CUA of the Month – January, 2016

Lisa Maurer
“Kids CoLab team members can design for children who are younger. And not only have they been able to take part in designing what the app will look like, they have actually been able to be co-researchers with us in the usability testing.”
Lisa Maurer

Product Design Research Manager

Empowering Kids with Participatory Design

by Jim Garrett

The influence of UX design has spread to almost everywhere in the world. This month’s Certified Analyst of the Month, Lisa Maurer , shows us an unexpected segment of society involved in UX design and research: kids!

Lisa, who got her CUA certification this past year, is on a mission to involve children in grades K-12 grades in not only the testing and research phase of usability, but also in design. In her role of Product Design Research Manager, she drives the research and innovation for the educational products at Pearson, the world's largest education company with 40,000 employees in more than 70 countries.

Can you tell me about your role at Pearson?

I am part of Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. It is an R&D organization devoted to solving the world’s educational challenges through innovation, thought leadership and research. We support Pearson teams who are working on product development for K-12 students. My role is to primarily support teams who are devoting resources to digital learning and crosses two areas: usability and participatory design.

What is participatory design?

We have conducted usability testing at Pearson with children for years, and we have seen them as either users of our solutions, or testers. We would create a prototype and then bring a child into our usability lab and start testing with them in a testing room. The difference with participatory design is you go beyond just seeing the child as a user, or a tester. They become an informant to the design process, and then ultimately a design partner.

Can you talk about some of the suggestions for design the children have come up with?

I am a former teacher and instructional designer, so I have a real passion for empowering learners to take a part in the solutions that will eventually end up in their classrooms. To give you a little bit of context for what the children have designed, let me tell how the program is set up.

The co-design program that we have at Pearson is called Kids CoLab and it is based on Cooperative inquiry, which is backed by twenty years of research out of the University of Maryland on how to involve children in the design process. We worked directly with the University of Maryland to implement the participatory design process for involving kids from the very beginning. We have a great group of kids who come to our office on a weekly basis. For 90 minutes, they partner with product team members and come up with design ideas. We use a lot of low tech prototypes – open-ended art materials, recyclables, and items to actually build 3D models that would represent aspects of potential learning solutions. We also use techniques where the children transform large chart paper into storyboard or iPad templates to represent screens for an iPad app.

Recently, our group of 4th-8th grade students worked alongside product team members to conceptualize an early literacy mobile app. Because Kids CoLab team members have already learned to read, they can design for children who are younger. And not only have they been able to take part in designing what the app will look like, they have actually been able to be co-researchers with us in the usability testing. It is so amazing – they helped to create a prototype and then actually got to sit on the other side of the glass and observe four year-olds interact with what they had designed and help us debrief to think about changes we might want to make to that prototype.

One other example I would like to share for a recent project, is for a product that is designed to help increase working memory. The children had provided input on video resources intended to educate the child on what working memory is and then also the concept of neuroplasticity. Prior to those videos being released to learners, the kids weighed in on what would be fun about educating a child on working memory.

Who chooses the students?

We took our usability testing database and invited all of the families in the community to come to an open house to see a sample co-design session with the kids. Several families were excited by the potential and joined Kids CoLab.

We are now in year two of the program, and the parents tell us they have seen the benefit for the kids as they are learning how to work in teams, not only with children of other ages, but also adults. Some of the parents have likened this experience to an internship that could really influence the direction of their child’s life. And the kids are seeing their ideas become a part of a product, which is a pretty empowering experience for a nine-year-old. As a parent and former educator, I love to see the kids grow in confidence and learn important real-life skills.

The ultimate beneficiaries of this are the learners who are eventually going to be using these solutions in their classrooms. They are going to be using products that have been co-designed with kids.

Is there anything the students came up with that blew you away?

What I am blown away by is their creativity, how they approach problems without the usual constraints adults impose upon themselves. It’s not only true that we as adults don’t know what it’s like to be a kid in 2016, but we also have imposed so many limitations through processes that create efficiency for us, that we can be boxed in with our thinking. Recently, the Kids CoLab was brainstorming ideas for a game, specifically the ways a character could move through the game to show progress. By removing the typical "adult" constraints, instead of a very linear, programmatic progression, the kids brainstormed exciting and new directions and pathways. The Kids CoLab was also involved in the development of the characters in the game – one of the ideas sketched by the children actually ended up in the character line-up!

Is there anything that you learned from the CUA that you are applying in your work?

What I took from the certification was the importance of early involvement in product design through user centered analysis. After digging into some of those concepts around personas, we actually executed a persona project this year. That was something that I pulled directly from the CUA certification.

Do you have a direction where you want to take the participatory design?

I think showing the ROI of this co-design work so we can see the value to a team that gets these brilliant ideas from kids early on in this process is the next step. If we take a product co-designed by kids and we pit it against a similar product that was not designed by kids, perhaps we can see differences in user motivation, in participation, or in their ability to persist during learning. I think that that ROI piece is the next chapter of this.

Where do you find your passion, your drive in all this?

We have taken a stand for our industry where we position the learner at the center. And what better way to have the learner at the center then to have the learner at the center of your research strategy? This creates the exciting result of empowering these kids to take a part in creating and ideating the solutions that are going to end up in their classrooms someday. It is such a great marriage for all the parties involved.

The parents have remarked about how fulfilling the experience has been for their kids – how they are learning, becoming leaders and improving their ability to take charge and be focused and take initiative. That really excited me that through a program at Pearson, I could actually change kids’ lives in a way that maybe I wasn’t able to as a classroom teacher. That really fires me up.

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to

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