How a Kid's Perspective Improves Design Research
If you’ve never seen a nine-year-old kid grab her own cheeks in overwhelming excitement, here’s how to rectify that: First, have a nine-year-old. Then pull that kid out of school in the middle of the day for a surprise double whammy: not only the chance to do research for a project with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, but the opportunity to conduct that research at Harry Potter World. Hand the kid her suitcase, get in the taxi, and pray those cheeks survive the trip.
In this case, the kid is my daughter, Quinn. As face-squeezingly awesome as this was for her, it was an adventure driven by design. My team’s design researcher didn’t want us merely to observe; she wanted us to feel this place—its buildup, its storytelling, its magic—as a kid feels it. And for that, we needed a Quinn.
But aren’t there already plenty of kids at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Well, yes, one or two. But it's a different experience when it’s your sleeve being tugged. As a designer, you can observe what others are feeling—but you get a richer kind of fuel for design when you feel it for yourself.
IDEO New York has been inviting Quinn to share her opinion, inspiration, and feedback since she was 5 years old. The first time, she helped a team designing an alarm clock to make Mondays less dreadful and more delightful. Initially, the team planned to record her laughter, but they enjoyed her input so much that she was asked back to test materials, prototype concepts, and model for their website. Since then, Quinn has helped lead workshops, taught a class of grad students about gender bias when she was in the second grade, and built a fort of umbrellas in our café.
Quinn has earned such favor in our community that it was suggested (not by me) she be offered an official internship. And so, last autumn, when her school let out for half-day Thursdays, Quinn came to the studio and took up the mantle of IDEO’s Kid-in-Residence: The Quinntern.
Again, it wasn't all fun and games. Designers were asking her for help left and right. Here are four reasons why.
1. Kids don’t know the rules
Our project teams grab Quinn for their brainstorms because she listens to the problem and tries to solve it. She doesn’t think about financial viability or the laws of physics—she just thinks. Eventually, it's our job to add those things back in, but in the divergent phase of a project, she's a superstar.
Although she's prone to insert dinosaurs and robots into her concepts, she cuts to the core of an issue and simplifies the needs behind it in a way that can inspire us to develop a dinosaur-free solution.
2. Kids are buzzword bloodhounds
Einstein long ago reminded us that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. Tapping a kid is the ultimate way to prove this out: If they’re confused by a concept or question, it usually means we have a lot more work to do.
Quinn will call us out on our assumptions—happily and loudly—and she won’t fall for any design jargon or doublespeak. Getting critiqued by a kid keeps you honest.
3. Kids are full of surprises
Kids see the world from a different perspective and value it with different priorities. Having first-hand access to that unique point of view helps jumpstart creativity.
At one 30-person client meeting, we wanted to establish a sense of play from the start, so Quinn ran a silly-face photobooth for us. As lawyers and Wall Street professionals walked in, she had them pose and make the silliest face possible. Many were hesitant to relinquish their dignity, but couldn’t say no to a kid in a sparkly hat. Then they posed for a second picture. And a third. Others were caught off guard when Quinn asked them to stop wagging their tails or to tilt their heads so the light would flatter their antlers. It took them a minute before it clicked: Oh! Kid imagination!
When an adult asks another adult to do something goofy, it can be hard to summon the vulnerability on the spot. But when a kid swoops in, the game changes. Vulnerability and playfulness beget vulnerability and playfulness.
One more, very important reason:
4. Kids are the future of great design
As part of her internship, Quinn created a project to prototype ways to “stop kids from squashing other kids’ creativity.” She interviewed members of our community about their experiences, hosted a lunchtime brainstorm for the entire studio, and designed exercises with her teacher to help kids be who they are instead of changing who they are to fit in.
Showing a kid that you value their insight arms them with the tools to value themselves. Quinn is at an age where the sphere of creative confidence begins to collapse under the pressures to conform. When you ask a class of second graders, “Who’s an artist? Who’s a dancer?” you get a sea of waving hands. Ask a fourth-grade class and you get a field of crickets.
For Quinn, IDEO has functioned as a force field against flagging creative confidence. Being our Quinntern has empowered her to push back against conformity and make room to be herself. She gets feedback from adults who aren’t her parents or teachers, but who value her creativity, appreciate her point of view, and model what a creative life can look like. I don’t know how long it will last (the teen years are around the corner, after all), but for now, it’s lovely to see her creative bravery continue to flourish.
And, like usual, it was a huge help at Harry Potter World. Quinn and I arrived on the second day of research. On the first day, my teammates had explored the park, enjoyed the rides, watched the crowds, and eaten way too much ice cream. We all expected day two with Quinn to be an encore presentation, with the added benefit of a nine-year-old’s real-time annotation. But after the first ride—after seeing the place through Quinn’s excitement, impatience, and joy, after experiencing the distance of the walk and the length of the wait from her perspective—the team felt how time and space warp when you’re in the orbit of a child.
Our design researcher leaned over to me and whispered, “This is a completely different place with her here.” I had to agree.