If you’re having problems with a piece of high-tech gear, the cliché is to enlist a child to help fix that troublesome computer or DVR. Funny thing, it’s true – to an extent. But it’s not experience with gadgetry that makes youngsters such worthy assistants. It’s their lack of preconceived ideas about how technology should operate.
Cynthia Kamishlian, a research associate at Bentley’s Design and Usability Center, is out to understand how the younger set behave around technology. And the knowledge may benefit more than children’s learning.
As she puts it: “When you can design to make technology easy for kids, you make it easy for everybody.”
Kamishlian comes to the topic with considerable experience. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science, she spent a decade in high-tech, as a programmer for factory automation, then database design and business analysis. She earned an MBA to expand her expertise.
After a career break for child rearing, she returned to the work force in search of a way to blend IT savvy with her desire to help people improve their lives. “What kind of job is that?” she recalls wondering.
The answer turned out to be “user experience” (UX). Kamishlian enrolled in the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design program at Bentley and graduates in December.
The Crux of UX
The UX field examines how technology and people mesh, with an eye toward making the former not just easy to use, but intuitive.
It should be obvious what a new camera or phone is supposed to do, observes Kamishlian. “You don’t want the technology telling you how to act – you want to make sure the technology folds into how you’re naturally acting. That’s the whole notion of usability.”
Having raised a son and daughter herself, Kamishlian was intrigued by how youngsters approach technology. After all, while adults already have their “mental model” of how things work, children are thought to be a blank slate. She conducted a study of how 11- and 12-year-olds search for information on the Internet.
That small investigation turned up several points of confusion for youngsters, most of which involved evaluating the veracity of the information they found.
“Essentially, I learned that a lot of things need further exploration,” says Kamishlian. “Though the topic should be examined on a broader scale, I believe there’s a great need to help children develop skills in evaluating information that’s online.”
Kamishlian has presented her work at several conferences. She also wrote an article for User Experience, the quarterly magazine of the Usability Professionals’ Association – and accepted an invitation to be guest editor for an issue dedicated to the topic of children and usability.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get many people’s knowledge of children and usability into the hands of other usability professionals who might not otherwise know or think about how children interact with technology,” she says of the issue, which publishes in February 2011.
The lessons have broad value, according to Kamishlian. Approaching usability with children in mind makes high-tech tasks easier for everyone: the elderly, people at lower levels of literacy, adults who are tired and stressed.
In other words, “so easy a child could do it” is not just a cheeky marketing pitch, but a vital call to action.