We were prompted to create a physical object that relates to school safety using the Human-Centered Design process.
Working with two classmates, we designed an interactive AI enabled stuffed animal that could talk through conflicts with preschoolers to improve their emotional safety. Ideally, this educational toy would supplement the teacher’s influence in a busy classroom.
We used a mixed methods approach to user research, including ethnography, a quantitative survey, an in-depth interview, and competitive product research.
We found that though preschoolers enjoyed interacting with our product, they were a bit young to engage in meaningful conversation with it.
This project was created for an Intro to Human Centered Design survey taught by Elin Bjorling, a Senior Research Scientist at UW.
- Within our group, we worked together on all aspects of the project, but each of us oversaw different parts of it.
- I ran the research piece of the project. This included choosing research methods, coordinating with parents on the observation and testing that we did, and summarizing the results for the group.
Read on for details about the project:
In September 2018, I started the Masters program in HCDE, with a focus in User Research. In my first quarter, I explored user research through a variety of techniques, including a quantitative survey, an expert interview, ethnographic research and usability testing.
When my classmates and I started this project, the broad topic of “school safety” was intimidating. So, once we established preschoolers as our target age group, we reached out to parents of preschoolers that we knew to find out what their main safety concerns are.
The main preschool we had access to for our research was largely middle class Seattle families. To capture a more diverse range of preschool populations in our study, we conducted an in-depth expert interview with Bevette Irvis, the Director of Wellspring Family Services. Wellspring specializes in underserved populations who have been affected by homelessness. Our main takeaway from the interview was: emotional safety is a major concern for children, regardless of background. At Wellspring they focus on encouraging children to express their feelings in the moment that conflict arises, to help them work towards positive interactions with others.
In addition to collecting data from those who interact often with preschoolers, we also needed data from the children themselves. Unfortunately, few research methods are practical given their young age. We decided that the best way to gain insight on preschooler interactions would be to conduct an ethnographic study to observe them playing together, taking note of any conflicts that occur as well as the context surrounding them. To capture the preschoolers in their most natural state, we placed a camera in the room where they were playing and watched their interactions remotely.
During our study, sharing was the main cause of conflict between the children, and sharing conflicts happened frequently throughout the playdate. Anecdotally we’ve heard that sharing conflicts can lead to physical harm. However, what we observed was that most of the physical altercations and/or close calls between the toddlers were accidental. Instead, sharing conflicts most often led to emotional, not physical distress.
Our research didn’t end there! We felt a mixed method approach would give us the strongest base for our designs, so we conducted an online survey to add some quantitative data to the mix. It was important that the survey be short and easy to fill out to maximize complete responses. However, we still wanted to give respondents the opportunity to explain their answers, so we used a combination of open and closed questions.
The focus of the survey was to test our hypothesis about sharing being the main cause of emotional harm in preschoolers. Respondents were limited to current parents and/or teachers of preschoolers (defined as age 2.5-4). This was the only demographic / self-identifying information we collected, as we wanted to keep the pool broad.
We were thrilled by the number of responses we got to our survey, but surprised by the results.
- Only one third of parents and teachers were concerned about safety leading to emotional harm.
- 44% of parents were not concerned at all about sharing conflicts leading to any type of harm (physical or emotional).
- More teachers (77%) connected sharing conflicts to harm, but still equated it more to physical than emotional harm.
In other words, our users weren’t very concerned about sharing, but they all agreed that emotional safety was an important concern. We went back to the drawing board, and came up with a new design question to use for iteration (below). Before starting to sketch, we conducted competitor research to find out what was already on the market. We found that most products related to emotional health were targeted to older children.
Based on our research, we felt some type of intervention was needed to manage preschooler conflicts. Since we were focusing on schools, this falls to the teacher. The teacher-student relationship is extremely important, but also difficult to maintain amidst the chaos of the classroom.
We sketched dozens of design ideas to address this need. They ranged from light up timers to manage sharing to role playing cards to teach kids about emotional health. We sketched our ideas separately, then discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each as a team. Then, we selected our three favorite ideas and iterated on them together.
To guide iteration, we developed 5 design principles inspired by our users:
- Focus on Safety: Never sacrifice safety for design. Safety is the highest priority design requirement.
- Consider the Audience: Parents and teachers are important stakeholders in student-facing products. Designs will incorporate their wants and needs.
- Inclusivity over Specificity: Build products that will allow those with unique and sometimes extreme experiences and needs to find useful.
- Focus on the Moment: The moments of interactions between toddlers in the classroom are the most meaningful. We should focus here as much as possible.
- Make it FUN: Overall, preschoolers want to have fun! Products should always be fun in addition to useful.
We ultimately decided to proceed with “Talk-With-Me Teddy” as our prototype because it fit most closely with our design principles. “Talk-With-Me Teddy” is an interactive stuffed toy that communicates directly with the student to help them express their emotions after a conflict when the teacher is not available. This product would replicate the student/teacher relationship and improve emotional safety through sharing feelings.
We tested our lo-fi prototype with 5 preschoolers at a local daycare. We used a permission slip to to notify parents of the project, which you can view here. Before the test, we gave the students a choice between a few different stuffed animals to interact with. We decided to invite them over to speak with the animal, rather than wait for a conflict to arise to test the prototype, since our main goal was to find out if they would interact with the animal at all.
Once the student selected an animal, we used the Wizard of Oz technique to “speak” student through a cell phone that was sitting next to the animal. We used a short script to try to engage the student, specifically to speak about their emotions. We documented the interactions with photos and two cameras set up in the room.
So what did we learn? Students enjoyed selecting the stuffed animal and wanted to speak with multiple toys. While they were initially wary of the stuffed animal toys and their ability to speak, the students did warm up over time. Physical contact was not generally an issue and seemed in many cases to help form trust between the toy and the student.
Unfortunately, we were not able to have meaningful conversations with students. Most responses were one-word answers or less than helpful behavior. When discussions turned towards negative feelings and emotions, students tended to detach from the toy, which made us question its usefulness for managing difficult conflict situations.
Overall, we found that an interactive stuffed animal has potential to engage preschoolers, but it would need much more iterating to draw them in them in the way we were hoping to.
Despite our mixed results on this project, we gained a deep appreciation for the type of research and amount of work that goes into product design and development.