A few weeks ago we started working with an Edinburgh school to get the help of pupils in designing the Adventure Author game making software. We have a design team of 6 11-12 year olds and 8 x 2 hour sessions. The idea is that by consulting kids about the design of software which they will use early on in the development process, you can reduce the risk of making software which kids don't want or can't use.
Judith Good and I have written about the merits of learner centred design
at length. It can work really well. I wrote this optimistic foreword to the IDC 2007 proceedings when all fired up after a really successful session with the design team:"The IDC community is lucky in several respects. As technology moves on at a rate which many adult users find alarming, our child users embrace it with confidence and pleasure. In fact, when involved in a design team in an appropriate way, they can offer insightful advice on how to harness technological developments in new applications. As many of us have discovered, design sessions with children are never dull; part of the pleasure of working with this approach is that we are often genuinely surprised – and delighted- by their contributions. When given the opportunity to be involved in the design and evaluation of the technology they use in their every day lives, children have a lot to say which is worth hearing."
BUT... and you knew there had to be a "but"... there are limits to what you can hope to achieve with this method. In a more recent session, I was reminded of this as a splash of icy water in my face. It's mostly because what we are trying to do is very complex. We want the kids to help us with a redesign of software which enables kids to make games for other children to play games. But to do this, the child designers need to be able to use the existing software which we are adapting. This software takes a long time to learn, so we have spent around 6 hours letting them explore this software before we could even start on design work. That's a large investment of time, but they wouldn't be in a position to help until they were experienced enough. The school have been very generous in allowing us to work with a small group for so many sessions; this is not easy to arrange.
We have found that the children are easily able to spot interface flaws and explain what the problem is. They are quite sophisticated in this respect, much more so than their teachers might predict. They are not so good at suggesting plausible solutions, and they certainly need more practice in designing new interfaces. Of course they do - adult interface designers have trained for years to learn these skills! Why should we expect kids to do better simply by virtue of being kids? But I tell you what - if Bioware had spent event 2 hours with these kids before releasing the NWN toolset, it would be a better bit of software today!