Kids Design the Future  




*Introduction    *Process    *Goals    *Potential Applications    *Children's Involvement    *Papers

Design Process


Children have their own likes, dislikes, curiosities, and needs that are not the same as their parents' or teachers'.  However, designers of technology for children sometimes forget that young people are not just "short adults” but an entirely different user population with their own culture and complexities.  Nevertheless, it is common for designers to ask parents and teachers what they think their children or students may need, rather than asking children directly.  Children are consumers of technology.  It is critical that we support children in ways that are effective and meaningful.  With this in mind, we need to question how we can build new technologies that respect children for their ability to challenge themselves and question the world around them.  We need to understand how we can create new technologies that offer children control, in a world where they are so often not in control.

Participating in an intergenerational team requires a certain amount of planning and thought.  All of the child design patners work on all the projects. Not all of the adults work on all of the projects.  Adults work where their area of expertise is needed.  We have found that 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.  No single technique can give teams all the answers they are looking for.   We have developed a combination of techniques called cooperative inquiry that works for our team. These techniques do not necessarily offer a magic formula for working with children, but rather an approach to research that can be used to gather data, develop prototypes, and forge new research directions.

Our Design Process: Cooperative Inquiry

Cooperative inquiry has three parts: contextual inquiry, participatory design, and technology immersion.

Contextual Inquiry: Observe how children interact with the technologies that are currently available.

Young children can have a difficult time abstractly discussing the world around them.  Merely asking children what they want in new technologies will not produce the input needed for the design process.  Therefore, we developed methods to understand children's exploratory activity patterns.  

We feel it is critical that children are as much a part of the data collection process as adults.  In our lab adults observe children,  children observe children, and children observe adults using technology.  Data is collected from the childrens' drawings and writings, as well as video recordings.  Below are examples of notes that children took while watching other children interact with technology.

Contextual Inquiry Note

This note was created by a seven-year-old child who was observing two children trying to draw on one computer.


Contextual Inquiry Note

This observation was made by another seven-year-old watching the same children interact with the computer. 

We concluded from this contextual inquiry session that children need more technologies that allow them to comfortably work together on the same computer.  These observations lead to our decision to make collaborative technologies for children.

Participatory Design: Sketch ideas by building with household materials

Once we have brainstormed with children and found an area we want to explore, we build low-tech prototypes.  In these participatory design sessions, small groups consisting of two to four children and two or three adults create low-tech prototypes out of boxes, clay,  crayons, and other art materials.  The low-tech tools give equal footing to adults and children.  We have found that there is rarely a need to teach people how to prototype, since using basic art supplies comes naturally to the youngest and oldest design partners.  The process of building these low-tech prototypes generates ideas that fuel the design process.  This form of prototyping is inexpensive, yet effective.  From the low-tech prototypes, high-tech prototypes emerge.

Children Making Low Tech Prototype

Low Tech Prototype

Children make a low tech prototype

Prototype created by a small group of children and adults

Technology Immersion: Expose children to technology that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to explore

Children and adults observe children using exciting technology like robots.  This  shows children that there are technologies available that they might not have used, and gets them thinking about possibilities for the future.

We use the cooperative inquiry process in  all our projects.  These methods are adapted to meet the goals of each project.  We use and refine these steps multiple times during the creation process.


  • Observe how children use the technology they already have
  • Discover what types of technology children need
  • Work with children to develop technologies that will help them be creative, have fun, explore, learn and communicate
  • Understand how adults can help children become inventors and designers

Potential Applications

We believe that this process can be used to develop ideas for different  application areas.  It can be used by kids, adults, private teams or industry.

Children's Involvement in the Design Process

By reviewing the literature on children and technology and by reflecting on our own experiences at The University of Maryland, we have come to see children can have four roles in the technology design process: user, tester, informant or design partner.  Each role can be appropriate depending on the context, goals, and resources of the design team.

Roles in Design Process


In the role of user, children contribute to the research and development process by using technology, while adults observe, videotape, or test for skills.  There are generally two reasons for researchers to ask children to take on the role of user: (1) To test a general concept that may help inform future technology developers (2) To better understand the process of learning, which may contribute to future educational practices.  Children may be involved in the design process as users after the technology has been distributed widely for commercial or research purposes.


When children are involved in the design process as testers, they use prototypes of emerging technologies.  The goal of this type of research is to shape new technologies before these commercial products or research projects are released.  As testers, children are often observed while interacting with technology.  Then the impact of the technology on children is assessed.  Many times adults ask for direct feedback from children by asking them questions such as, "What did you like?", "What was  boring?" or "What was too hard?"  It is important to note that when children act as testers the initial brainstorming and design phase has already been completed by adults.  Children do not begin their role as testers until initial prototypes have been created.


Informants make contributions at various stages of the design process.  Before anything new is developed, children may be observed using technology, or asked for their feedback on paper sketches.  Once the technology is developed, children may again be asked to provide input.  They participate in the design process when researchers feel that children could provide needed information.

Design Partner

The role of design partner is similar to that of an informant.  However, as partners children are a part of the research and design process throughout the entire  experience.  Design partners are equal stakeholders in the design of new technologies.  While children do not have the same specialized expertise that adults have, they have equal opportunity to contribute in any way they can to the design process.  For example, adult researchers that are visual artists or educators can support the technology design process with domain specific expertise and experience.  The same can be said of child researchers.  They too have special experiences and viewpoints that can support the technology design process.  When children act as design partners they contribute at all stages, from the initial idea to the final product.

At the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, we regularly work with children as design partners.  Occasionally, we work with children as testers or informants to see if our work is acceptable and relevant to children who have not been involved in the design process and have a fresh perspective on our work.


The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology

Children as Our Technology Design Partners

Cooperative Inquiry: Developing New Technologies for Children with Children

*Introduction    *Process    *Goals    *Potential Applications    *Children's Involvement    *Papers

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