Paper Review: Participatory design with children with autism

This is a summary and reflection about the paper: Participatory design with children with autism (L Millen, S V G Cobb, H Patel) from VIRART, Human Factors Research Group, University of Nottingham.


In the context of education there has been some discussion concerning the role that children can take to inform design of instructional technology. Some researchers have moved from concentrating solely on children’s involvement as design partners in the development of technology, to their role as “Experience Design Partners”.

The involvement of end-users directly in the design process can be useful to inform adequate design however, this process can be difficult, particularly when end-users have special needs that affect their ability to communicate their views. Individuals with Autism are rarely involved in educational software development and this might be one of the reasons why most of the products are inadequate.

This paper present methods used for participatory design with typically developing children and adaptations to these methods for children with autism spectrum conditions.

Participatory Design with Children

The activity Block Party involves the children building a tower together out of blocks in the virtual environment. This first study was performed with typically developing children from a mainstream primary school (2x10 y/o and 4x11 y/o). Kids were asked to perform three different Design Game Activities:

  1. Tell us about the computer games you use and what you like about them.

  2. Think about the computer games that you play at school and at home. What makes a good game?

  3. In pairs, design a virtual game for a 12 y/o child who find it difficult to interact with others.

In summary the activities were fairly open-ended and students often had to be reminded of the overall aim of the computer game as their imagination took them in many directions. In some areas the activity was not constrained enough to gain information that could be directly fed back into concept elaboration.

Adaptation of participatory design methods for children with ASC.

Understanding User Needs: Children with autism has a series of cognitive considerations.

  • Limited language.

  • Poor imagination skills.

  • Rigidity of thought process.

  • “Theory of mind” When it is impossible to imagine another person’s mental state.

  • Learning difficulties, the level of ability and understanding may not be sufficient.

Adaptation of Method:

The freedom given to the typically developing students meant that they often forgot that the purpose of the game should be to encourage children to make friends. The task should be more constrained and with a structured environment in order to encourage students with autism to participate.

Prototype review with Autism:

A review session was carried out with five students (16 and 17 years old) with autism spectrum during the students weekly class by their teacher. It was decided that the review session must be carried out as a group activity and would only focus on the initial training stage of the activity.

A feedback sheet was given to the students containing screenshots from various stages of Block Party interaction. The students had to select between three different options:

  • Like

  • Dislike

  • Not Sure

The group played the training program by taking turns. The students were encouraged to give positive and negative feedback, knowing that there is no right or wrong answer. All of the students engaged very well with the activity.

Observations and outcomes:

Overall the method was very successful, sufficiently structured and supported by the teacher to meet the needs of students with Autism. One student struggled with a slight inconsistency between the screenshot on the worksheet and the actual view that the program had been paused at. The session did highlight the fact that children with autism often pick up on very small inconsistencies that could cause problems. with the help and support from an experienced teacher these occurrences can be effectively managed.

Scenario Design with Autism:

Although it is imperative that researchers approach these sessions organized and well prepared, there should always be an awareness that the method may need to change at short notice. The abilities of children with Autism varies a vast amount and therefore the method presented here may not be ability appropriate. It is important to always discuss and adapt plans with school contact prior to the visit.

Observations and outcomes:

The scenario design method was trialled with three students with autism aged 13 and 14 years over the course of two hours. The activity was supposed to last only one hour however the students were enjoying the activity and the supervising teacher asked if they could continue.

Initially, discussion was a little hard to generate but when presented with the drawing tasks the students became much more involved. One student in particular who is usually reluctant to engage in conversations was voicing extremely interesting ideas.

The use of personas had mixed results. When informed that the group would be designing the game for this fictional children kids reacted with: “But Why? They’re just on paper” and “ Are we going to meet them?”. The use of this tool needs further consideration.

The decision space for the student was still too vast and relied heavily on the student’s imagination. With the students struggling the researcher decided to take a break and drew sketches as an example. There was still reluctance to put pen to paper. The researcher offered to start the drawing and then the students suddenly started to take over the drawing. The students were motivated by their own drawings and this created a domino-like effect of ideas.


Involving users through the technology design process is important and useful. Achieving the involvement of children with autism requires careful consideration. Children with autism should not be excluded from the design process. Not only is this process beneficial for us as design team but it is also an important opportunity for the children where they are encouraged to voice their opinions.

Lo-Fi Toy Prototype Feedback

For the Lo-Fi Toy Prototype ( originally posted by Lydia ) we were asked to present in class and document the feedback received during the demonstration. The plan was originally to test with kids however we did the test with the host professor Alex, who came to our class and reviewed our ideas.

Team members: Lydia, Veronica, Arnab.

Our toy consists on a sound collector companion that the kid can take around in order to collect sounds and interact with the visualizations that happen in the belly, that are going to be affected by the kind of sounds that are being collected. The main purpose of the user testing was to understand if kids are interested in collecting an input (sound in this case) and having the toy displaying it in a different output (visuals/ colors).

Lo-Fi Toy Prototype

We had to explain all of our thought process, starting by the ideation and also how our fabrication and coding processes affected the final result of the prototype. The next step was to make a demo with the toy functionalities. Our hypothesis was that the users were going to hold the toy and walk around collecting different sounds, however we realized that they stayed in only one place, probably because the toy was not intuitive enough about the change in the visualization according to the pitch of the sound.

This was our first and very valuable observation because it did’t depend on what users told us, but instead in what we observed during the testing period. The users started making weird sound and clapping to the toy to try to identify what was causing the change in the patterns and colors. We immediately noticed that the users in the class knew about programming so they were probably trying to identify which sound parameters we used to map the output in the visualization.

Having noticed that our audience wasn’t going to give us the feedback that we expected from kids, we decided to start asking for more design/interaction focussed feedback. In that moment we started receiving very interesting ideas surrounding our original proposal but augmenting the “storytelling” around the interaction.

We received the very interesting feedback to create a Science Companion that helps the kid to collect temperature, environmental data, rocks, etc. With that data provide the kid with the possibility to do a palette of the collection that can be later used to create different outputs.

Example: The Science companion helps the kid to collect rocks, the kid create a palette of rocks that can be later used in order to create a brand new rock. 

We intend to incorporate some of this feedback, we are still missing the very important factor of testing with kids and understanding if they find this change between input/output by exploring their environment interesting and playful in the same way that we are imagining.

For our next steps, we took a pattern making class in order to remake the toy in a more three-dimensional shape that will look more polished, we also decided to provide the kid with the possibility of using the companion as a Fanny bag, therefore we will have to work on adjustable straps. In the coding and interaction we are planning on exploring more obvious ways to generate the change between the input and the output in order to motivate the kids to move and collect more variety of sounds.

Toy Analysis: Strider Bikes

Strider is a brand of balance bike: a type of learner's bicycle that has no pedals but is instead propelled by the rider pushing their feet along the ground, designed to help young children learn to balance and steer. I decided to analyze this toy because of its flexibility of use, the ability to be used by children of different ages and also the accessibility for children with disabilities.

The toy encourages and teaches kids how to balance so that eventually they could transition to using regular bikes with more security. The use of Strider bikes is also encouraged for kids to play outdoors and do physical activities instead of being trapped inside a house or an apartment playing with video games.


The creator came up with the idea when he wanted to teach his 2 y/o son how to ride a bike and he wasn’t able to do it because the “kids bicycles” in the market didn’t behave in a way that suited the children needs. He then decided to design a more basic balance bicycle that would help little kids how to balance first and then eventually be able to transition to pedal bikes. He describes the concept as follows: "I wanted to really just strip it down to its essence. Two wheels, a seat, and a handlebar. That's it." 
-Ryan McFarland.

Kids playing with Strider bikes

Kids playing with Strider bikes

The advertisement around the Strider balance bike goes beyond just the physical product, they create a fun and engaging activity around the use of the bikes. Strider organizes “Strider Camps” and “Strider Races” across the country and even internationally. As a quick anecdote, when living in Costa Rica I saw a lot of kids engaging in this kind of activities, I was training in a running team and my coach’s daughter (4 y/o at that moment) was starting to use the Striker bike, her dad as an athlete wanted to encourage her to so sports as early as possible so he enrolled her in some competitions to get her started. An interesting interaction about the way that the brand tries to engage kids and parents with their products is by creating camps and competitions, and they use social media to reach out for kids.

In Costa Rica they created a Facebook competition, where the parents uploaded a picture of their kids using the Strider bikes and the one with more likes would win a free enrollment in the Strider Camp, of course I believe that this whole concept is highly monetized, and for the third world scenario where I was living, this might not benefit all the population, however they were giving options such as social media competitions and even scholarships for the kids to get engaged in learning and competing.

The experience that I saw from my coach is that he was able to encourage his daughter to start practicing a competitive sport since a very young age and at the same time engaging family and friends with her early development. The fact that they had to collect likes gave the Strider bike a lot of exposure and probably encouraged other parents to buy the bike for their kids and sign them up for start competing. In the pictures below you can see in the left, Valentina holding hands with Christian her father, who is finishing a marathon and trying to give her the example of regularly exercising, and then in the right is Valentina during one of her multiple Strider competitions in Costa Rica.

Strider Bikes have different products for different age ranges and also they offer products for children with special needs such as Down Syndrome, generating a big range of products that can be used by a large portion of the infant population. The inclusiveness and accessibility of the Strider Bikes is well advertised throw their media channels and they make sure to dedicate a special tab in their website for testimonials.

Categorization of Strider products

Categorization of Strider products

The emphasis that is put into the Testimonials section of the website is very interesting because they make sure that as a company (at least try) to create a product that is more accessible and at the same time they use this concept as a way of advertising the product and the values of the company. The changes or modifications in the shape of the bikes are not noticeable at simple sight which for me is a key characteristic of an “accessible” toy, specially because children with special needs can use essentially the same bike as their friends which I believe gives them a sense of independency and acceptance from others. Sometimes when a technology in general tries to be more accessible ends up making very obvious morphologic changes which end up affecting in a very negative way the intention of children to want to interact with it because they are afraid of being pushed away by other kids, therefore I believe Strider bikes is making a good effort for empowering kids with special needs.

Special Needs Testimonials

Special Needs Testimonials

The Strider Education Foundation is another initiative from the brand to be more inclusive with kids who’s parents have low income, which as I mentioned before, it might be a roadblock, specially for the camps and the races. The fact that they give away scholarships and they implement trainings at public schools gives them a broader scope to where their product can be positioned and enjoyed by kids. They also have the possibility within their own website for general users to “Adopt a school” and in that way be able to generate more impact through their products and programs. They also give the user the possibility to adopt and entire District, School or do a general donation.

"Adopt a school" program

"Adopt a school" program

The website also has a separate page for Strider Education, focused in two different emphasis: Parents and Educators. Their focus is on the fact that they first need to learn how to teach their kids specially because the main purpose of Strider is to eventually teach them how to ride regular bicycles and motorcycles, therefore the confidence that is built during the first years of interacting ith a balance bike is fundamental. There is also a factor of fear from parents specially if they have very small kids and they want to introduce them to the concept of the balance bike, this is where the education comes in very handy and it gains importance.

Learning Tools for parents and educators

Learning Tools for parents and educators

In conclusion I believe that the overall concept and use of the Strider Bikes is built with a very good intention that is being appropriately used around he world, I tried to search for different or bad uses of the bike and I didn’t find any shocking result so my assumption is that this is a fairly safe and interactive toy that encourage kids to learn how to balance, compete and have fun with their parents and friends, it also motivates them to go outdoors and stay away from technology and do physical activity, which in my opinion is very important for the early stages of development for children.

Hacking Cozmo: Teaching kids to be kind

For this week’s assignment we had to develop an activity for the Cozmo AI toy. I worked with Arnab in order to create an experience for children that is educational and the same time engaging and fun. We started brainstorming ideas about topics that we wanted to cackle with the interaction . At the end we decided to start working around the subject of teaching kids how to be nice to machines, and therefore how to be kind to people around them (family and friends).

Brainstorm and ideation

Brainstorm and ideation

The second phase was to define a user persona, in this case we decided to work with a kid in a complicated situation: Simon is an only child who is used to have his parents attention, however he is about to have a little sister. His patience and the way he treats people are changing because of the changes that are happening in his family and we would like to create a game that teaches Simon how to be kind to people around him.

We defined his goals, frustrations and also his personality and what motivates him, all of this in order to understand the state of mind and the needs that we wanted to to cover with the game.

As designers we also defined our main goals to achieve for the kids: To incentive positive social relationships and to balance the need to attain power and control.

User persona

User persona

After defining the user and the activity it was time to frame the interaction and decide which functionalities from Cozmo to use in order to generate the impact that we originally designed. We started with a very basic idea of analyzing the sentiment in the way that kids requested Cozmo to do certain actions. If the sentiment was kind then Cozmo would start doing it but if he detected that the sentiment was mad or rude, then he wouldn’t do the interaction and he would instead teach them how to ask for it in a kinder way. The kids then would have another opportunity to try and make the action if they learned the lesson of asking kindly.

The original idea was to use the sentiment detection however as we started prototyping we couldn’t find that building block in the Cognimates extension and therefore we decided to check if the kid typed the word “Please” as a way of checking if the sentiment was kind or not.

Logic and Information Architecture

Logic and Information Architecture

The next phase was to start building the logic in Cognimates. We found it to be very satisfying and easy to use (once we were able to install and connect the app, connect to the phone and the computer, install the SDK through terminal and then install the Cognimates extension). We inmediatly realized that the setup process took way longer than what we expected and this is a highly technical process that woudn’t allow a lot of parents to do it for their kids to start building their own games with Cognimates.

We started the program by making Cozmo ask for the kid’s name and then say Hello, followed by the kid’s name. The next block was to tell the kid that he could pick up a block if the kid asked nicely. Then we stablished an “If” “else” condition in order to check if the response included the word “Please”.

Something interesting happened during the process, we noticed that the recognition of the word was case sensitive which took us a while to debug, and once we understood what was happening we could continue building the program. For future iterations we would have to consider giving more options to check if the word “Please” was written (even if the case was different or if it was maybe misspelled?).

Programming in Cognimates

Programming in Cognimates

Prototyping and Testing

Prototyping and Testing

The final result is an interaction where Cozmo greets the kid after asking for their name and then teaches them how to ask for things in a kind and respectful way. We believe that this kind of approaches can be of a very good use for personas like Simon, who are going throw changes in their families and need to learn how to continue being kind, share their toys and his parents attention and also how to be patient toward technology and therefore to people.

An evocative Object from my childhood

I want to start by explaining a little bit my background. I grew up in Costa Rica in a very small town called Grecia. My parents own a bakery and I have one older brother. I had a very peaceful and happy childhood and I am very grateful for the way that my parents raced me, however I would like to point out some characteristics that are important for explaining the “object” that I have chosen.

Growing up in a Latin American country meant that the gender roles where extremely marked, and specially in my house since we are all Catholics and my parents believe in separating the roles of women and men. I remember that I used to play with dolls and Barbies a lot and I used to love it. My brother used to have a lot of fun toys (he still has his room full with actions figures, comics and board games) and I liked playing with him with little cars and doing races, I don’t remember however that my parents ever encouraged me to play with my brother’s toys.

Read More