The importance of narrative in design for children

Last week as part of the Interaction Design and Children Conference (IDC) in NYC Rebecca Cober and I had a chance to take part in a workshop at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) entitled: Narrative Contexts as a Design Element. The workshop was organized by Peggy Monahan, and Dorothy Bennett, with special guests Jessie Hopkins and David Glauber from Sesame Street Workshop (JOY!). The goal of the workshop was to look at some of the existing exhibits at NYSCI and try to improve them by adding a rich layer of narrative through the addition of simple low-fi prototypes (e.g., using cardboard, felt, string, or just pen and paper). What was really amazing about the experience was that our designs were for live exhibits. Within minutes we got to see how the narrative elements we added, using felt and cardboard, affected the experience of children and their parents in the museum!

We started by observing children interacting with exhibits in the light and optics area of NYSCI. The light and optics area was chosen by the workshop organizers because most of the displays had little or no narrative elements, making them like “blank canvases” for the workshop participants.  Based on what we had just learned concerning narrative elements (see box below), we discussed what could be altered in each display to make it i) more engaging and ii) more likely that children (and their parents) would think and talk about the underlying scientific principles of each display. Once we had a good sense of which display we wanted to tackle we broke into groups and sat down to the hard work of actually constructing the narrative and building the prototypes.

In thinking about the narrative Jessie and David has us focus on four “narrative ingredients”:

1. The Mood

  • It’s achieved through the visual contexts of the interactions, and through sound, atmosphere, music and other sensory cues.
  • It’s a quick and effective means for connecting with the participants on an emotional level

2. The Protagonist

  • Tell the user who they are and why it matters that they are there. Why is their participation in the story critical for it’s outcome?

3. The Relationships

  • They tell us how and why we matter to others, and should involve at least two people (these people can be both real and/or made up people… or animals, robots etc.)

4. Humor

  • Jokes are always good (especially with children), and especially slapstick over clever jokes (it’s about the audience not you!)
    • A critical question that should always be asked is where are the bananas and underpants!

The project we selected to work on was a large (approx. 2 meter by 2 meter) “light wheel” where a single LED bar flashed, sped up or slowed its rotation, and brightened or dimmed depending on the position of three dials on a control board: Frequency, RPM, and Voltage. During the initial observation we noticed that children (and parents alike) tended to walk up to the exhibit, turn the knobs (apparently) randomly for a few seconds and walk away. There was little to no discussion among participants, and their the “experimentation” lacked any sort of methodology to indicate the children were thinking deeply about the concepts.

Exhibit's dials without scaffolds
Exhibit’s dials without scaffolds

While observing the exhibit, we looked at the patterns the LED bar made while spinning and asked ourselves “If this could be something other than a boring box, what could it be?” We wanted something that would not only get the students to engage with the exhibit, but to do so critically and required them to think about how each of the dials affected the shape made by the flashing LED bar. After several brief discussions Rebecca and I realized that at certain points in during the bar’s rotation the lights looked exactly like a cat’s whiskers! We thought that by making the exhibit a challenge (making the cat’s whiskers align with its face), we could get the kids to more critically focus on how each dial affected the pattern and helped them to achieve the goal.

Whiskers Full Shot
Full shot of Friskers in action

Once we had our concept we set about making the design a reality – We had a little over an hour; so using felt, cardboard, string and glue we began to transform the black screen into a black cat! Thinking about the need to build a narrative we wanted to give participants a reason to play with our exhibit, so we gave the cat the name “Friskers” and built a story around the participants needing to help Friskers find his whiskers (by adjusting the knobs) and Rebecca drew up some large signs to explain this.

Rebecca's Narrative for Friskers
Rebecca’s Narrative for Friskers

With the exhibit up and running we sat down to observe children and their parents with the exhibit. We noticed that immediately children were drawn to the exhibit – running over to it to see what it was excited by the large cat– however they didn’t spend a lot of time really trying to “solve” exhibit, they turned the knobs but didn’t seem to focus on what each meant (and neither did the parents). We wanted to figure out why this was, and we realized that the notions of “Frequency, RPM, and Voltage” were simply too abstract for the children to draw connections to in a short period of time (and even many of the parents). In response we created three scaffolding signs to help children make connections between each term and what they did in terms of the lights (image below).

Once we did that the whole experience changed! Children started spending far more time (often minutes) on the exhibit, and actually discussing it with their friends (and parents)! The scaffolds helped the children better experiment and inquire about the science going on with the exhibit, and also helped parents make connections to each of the terms to start to talk with their kids about it more in-depth.

Friskers dials with instructions
Friskers dials with instructions

The end result was a massive shift in the engagement and discussion around the exhibit, to the point where the NYSCI coordinators wanted to keep it up after our trial! We “demoed” it to the rest of the IDC participants later in the week and one attendee spent over 40 minutes playing with Friskers and talking to others about it. Overall it really drove home to us how critical it is to think about the narrative of the educational interventions that you design, the role of carefully designed scaffolds, and the need to iterate based on watching your designs “in the wild”.

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