MESS Days: Working with Children to Design and Deliver Worthwhile Mobile Experiences

If designing usable products for people is hard, designing products for children is even harder. Children have a more difficult time conveying what they want, we have a harder time working out the important factors of what they say, and they (especially younger children) tend to be rather non-critical. “Did you like it?” the developers invariably ask the children. “Yes. It was great!” is the inevitable reply.

The Child Computer Interaction Group at UCLan in Preston, UK, is a dedicated research group that concentrates on the specific area of usability and user experience design for children’s technologies. Formed in 2002, the group carries out research and development projects that focus on the creation and understanding of interactive products for children aged three to sixteen. Our work is collaborative, working with researchers across the globe, but also, and more interestingly, working with children and their teachers in immersive design and evaluation activities.


In several projects we have used our own pioneering approach with children, called MESS (Mad Evaluation Sessions with Schoolchildren) days. MESS days are events where a whole school class of children take part in a series of activities that typically include evaluations of products, design sessions, small research studies, and activities that are purely for fun. What is unique about MESS days is that we occupy a whole classroom of children for anything between an hour and all day, depending on the work being done. The MESS day epitomizes our approach to research and interaction design with children—that it will be messy, that it should be inclusive, that it should be fun, and that it should be fast paced and constantly refreshing.

The UMSIC Project

Recently we have used the MESS day approach in the EU-funded UMSIC project. The UMSIC (Usability of Music for Social Inclusion of Children) project plans to deliver novel mobile music-making applications that can be used collaboratively by children—especially those who are new immigrants in a European country or who have attentional difficulties. In the UMSIC project, the development of the technology is far removed from the design, both in terms of location—UK and Northern Finland—but also in terms of context—designers used to working with children, developers used to working with Java.

Design: Obstructed Theater

In the early stages of the UMSIC project, we held MESS days to gather ideas for designs for mobile products as well as to test out new concepts and new interaction techniques. For example, in one session, around half the children spent their time designing mobile music products using paper and cards, pipe cleaners, glue, and other prototyping items (see Figure 1). At the same time, the other children in the class tried out and commented on existing mobile music products including iPhone apps, Nintendo DS games, and PC applications.

a child's design

Figure 1. A design from the first series of MESS days.

To initiate the design session, we employed a method that we call “Obstructed Theatre.” Obstructed Theatre is a modification of a method first used at Newcastle University in design work with adults; in their variation, two professional actors talked about a technology product that was hidden from view. In our own version of this technique, we adapted it for children by having two twelve year olds videotape a short sketch of a situation in which the mobile device would be used. Keeping the item hidden, we then used this short video to kick off the design session. This method allowed us to convey the key requirements for the product to be designed without giving anything away about how it should look.

Evaluation: The Fun Toolkit

In our evaluations of competing technologies, we were interested in the way children used them, the features they tended to use, and the ways in which they interacted with the products. For this we mainly used observations and kept notes of interesting things. However, we also used the Fun Toolkit, a set of tools we specifically designed to help us overcome the “Yes, it was great,” syndrome that is known to occur in user experience evaluations with children. The Fun Toolkit includes three simple tools, the Smileyometer (see Figure 2), Fun Sorter (see Figure 3), and Again Again table (see Figure 4). By combining the results obtained with these tools, it is possible to determine which products and features the children prefer.

smiley faces

Figure 2. The Smileyometer from the Fun Toolkit. Children check one of the faces but sometimes they put multiple checkmarks on the Brilliant face because the scale just isn’t great enough!

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Figure 3. The Fun Sorter from the Fun Toolkit. When children fill these in, we tend to give them photos of the things they have done so that all they have to do is stack them in the appropriate places.

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Figure 4. The Again Again table from the Fun Toolkit. Children were asked to indicate whether or not they would like to play these games again.

Paper Prototyping

As the project progressed, we drilled down into the design space that surrounded the specifics of the product that was being designed—the JamMo. All along we knew that this would be a mobile application to be built on a Nokia touch screen device. Having gotten some general ideas from children relating to the arena of music making, we used our second series of MESS days to get a better understanding of interactivity in the mobile context.

In these MESS days, we again engaged the children in different activities. In a design-focused activity, we looked at the interface designs of the JamMo and asked children to create a set of “screens” and then position them on a “mockup” device (see Figure 5).

Just as you would with adult participants, we used this “paper prototype” to test that the interactions and flow of visuals and sounds would succeed once built. Since studies with children and touch screen interactions are rare, we also included a MESS day activity to check out the optimal sizes for interactive items on the small screens.

Children: Not Simply
 Smaller Users

As mentioned earlier, one of the interesting aspects of the UMSIC project was that the developers and designers were geographically and contextually separate. This created some problems conveying requirements, design ideas, interaction rules, and ideas for new concepts. It is not straightforward to take something that has been created or suggested by a child and make it understandable or relevant to a programmer. All too often the connection from child-centered design to child-centered product is lost in translation.

In the UMSIC product, by virtue of persistent communication and by communicating ideas in drawings rather than text, a good number of the design features requested from the design team made their way into the final product. A turning point in the design space was when the software programming team came face-to-face with children users for a prototype product exercise in the UK. More than any of our other communications, this event really made the users come alive for the development team. They came to realize that the children were not simply smaller users.

Including Children
in Real Projects

Our research group has spent considerable time studying the usefulness and the usability of MESS days in the product design process. We have come to realize that their use varies according to the context of the work. In real software development projects, MESS days need to be structured around the development teams. In addition, products from the MESS days need to be carefully translated and made relevant to the developers. This model, including activities for children, is shown in Figure 6.


Figure 6. A model of child-centered product development.

This model can be broken into three phases:

Phase 1

Hold off designing anything until the first round of requirements gathering with children has taken place; use Obstructed Theater so that your ideas don’t overly influence the children.

Check out competing products and discover which of them gives the best user experience using observations, the Fun Toolkit, and other approaches.

Create a first design as a paper/lo-fidelity prototype.

Phase 2

Identify any interaction problems and test them out. Ensure this testing is done in such a way that it can be generalized.

Check out the logic of the design; walk through paper- or screen-based prototypes with real children.

Create a functional prototype.

Try out the prototype with children in the company of the development team. This will have a lasting effect on the programmers. They will start to understand, and better listen to, the design team.

Phase 3

Engage children in adding their own uniqueness to the prototypes (for example, making icons, adding music, and titles). This gives ownership to the child design team.

Evaluate this prototype against its competitors and make plans to fix anything that makes it especially poor in comparison.

Plan for version two by giving children a chance to suggest improvements. This needs to be done before the product goes to market since once it is adopted, no child will ever be critical of it again.

Build the final version.

Designing with children adds a new dimension to user experience design and usability testing. Challenges still exist in finding appropriate ways to convey design requirements and design ideas across the divide from designer to developer; there is still work to be done in understanding how children can best contribute across this divide.

Read, J. (2011). MESS Days: Working with Children to Design and Deliver Worthwhile Mobile Experiences. User Experience Magazine, 10(1).
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