Good turn out at the lab meeting this week (sadly with apologies from Lesley and Jim). We had a couple of Masters students join us as well, and Judith supplied cake to maintain our energy levels throughout.

This week Judith was presenting an expanded version of a talk that she presented at the AWARE event in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, titled “Autism Software: Design(ing with users)”. AWARE was set up to be a place where software developers, researchers and various others with an interest in creating and using software for children with autistic spectrum condition (ASC) to use.

Judith’s talk focused on the design of this software, but rather than explain hard and fast rules for what works or doesn’t, she focused on a design process using participatory design (PD) and what she has learnt from using this process on the ECHOES project. The aim of the ECHOES project was to create an environment where children aged 5-7, both with ASC and typically developing, could explore social interactions such as shared attention. It featured a large multi-touch screen, shown below:

Giving feedback on ECHOES

Judith started with framing the problem as “how to design software that children with ASC want to use?” She stipulated that she felt that this meant software that was both enjoyable, but also empowering. In order to understand how to achieve this these users really ought to be involved in the design process.

One of the tenants of PD* is that the people who use a product (or service) should have a voice in its design. In particular when designing for children people assume they know what children like and want, but actually we adults don’t really get it. It is even more important with children with ASC. Their experiences are likely to be quite different. Also as a group they are incredibly heterogeneous, and the aspect of voice and control can be incredibly important to them.

There are many methods available for involving people in PD, including playing games, telling stories and making things like paper prototypes. However, many of these can be challenging with children, never mind children with ASC! The processes are unknown and may be unintentionally stressful. Judith cautions against seeing users solely as “repositories of knowledge”, instead focussing on how to build a rapport, on understanding people more broadly, and what exactly it really means to “have a voice”?

So, with all that as a background, Judith then shared some of the “lessons learned” from ECHOES. She said that they didn’t find out what they set out to learn, but that the things they did learn had far greater impact on the understanding of the project than those initial questions would have had.

She showed many video examples of moments of unexpected insight, patterns spotted that seemed inconsequential in a single user but showed up unexpectedly and repeatedly. There were things that came through clearly in the body language and actions, but were never verbalised. The tools that were built to solicit feedback from the children were seldom used in the way they were expected to be, but were still able to facilitate a discussion around the design.

The main lessons learnt were that prototypes were an excuse to engage people early, and gave something to build a rapport around and scaffold the interaction. It is important to become better observers of people, particularly the process of interaction. Much is not verbalised. By all means start with questions in mind, but be prepared to ditch them and learn something else from your research!

The lab group had a good discussion at the end of this talk, around the possibility of using the process without really having an “end product” – focussing on the communication and interaction mechanisms of the process itself rather than the outcome. Judith and others have begun looking at what it is about the software (and some of the problems with it sparked the most communication) that helped to create this opportunity for interaction, with Liz noting that conversations with children mediated through a separate object are not uncommon in therapeutic situations. Eric spotted that it would be important to include conversation starters in your prototypes – which Ellie suggested could let developers off the hook with bug-fixing!

Next week we have Ben telling us about a grant proposal he’s been working on over the summer. 11-12 in the Interact Lab, and you never know, there may even be more cake…

*(yes, I’m afraid that’s a Wikipedia link. Please suggest better links in the comments!)