Design research with young people takes courage, creativity and plenty of pizza. Being prepared, authentic and sensitive to the teenage brain is essential when you’re running a research workshop. ReachOut and Redrollers have collaborated over the past seven years on projects that explore young people’s everyday lives and their mental health and wellbeing. Here are a few lessons (and tools) we’ve gleaned from our successes and failures along the way.

1. Make young people feel safe and supported (tip: this starts before you meet).

Giving them some pre-work can help them feel at ease and give them a chance to think about some content in their own time. Setting up the day is important too. We acknowledge that talking about tough issues can make them upset and that it’s okay to take some time out. We also give them a chance to pause and reflect on what they might be willing to share – or not share – during the session.

[TOOL] Activities through the day help create a safe environment. One method that allows young people to share without publicly owning their output is a word race. Two teams are placed at one end of the room, each with a sheet of butcher’s paper at the other end. Give everyone a heap of sticky notes, pose a question, then challenge them to race to see which group comes up with the most ideas. The catch? Only one idea per post-it is allowed, and one person at a time per team is to run one sticky note at a time to the butcher’s paper. You’ll end up with heaps of ideas and a bunch of energised and engaged participants.

2. Match your research methods to the teenage brain.

There can be a stark difference between young people in early adolescence and their older peers (we work with 14–25-year-olds, so there’s a huge variation).

We’ve learnt that not only do we need to consider developmental factors when designing products – we need to consider where our research participants are, developmentally, when designing our research, and plan our activities with that in mind.

[TOOL] Small-group activities in a workshop can be tough as young people are only developing their conflict resolution and negotiation skills. If there’s disagreement in an activity then it can be hard for them to work through it. We start our workshops with whole-group and individual warm-up activities so we can get a sense of the personalities and group dynamics so we can construct groups that work well together.

3. Develop a shared language.

Wellbeing, tough times, mental health and help-seeking are complex concepts, so it’s worth unpacking them at the outset of a workshop to get everyone on the same page. We do this early on in a research session so we can incorporate the words into the remaining activities.

[TOOL] Here’s one way you can facilitate this. Get participants to take/bring five photos to the workshop that represent what ‘wellbeing’ (or any concept) means to them. As a warm-up, participants present their images to the group, explaining why they chose them and what they say about wellbeing. Then, participants write down all the words they associate with wellbeing, and write their top three on sticky notes. Everyone sticks theirs on the wall and collaboratively groups them into themes. During a brief facilitated discussion, come up with the categories of wellbeing they’ve collectively identified and use them as a shared definition throughout the workshop.

4. Acknowledge their expertise.

Another strategy to make young people feel safe and comfortable to share their experiences is to acknowledge their expertise. That means taking time to emphasise how important their individual and varied experiences are, and that they each have different ways of looking at a topic, interpreting an idea, or approaching a situation.

[TOOL] Split your workshop session into two workshops, say one week apart. Pull together key themes and initial responses after the first workshop, and then present them back at the second workshop. Then ask whether you’ve understood the key issues and refine them. This is your opportunity to present back to your experts and receive critique, to make sure you heard them right.

5. Overcome the awkward.

There are few things more uncomfortable than a group of teenagers who don’t know each other. Especially when they’re in a strange environment surrounded by curious adults. So go out of your way to cover the basics: everyday food they know how to approach, like pizza, fruit, chips and lollies. Don’t put on a cheese board. Do get them to choose the music (ask someone to put their hand up to be in charge).

[TOOL] Warm up activities and icebreaker questions are vital. Don’t underestimate the power of simple facts. For a recent project we asked, ‘What time did you go to sleep last night and what did you have for dinner?’ The answers and explanations were revealing and generated some laughs. You can also try simple, divisive questions like, ‘If you could only have one, would you have: Facebook or Instagram? Android or iPhone? Pasta or pizza? Why?’

6. Demonstrate how their contribution will impact the end result.

Young people will feel more comfortable with the process if they have a sense of where it’s going. So build a sense of progress into the design of your research experience – that means activities that build on each other, where participants define the reference points for remaining conversations.

[TOOL] When developing ReachOut NextStep we ran a workshop where young people created an entire user journey across the day. We started broad with their own preferences and criteria for success for familiar websites, apps and games. Then we moved into personas (a fantastic focusing tool), and went onto map how the persona might go about seeking help. Finally, participants planned the ideal online journey for one of the personas. When we reflected on the course of the day, which was pasted on the walls around the room, everyone was stunned and couldn’t quite believe what they’d achieved. They showed a great sense of pride and progress, and we finished by showing them what we’d do with their work after the workshop.

7. Show an immediate impact.

We’re starting to build in ways to have an immediate short- and long-term impact on our research participants’ lives as a result of taking part in our research. That means acknowledging individual talents, and group knowledge and expertise. Plus, the process of doing research helps young people see themselves and the topic in new ways.

[TOOL] Don’t focus your research experience too specifically on your product. Instead, focus on your participants’ lives so they can discover their understanding of a subject, allowing their knowledge to bubble up out of the day’s interactions. To do this, build in questions and activities that give young people a chance to express their goals, visualise what they’re hoping to achieve, or identify moments when they overcame a challenge or struggle. Try to keep in mind all these little ways you can transform young people’s lives through the process of engaging in research, and you’re sure to nail it.

This article is based on a presentation given by Mariesa Nicholas, ReachOut’s Director of Research, and Natalie Rowland, Founder and Principal of Redrollers Research, at the Design Research Conference held in Melbourne on 9 March 2017. Check out the UX Australia archive for their slides and audio from the presentation.

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