Prototyping Research Methods

Keywords: Participatory Design, Collaborative Research

Project Title: Designing Play Spaces for Children
Authors: Aman Singh | Zahra Jalali
My Role: Design Researcher 
Aim: Design an indoor activity that engages kids without relying on screens.
Methodology: Participatory Design

Summary: The participatory design handbook (Ferguson & Candy, 2014) defines this method as 'an approach that centers around the idea that people who are affected by a decision, event or product should have an opportunity to influence it.' Through this method, the users are empowered to investigate and define the problem space as the stakeholders and also to be present in conducting and designing the solution. 'It is important to value their knowledge whether it has been gained through professional training or lived experience.' (Ferguson & Candy, 2014, p.4)

This method is a great way to explore the topic of 'playgrounds' since it directly involves children; a group that has different perceptions on their surroundings and are sensitive to certain elements that an adult might overlook. With this participatory approach, the researchers/designers would act as facilitators to help children come up with the solution, rather than designing a solution 'for' them. This method however requires expertise and certain research preparation, such as consulting with professionals for having appropriate communication tools and getting consent from the kids and their guardians before initiating any activity.

Formulating the Research Question: After our initial interviews with parents, the one common problem we found out was that, 'due to COVID-19', parents were not comfortable taking their kids out to play like before and they had to use other methods to keep them engaged at home, which mostly relied on screens. The pandemic has altered day-to-day activities in the past year and has brought upon new sets of limitations for everyone. Being forced to study online has changed the dynamics of a household and the way children would interact with digital devices both for educational and entertainment purposes. Therefore we decided to focus on indoor play spaces for children of the age of 6 to 10 years, which may require direct supervision from their guardians.
How can we design an indoor activity for children to reduce screen time using low-fidelity materials?

Initial Research: We began by visualizing the variables involved on a 2x2 matrix based on the age group from 'Toddlers' to 'Adults' and the play area from 'Indoors' to 'Outdoors'. This helped us identify the section we were going to focus on; Indoor play spaces for children between the ages of 6 to 10 years. The participatory method is a great way to go through this research as it would allow us to directly involve the children in the project as co-designers and not just as end-users, in order to come up with a solution that fully meets their needs.

Visualizing Variables

In a participatory research it is important to involve the participants in all the stages, even the very beginning of the research, as they are the real professionals and they hold certain knowledge that we do not have. Initially, we started our research by discussing and assuming the problems we thought parents would face with their children. These included problems like video game addiction, too much screen time and aggressive behavior influenced by some of these games. To test our assumptions, we interviewed two parents in our cohort who had children of the age group we were targeting. Considering this project to be a test-run itself, we did not interview the
children since that would have required a Research Ethics Board approval. But it is worth mentioning that the children are the real stakeholders in the research as the targeted audience and also as co-designers. Nonetheless, completing these interviews gave us more clear insights and a much better understanding of the problem area and the pain points.
This topic requires different sets of expertise such as ‘children psychology’ and ‘game design’. To have a solid starting point, consulting with a number of professionals would be constructive and helpful to conduct the next steps. However, given the limited time for the assignment, we researched around those topics and analyzed a few existing projects to better understand their features and how they were successful or not. One of these was studying 'KidZania', which is an interactive city made for children 1-14 that combines inspiration, fun and learning through realistic role-play.
Next, in order to put participation into practice, we planned 3 sets of participatory activities in the project by using the 3 sets of tools (Ferguson & Candy, 2014, p. 6)

1. Making tools - tools and techniques for making tangible things
2. Telling tools – tools and techniques that support verbally oriented activities such as talking and explaining
3. Enacting tools – tools and techniques to facilitate acting and playing

These activities are conducted to further investigate the elements that would engage children in a game. By going through these activities, we would get new insight and will be able to refine and reiterate them again in future.

Participatory Activities

1. A workshop/Play time facilitated by 1 or 2 designers with a number of kids as active participants. Trying to communicate with the kids while they’re playing their favorite games and engaging them in conversations so they would describe their feelings, motives and actions.
2. A workshop/Play time facilitated by 1 or 2 designers with a number of kids as active participants. Focusing on the elements of storytelling and role playing.
3. A workshop/Play time facilitated by 1 or 2 designers. Giving the kids certain low-fidelity probes and creating a game together.

Test Runs:
1. Interviewing parents
We started off by interviewing parents who had children of our targeted age group.

Interviewing parents

Outcome: Made us have a better understanding of the problem area which guided us into redefining our research question.

2. Playing on an iPad
One of us  played the role of a 8 year old kid and tried to play two different games on an iPad: ‘PAC-MAN’ & ‘Bake Shop’. This activity was run to analyze the existing features in a digital game that some kids would prefer over a physical activity. The facilitator would monitor the playing experience and noted down the responses throughout the game. (ex. How would the kid react when they lose/win?, What kept them engaged?...)

Playing on an iPad

Outcome: The importance of audio and visual cues in a game to keep the children occupied and create a sense of achievement. These elements would become handy in the future stages of the project when designing an offline activity.

3. Create your own character
An activity was designed using a simple paper ‘tippy tippy tap’. The facilitator would use this as a gamified tool to ask the kid a number of questions about an imaginary character of their choice. At the end, the kid gets to name the character and then is asked to create it with some craft materials such as paper, cardboards, colors, etc. The facilitator would help the children to make their creation and by the end of the activity the kid would have their own low-fid action figure/doll.

Create your own character

Outcome: We were able to design an activity using low-fidelity materials and not relying on digital tools to keep children engaged. We think that this activity would help boost their creativity by triggering their imagination while engaging them in a non-digital activity.

Future Iterations: The question is how would the kid stay engaged with this character after making it. How could we incorporate a storyline or a certain narrative, co-created with the children? A follow-up activity(s) is needed to explore further possibilities. Moreover, we assume that the digital games, while providing a variety of high quality visual and audio elements to create an immersive experience, might as well create a generic effect over time and the children would go over the steps out of habit rather than choice, which would result in less creative stimuli and restricted imagination. This hypothesis would inform the research framework in terms of putting ‘imagination’ at the center of the activities. Starting from defining ‘imagination’ and exploring the existing studies around imagination and children and also testing out this hypothesis, we would then prioritize a creative and an evolving activity that would keep the children engaged over time and constantly involve their inherent imagination skills.

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