DML Daily Dispatch – Day 2

by Sarah Vaala
March 6, 2012

My second day at DML focused on the “Extreme Makeover – DML Edition” panel.  Like the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition television program, the presentations focused on re-thinking and re-making design to fit the needs of younger and older users – but without Ty Pennington.  Despite the fact that digital media are pervasive in all of our lives, from infants to the elderly, the majority of available media has been designed with the needs and abilities of 15- to 55-year-old users in mind.
Our own JGCC Research Director, Lori Takeuchi, moderated the session and began by emphasizing the need to suspend assumptions, from a research and a design standpoint that media users are between 15 and 55 years of age.  She invited four panelists whose work focuses on the ways in which young children or older adults interact with technology and content and how that technology and content may be better designed to suit these varying audience needs:

Jeff Makowka, Senior Strategic Advisor in the Thought Leadership Group at AARP
Allison Druin, Associate Dean for Research and the Co-Director of the Future of Information Alliance
Cynthia Chiong, Director of Research for Sirius Thinking, Ltd.
Rafael “Tico” Ballagas, Principal Research Scientist and Designer in the IDEA Team at Nokia Research Center

For me, three prominent ideas emerged from their presentations and the following group discussion.  Ideally, these principles may help yield more user-friendly digital media experiences for the young and the old – facilitating greater enjoyment and learning from interactions with media technology and content.

 (1) It is often not enough to change the design of discrete devices—we must consider the usability of the entire digital ecosystem.  AARP’s Jeff Makowka described AARP’s “Design For All” campaign.  The campaign, which invests in products and services that “enhance the quality of life for all as we age” (AARP’s mission), is meant to inspire designers to create things that can be used by as many people as possible.  As an example of a highly useable device (regardless of user age), Makowka praised the new LG “wand.”  Much like a Wii controller, this television remote communicates gross motor waving motions onto the screen, with very little reliance on buttons (which are difficult for many older adults to see and effectively manipulate).  The broader television ecosystem in a typical home, however, makes this user-friendly wand obsolete.  For example, those with a cable box or TiVo would have to use a completely different remote to use their television, and a DVD-player or game system would require a third remote (none of which use the wand technology or are easily synchronized together).  Thus, true improvements in the digital media experience for seniors (as well as children) will be achieved only when entire digital ecosystems are designed holistically, with the audiences’ needs and conveniences in mind.

(2)  We must spend time carefully observing children and older adults using digital media in order to determine what the particular challenges are and how design improvements may alleviate those challenges.  Harkening back to a prominent theme from Thursday’s events, several panelists described studies in which they acquired rich and useful information only through direct observation of children’s digital media use in action.  The University of Maryland’s Allison Druin described a study in which she and colleagues observed 7- to 17-year-olds conducting Google searches.  They found drastic differences between the styles and success-rates of younger searchers (7 – 11) and older searchers (14 – 17).  Further, Druin and team found that common models of search behavior did not map onto the searches of younger children.  Youngsters were often bound by limited, frustrating and unsuccessful search techniques, such as an over-reliance on visual searches (for example, watching Youtube videos of dolphins to try to find out what they eat instead of entering keywords), or “rule-bound” searching whereby children adhere to a particular method that isn’t always appropriate to a situation (such as always visiting only Wikipedia).  As a result, they quit before acquiring the information they set out to find.  Druin and her colleagues took the information gleaned from these observations and, consulting children as advisors, worked with Google to translate this research into actual changes to the Google search engine (such as personalized results based on kids’ prior searching and suggested related pages based on similar searches by others).

Similarly, Cynthia Chiong, Director of Research at Sirius Thinking, described how observing children directly impacted several studies.  In a study of the benefits of supplemental materials for the Between the Lions (BTL) television program, she found that 3- to 8-year-old children with high pre-test scores on literacy assessments exhibited significant learning gains from using BTL digital materials in addition to print books based on the show.  Conversely, children with lower literacy scores at the start of the study did not benefit from the digital materials when they used the material alone, though the print books did boost their learning.  In a second study conducted with the Cooney Center, she assessed preschool children’s comprehension and parents’ and children’s interactions while co-reading print books and e-books on iPads.  While children seemed to understand the stories regardless of platform, she has found differences in the amount of detail they remember and varying patterns within parent-child-book interactions based on the platform and features of the books.  From these two studies, Chiong concluded that we must consider the child, the parent, and the media when we design for children.  Often, young children glean the most from digital media when their use is actively scaffolded by a parent or caregiver jointly engaged in the experience; thus, we must consider how to design media such that their scaffolding is facilitated and encouraged.

(3) Grandparents and young grandchildren both have the time and desire to connect to each other, yet current communications tools hinder optimal remote interaction between these family members.  Nokia Research Center’s Rafael “Tico” Ballagas has been building and studying new designs for long-distance family member communication.  Preliminary field research conducted by his team within families’ homes indicated that telephone conversations, still the dominant means for long-distance communication, were difficult for children under the age of 7.  Ballagas pointed out that young children often communicate physically, through hand gestures or kissing the phone, which does not translate over the telephone.  Young children have not yet mastered the full scope of basic communication such as giving long verbal responses to questions or asking questions of the other party.  Skype, while gaining popularity for long distance communication, does enable communication through physical gestures (what Grandma doesn’t love to see her toddler grandchild send her a kiss through the screen?).  However, effective communication through Skype and other video platforms is still limited by children’s difficulty with verbal communication, as well as older adults’ difficulty navigating the complex technical demands of this technology.  As a solution, Ballagas and his colleagues at Nokia (in partnership with the Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop) have been developing video conferencing tools that use children’s books as a tool for structuring remote interaction.  In Storyvisit, the pages of a children’s e-book are synchronized on the screens of the child and the grandparent, and the beloved Muppet Elmo helps to structure the conversation by asking questions along the way and providing tips for the grandparent.  The team has also been working to reduce the technical demands for both parties by incorporating a user-friendly interface.  Already they have found that Storyvisit has significantly increased the length of time that grandparents and preschool-age grandchildren spend conversing together with 12 minutes for Storyvisit averaging 12 minutes of interaction vs 1-2 minutes for phone and 2-3 minutes for skype.

The “Extreme Makeover: DML Edition” presentations were insightful and thought-provoking, and prompted a very interactive Q & A discussion between audience members and panel members.  Some comments from the audience referred to other segments of the population to consider in digital media design as well, such as those with physical or cognitive disabilities.  These considerations were particularly timely for me, as my next post will feature the use of iPad’s to teach children with disabilities – so stay tuned!

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