Combining Children, Technology, and Usability

Children live in a world where much of the technology they use daily was designed by adults to be used by other adults. And yet, this first group of “digital natives” is an eager adopter of new technology.  As usability professionals, we are in the early stages of learning to design for, and solicit feedback from, these younger users. Several things make this challenging. First, children’s physical and cognitive abilities are still developing. The comprehension level, worldliness, and coordination skills of a five-year-old are very different from those of a thirteen-year-old. This makes creating usable technology for younger children vastly different than for older children. Second, children’s ability to communicate their ideas, feelings, and needs is different than the ability of an adult, which means we need to apply different methods of “listening” to gather children’s feedback.

Furthermore, for products where children are not the primary target users (such as search engines and many websites), it can be tempting to bypass usability testing with children altogether, partly due to our uncertainty of how best to access this population and conduct testing with minors. This special issue on children and usability explores how various teams addressed these and other challenges inherent in usability testing with children.

  •  Janet Read discusses how she and her team in the Child-Computer Interaction Group at the University of Central Lancashire, UK create prototypes and gather feedback from classrooms of children as they work together to design mobile technology, and how the children’s requirements are conveyed to the remotely located programming team.
  • Marina Bers lays out design guidelines she created for social networking sites for children which take into account the cognitive and social development of the child throughout adolescence. Her design guidelines maximize positive adolescent social growth.
  • Elizabeth Brown provides an overview of the legal aspects of testing by children, including basic guidelines for performing usability research with minors in the United States, and specific guidelines around potentially sticky areas. Brown’s article is accompanied by quotes from experts around the world who describe how they perform testing with children in their countries.
  • Bill Albert and I report on children’s understanding of the Internet and how they interact with the Web, including whether or not they believe everything they read and how they keep themselves safe online. We suggest design guidelines to make the Web less confusing for children.
  • Sarah Chu and Constance Steinkuehler outline heuristics for designing interfaces used by young people playing massively multiplayer online games, based on their year-long observations and conversations with adolescent boys playing World of Warcraft.
  • Rina Doherty details a study on children’s eye strain when using computers and uncovers how screen luminescence, contrast, and lighting can effect children’s screen viewing comfort and distance.
  • The designer of the One Laptop per Child PC, Yves Béhar, tells the story behind the creation of the PC, provides insights into their field usability research with children, and explains how designing technology for children enables him to be more innovative and creative than he is when designing technology for adults.
  • Lorna McKnight describes her search for guidelines on how to design software for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Finding none, and with no access to children with ADHD, she created guidelines based on characteristics of children with ADHD and good design principles.
  • Greg Walsh discusses the methods his team at the University of Maryland’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab uses for gathering requirements and co-designing with children for commercial clients.
  • Finally, in the “View From Here,” Juan Pablo Hourcade, Natasha Bullock-Rest, and Heidi Schelhowe remind us that half of the children in the world do not have access to much of the technology many of us take for granted. Based on workshop findings, they lay out four guidelines for including marginalized populations in creating technology that is both usable and meaningful to them.

There is more work to be done to understand how children interact with technology and how we, as usability professionals, can include children in the design process to optimize their experience. This issue seeks to provide a foundation for our understanding and insights into how to create usable products for those whose brains are still growing and developing. Hopefully, you will agree that we accomplished our objective.

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