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Conversation, Children and Chips – Unpicking Child-Computer Interaction

Janet Read is Professor in Child Computer Interaction and is the Director of the Child Computer Interaction (ChiCI) research group. Janet joined UCLan in the late 1990s having previously worked as a Maths teacher in the secondary school sector. She gained her PhD in ‘Handwriting Recognition Technology, Children and the Writing Process’ at UCLan in 2005. Janet is currently Chair of the International IFIP TC13 SIG on Interaction Design and Children, CoChair of the Child Computer Interaction Community at ACM CHI and Editor of the newly inaugurated Elsevier International Journal of Child Computer Interaction.

Janet’s inaugural Professorial lecture was focussed on Human Computer Interaction, which is the study of the ways in which people interact with computer technology; and Child Computer Interaction, a relatively new discipline where the users of the technology are children. Taking examples from recent projects Janet’s talk explored this new domain and presented two key challenges as Child Computer Interaction moves into its next phase. Mike Holmes, Head of Graduate Research School, and Emma Sandon-Hesketh joined Janet in her office in the Computer & Technology Building to find out more.

Janet Read

Can you tell me about your research?

Our research is primarily people centred with an emphasis on delivering research solutions that make a real difference to human situations. In this arena research themes include the development of safe technologies and systems for multiple connected users;

the investigation of organizational and information systems for technology supported human activity; and the study of Human Computer Interaction with an emphasis on away-from-the-desktop technologies. Human computer interaction is the strongest current theme and it is showcased in the work of the internationally known Child Computer Interaction (ChiCI) group which is the largest group of its kind in the world.

Within ChiCI, currently, we are working on two funded projects, one is an RCUK (Research Councils UK) digital economy and energy project within the TEDDI (Tackling Energy Demand through Digital Innovation) theme , the other is an EU project within the LLLP track. The TEDDI project is entitled ‘Taking on the Teenagers’, and we are leading the project which has other partners from the universities of Swansea, Birmingham, and Northumbria and from the Institute of Education, London. The project works directly with teenagers to design technologies that make them much more aware of energy use and consumption. The aim is that teenagers will have an app (application) or device or technology that engages them with the issues around energy usage, to get them talking about it with their peers. It is hoped this approach will modernise their thinking about using energy sensibly, by making energy management "cool". We are about half way through the project and, as a group, we have identified “cool” as a design challenge. We have spent a lot of time trying to understand teenagers and how to design for them, which is novel. There are people looking at designing and marketing products to teenagers, but we are looking at how you design interactive technologies that are perceived as “cool” by teenagers, which is really quite a challenge

So is this about saving energy in the home, or in transport?

It’s primarily about the home, because there, energy consumption is relatively easy to measure and because teenagers spend quite a lot of time in their homes. We are hoping also to look at transport energy cost, and the Institute of Education team are looking at the hidden energy costs associated with different types of consumption behaviour. Our focus at UCLan is on interaction design. An interactive technology for a teenager might be quite different from that for an adult and might have something about it that the adults who made it could no longer understand. For teenagers, technologies might be about creating their own social spaces and designing their own languages. We are trying to design that space, which is quite intriguing and challenging.

So would this be an App that goes on to an iPhone?

It could be an App. Currently we have a set of host platforms, for example a ubiquitous pod, a Facebook application, little devices that link up to an Android powered device. It’s likely that what we end up with will be something that will work on a screen, whether on a mobile phone or computer.

It may also work on some kind of dedicated device in the home.

We have experimented with organic user interfaces. These are user interfaces that use the physical shape and position of a device to control the software. These interfaces may have shapes and forms which differ from flat screens. They may change shape with physical manipulation. It is unlikely we will get to implement organic designs in the teenagers project. However it is an area where future interactivity may lie. Organic user interfaces are really exciting; we have designed organic interfaces with teenagers using Playdoh and Slime. In these studies we had them thinking about what interfaces you could create with these strange materials.

So that’s your TEDDI project. What other activities are you currently involved in?

Underlying the TEDDI themed project is the whole ethos of our group, which is about going out and designing with children and teenagers. We never design for children in the ChiCI group without them being involved.

A recent project that we have just completed was the FP7 (European Commission) UMSIC (Usability in Music for Social Inclusion of Children) project with partners in Finland, Switzerland, the UK and Greece. The project developed and used up-to-date technology in a coordinated, intelligent and accessible way to support social inclusion. Whilst intended for all children, UMSIC specifically supported, through music, those children who were at increased risk of being marginalized. This included children with moderate learning disabilities, and those who were immigrants with no or limited host country language skills. We were developing mobile technologies for children to use in classrooms, hence the involvement of Nokia. Until this project, no work had been done to develop child-sensitive learning environments for musical creativity and the social sharing of music. Children were shown to have benefited from the targeted learning material in multiple ways by learning independently the usage of musical software required to enter musical online communities. The support for newly immigrant children was actually a novel aspect of the UMSIC project. Previously immigrant families traditionally moved to cities where they might have useful support networks. Now, for work reasons, migration is often into country areas, which presents a different set of problems. Our job was to work directly with the children and to design and evaluate the technology with them as part of the process.

The EU project we have at the moment is about “serious games”. We have joined a pan-European network, SEGAN (Serious Games Network) and are currently looking at serious games on energy use to tie in with the TEDDI project but are also looking at serious games in education and on interactive surfaces.

What is a serious game?

A serious game is a game that is designed for learning. Initially these were not computerised, they were paper based and had been used a lot in the military, and hospital scenarios. The games are mainly developed for training, for example in disaster emergency training, you play the game and you learn about disaster emergency training. Serious games have become fashionable, although I am not sure that that is a good thing. Lots of people are now looking at the tension between game playing and learning. If a game becomes too enticing, does the learning still take place, or, if the learning is too embedded, do you lose the game play? For children, the serious game space is much less about learning maths, but more about topics such as building confidence or learning how to deal with conflict. We have been working on these for several years, creating games for psychological purposes, e.g. games for disturbed teenagers and for young offenders.

By the sound of it, quite a bit of what you do must be connected to Psychology?

Yes. Child Computer Interaction is a branch of Human Computer Interaction, which is itself deeply rooted in Psychology whilst also being about Software Engineering. There is also a bit of Sociology, and quite a lot of Design in there as well. It is a very big field.

What else are you doing at the moment?

We do a lot on security, privacy and trust for both children and teenagers, looking at password design, and looking at how to make interfaces that work for children with passwords, and that’s a really interesting topic. We are looking at children’s perceptions of the internet and cloud computing, and how you then design interfaces that fit their view of these things, which is entirely different to ours. We adults have been brought up in a physical data space where data is associated with physical things. But our children are not in that same space and have a completely different view, especially a different view of privacy and security. Things that we think convey trust are not the same things that they think convey trust. We have done studies on their perceptions, with the goal of designing better products and applications in order to ensure that the right understanding, and the right information is presented to children.