When the future is always present by default

In the past few years more ethical, systemic and future thinking mindsets have gained the attention of the masses, and not only the designers. We have come to acknowledge that our decisions make an impact on the world and taken the responsibility to make a change. 

However, our perspective for considering impacts is often too narrow and the time scale too short. 

When designing for humans, the decisions should be informed by understanding of the emotions, needs, goals and behaviour, as well as the social, cultural and environmental aspects. Only then the products, services, systems and policies can provide better experiences and increase the collective well-being rather than the opposite, right?

Usually our decisions are not aimed to harm. However, we humans are faulty – we have mental heuristics that are prone to multiple cognitive biases such as naive realism, confirmation bias, following the herd, status quo and loss aversion. Often harm is what emerges when the decisions are colored with biased thinking and data, or the incentives and metrics are guiding the behaviour to a wrong direction. Or when we have just ignored the moral values embodied in our work.

In our individualistic culture, the designers among others are educated to focus on the individual, the user and the customer. The stereotypical user is perceived as a healthy adult (and often also male). But the user can be anyone, and they are not alone. The design and business decisions have an impact on the user, but also on the social group of the user. Understanding of the social connections should be interesting also in other aspects than net promoter scores. But what other aspects should be considered? 

For example, what kind of narrowed physical spatial experience and social architecture is formed around a person who uses online services excessively? How does a physically present but mentally unavailable guardian affect children?

Most likely none of the companies who provide the products or services in the digital context did aim to decrease the rate of children’s language development. Still, in Finland, the number of 3 years old children who cannot yet speak well has been growing in the last decade. There is no simple reason for this effect, however, we can question the quality of the interaction that an individual can maintain when their attention is on the next swipe. (Adult relationships have been impacted as well. We must find solutions to stop the infinite scroll and other dark patterns).

Excluding children from our thinking is a systemic bias.

Children are constantly excluded from the business and design decisions, stakeholder lists, target user groups, the design process, and studies.

Finland has repeatedly been celebrated as the happiest country in the World Happiness Report. However, children under 15 have not been included in the survey. In the Children’s World survey Finland was ranked 16th among 12 years olds and in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey Finland was 26th among 11 year olds. In reality, “there is very little link between children’s and adults’ life satisfaction” (UNICEF Innocenti). 

When we exclude children, we cannot learn about the impact of the products and services, nor can we know what kind of experiences we expose children to. For example, none of the internet browsers have been developed for children, and yet, an estimated one in three internet users is a child.  

Digital and online services can provide wonderful opportunities.

But designing for children should not be an afterthought, instead children should be considered as one of the target users and stakeholders — by default.

In 2021, the Committee on the Rights of the Child published the general comment No. 25 which states that Children’s rights apply in the digital environment as well. 

The comment introduces general measures for implementation and four main principles for the digital context:

  1. Non-discrimination
  2. Best interests of the child
  3. Right to life, survival and development
  4. Respect for the views of the child

The best interests of the child should be the primary consideration when you design — anything.

Ensuring children’s rights is the baseline for the child-centered mindset, the foundation for better products, services, processes, policies and systems. But we should not stay on the baseline, we should think, plan and design beyond. 

We are making the future by making changes in social, ecological and financial systems. Our job is to become good ancestors, lengthen the time perspective and redefine good business. A futures-oriented child-centered mindset drives towards a world where the future generations can live and thrive. 

But how to design with a child-centered mindset? For and with children.
Designing for children in practise is quite different from designing for adults. With a few colleagues, we encountered a gap in the online resources related to the ethical child-centered design approach in 2017, and in 2018 the Designing for Children’s Rights Organisation was founded after the first international gathering. One of the main goals for us is to develop and nurture the open source Designing for Children’s Rights Guide which embodies children’s rights into the design process.

Quick 4 steps towards designing for children and respecting their rights

1. Form your ethical guidelines 

Designing for Children’s Rights Guide has 10 design principles that include the children’s rights. Also other ethical and child-centered design resources help to develop the child-centered vision for your product or service. It is beneficial to consider how the principles and guidelines demonstrate themselves in your product or service features and in the design process. 

2. Study the users 

Naturally, children are not just one group, nor do they live the same life as today’s adults did. Children are individuals and childhood changes in time. It is critical to understand both the developmental phases as well as the experiences and environments the children live in today. 

Children have several developmental phases in motor, cognitive, emotional and social development. And the development can be divided roughly into 5 groups based on age: 0-3, 4-6, 7-11, 12-15, and 16-18. In addition to the developmental differences there are a variety of skills, interests, health issues, social issues, disabilities which should be mapped and taken into account. 

To make sure the initial design will answer to the children’s needs it would be valuable to give the children a participative role in the process. 

Usually it is necessary to change the methods based on the developmental stages and user group specific needs. For example, storytelling, crafts, and playing with toys or hand puppets are great methods for exploration studies with smaller children. In contrast, school-aged children can make context mapping with several card sorting and collage methods, and teenagers can often already analyse and visualize their lives and needs more similarly to adults.

3. Map the stakeholders ⁠— Including children

A child-centered mindset acknowledges that children are always part of a social group, such as family, or a group of friends in a daycare or a school, and are accompanied by peers and adults. Child-centered stakeholder maps have different social connections from adults as the emotional closeness is one relevant aspect to understand as well. 

The stakeholder maps help to understand the impact of the design on the social group, also when the target user is an adult.

4. Choose the level of participation and respect children’s views

The type and level of participation can vary depending on the industry and the stage of the project. Children can be involved as informants or partners in concept design and explorative research, or they can join the process also later as users and testers. 

The type of participation varies also depending on the age group. For example, with smaller children the guardians or other familiar adults should be present for maintaining psychological safety. In contrast, for teenagers the presence of a familiar adult may reduce the participation and influence the results.

The ethical and social considerations should influence the session and method design. For example, clear and playful tasks make the session fun and keeps participants focused. But most importantly, ethical participation is mutually beneficial and respectful. 

Last, but not least. If given time and space, children will explore, experiment and play with innate curiosity. 

And so should you.

Jonna Tötterman
Written by Jonna Tötterman

I have had an excellent journey to study and marvel around the human emotions, cognition and behaviour, and how to make the products, services and systems support well-being with design, future and strategic thinking. I aim to continue that adventure and share my learnings by developing tools to empower others. I believe that the world can be better only if we work together, so chat with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.