Research Recommendations from a Child Interaction Expert

Erik Strommen of Playful Efforts photo This past week I was at Northwestern University to participate in a conference called Interaction Design and Children (IDC). It’s a fantastic event where researchers, developmental psychologists and technology inventors and experts gather together to share information, research, and advice about creating effective interactive experience for children through technology.

There were many interesting presentations and posters offered which I hope to touch on in the coming days. One presentation in particular I enjoyed was delivered by Erik Strommen, founder and developmental psychologist of Playful Efforts. Erik and I were on a panel together along with Kathleen Alfano, the Director of Research for Fisher-Price. The panel was moderated by Edith Ackermann, who is currently a visiting scientist at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Among Edith’s amazing credentials is that she also worked with and studied under Jean Piaget. All of us discussed the importance of research in the creation of successful interactive technology products for children.

After opening remarks from Edith, Erik began his presentation by stating he would not be showing any Powerpoint slides because he is a member of the “Informal Society for the Suppression of Powerpoint” (Erik worked at Microsoft for many years.)

Next, Erik discussed the difficulty of testing interfaces for software and technology toy products that don’t exist. In many cases, researchers will be brought into a product development team to explore the effectiveness of an interface that has yet to be built. In such cases when you’re called in, it’s your duty to determine how best to guide the development of these new interfaces.

An important quote Erik mentioned that’s worth repeating:

“New interfaces raise a blizzard of never before asked questions that challenge conventional wisdom. Only after collecting data and seeing how such interfaces work with children can you determine how effective these new interfaces will be with children.”

Here are a number of tips Erik mentioned to guide successful child/interaction research:

  • Seek out “parallel literature” to inform your design.
    You may not find exact research you’re looking for regarding the new interface you wish to build, but you can learn a lot about how to inform your design by reading similar interface studies. For example, Erik recommends checking out “studies on social interaction and discourse patterns” to inform social interface design.

  • When prototypes don’t exist, fake it.
    Erik referred to this as “Wizard of Oz” testing. This is when the “man behind the curtain” may be carrying out audio or other functionality needs as part of a down and dirty prototype to test with. Always remember you may not be able to recreate the entire experience this way, just the crucial testing parts. How you define the testing will effect your mock-up. Focus ONLY on the developmental issue that need to be answered. DON’T focus on the technology! Be concerned with timing and vocabulary in your prototype scripts.

  • Understand the schedule and development process of your client.
    How much time do you have and where in the development process do you have the opportunity to make changes in the design? Definition of the interaction with your user needs to be defined up front. It is a deliverable that affects the entire development process, so work fast and deliver your findings early before crucial product development efforts begin.

  • Keep everyone informed.
    Let everyone on the development team know when findings will be presented. Keeping team members informed as to the time when conclusions will be shared better allows for changes that can be incorporated into the development schedule.

  • Be specific with your research question.
    Don’t ask overly broad or numerous questions that will keep you from ever finding the mission critical answers you need to inform you product development team. Remember, generally speaking, companies don’t want to pay for research and they don’t want to schedule research. But be ready, once the information is available, everybody will beat a path to your door for the results! Also be aware that the broader your research question, the more complicated your prototypes will become.

  • Make friends with the engineers on your team.
    They will be your best allies for creating prototypes. Engineers also care about having answers as to how best to develop for a specific audience

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
    Early prototypes can be very different from the final product. You may not have the right characters or correct voices in your prototype but if you ask the right question, the results of your test will be invaluable. Remember, it’s the interaction that you are interested in testing. If visuals or character voices aren’t correct it will not threaten the validity of your testing.

  • Document what you did and the conclusions of your research.
    People will challenge your results and you may not remember everything you need in order to support your conclusions. You may also need to refer to your notes in the future when conducting similar studies.

At the end of the Erik’s presentation, he showed a number of prototypes used in technology toy testing.

To see video of Erik Strommen’s presentation at the IDC event, click below:

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