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Designing for and with developmentally diverse children

Peter Börjesson is a PhD student in interaction design at the Department of Applied IT and part of the research groups IDAC and Mobile Touch. Peter’s research is focused on how information technology can be used to support disabled children and also investigating how the children can be part of the design process.
 Peter Börjesson

There is a big need for applications that are adjusted to these children’s needs! Today they are often using existing applications, which are not always optimal.– Children in special education all have different needs and qualifications, but something they usually have in common is the need of developing their social and emotional skills – to interact with each other. We are in the beginning of a project with the goal to create interactive tools together with the children, and we hope these tools are going to meet the children’s specific needs.

The project Touch AT! started in 2014 and has two main goals: to develop applications for social and emotional development and to examine how children can be part of the design process. Members of the project are Peter Börjesson, Wolmet Barendregt, Olof Torgersson, and Eva Eriksson. The research method is participatory design, in which observations and design workshops are used together with a literature review of how children with cognitive disabilities are involved in different parts of the design process.

Great response from the schools

The participatory observations take place twice a week when Peter is visiting schools in Gothenburg and Borås in Sweden. During spring and autumn the visits will turn into design activities and the response has been great so far.

– I have felt very welcome! The children are all different and everyone has their own pace. We have good contact and sometimes I join them during the breaks. The children in the school situated in Gothenburg are between ten and eleven years old and in Borås we are at a secondary school, but we are not that interested in age, our main interest is the capability of every child.

– Sometimes teachers contact us, they want to know more and ask if there is anything they can do. A good collaboration with the parents and teachers is important, since they are the ones that know the children. For example, they know on what level a text should be, to work well for their children. We don’t have that knowledge in the same way.

Applications for social and emotional training

During spring 2015 the first design of an application for social and emotional practice will be created together with the children. During autumn another design proposal will be developed and later on one or two more applications will be implemented.

– The application is not based on a concrete idea – it will rather emerge from interactions and observations in the schools we are visiting. The idea of the application's design should be based on the children's reality.

– The children are generally used to technology and there is predictability in the new technology that appeals children with, for example autism. Children find it easier to use touch technology than to handle a mouse for example.

New focus

– There is a big need for applications that are adjusted to these children’s needs! Today they are often using existing applications, which is not always optimal. One reason for this is because the existing applications focus on cognitive abilities and not as much on social and emotional development.

– In earlier studies where children have been involved in the design process, the researchers have mainly been focusing on autism and what you called “high functioning” children who have rather good social and emotional abilities. This could be because it has been perceived as more difficult to gain access to the group of children with lower social and emotional abilities – and to understand their needs. Something we don’t want to do is to focus on specific children or diagnoses, but to work with the children as a group, where everyone will be able to contribute and be involved.

Peter also says that there is a need for new concepts around children in special education – and his research team is now working to find a unifying term for children with cognitive disabilities.

– Now we have approached a term that might be developed further; "Developmental diversity" where we have shifted the focus from labeling individuals as different and instead highlight the big diversity that exists among us. A term frequently encountered in the research area is "special needs". This term can however be very problematic to use because it can include children who, for example, are blind or have other physical disabilities.

Cognitive science and psychology

Peter Börjesson’s academic career started with the bachelor's programme in computer science at University of Gothenburg.

– The programme allowed students to choose courses quite freely as long as 50 % of the courses were related to computer science. I soon realised that I was more interested in the human behind the computer and also in the interactions between them. So I choose to study cognitive science and psychology as elective courses.

Peter's interest in cognitive science and human-computer interaction led to the master's programme i interaction design at the Department of Applied IT in 2011.

– If I had not applied to the master's programme I would probably have been working as a programmer today, and most likely with interfaces with a focus on interaction between humans and technology!

Before Peter started as a PhD student he was working as a teacher in courses like "Graphical interfaces".

Open access

The research is characterised by an open access culture, where the results will be available for everyone and distributed in different channels.

– As an example we will use the research results in at least one course at the master's programme in interaction design and we will also create guidelines for developing applications for children with cognitive disabilities – in what way has not yet been decided.

The biggest challenge in the project is to be able to generaliize, according to Peter – to make it work in different schools and groups of children. The level of success depends on how the group of children is composed and also on the teachers’ interest.

– I would like to continue my work in this area in some way or another. There is a lot to be done and it is both fun and rewarding!


Text & photo: Anna Ohlsson

Page Manager: Catharina Jerkbrant|Last update: 9/4/2015
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