Designing for Kids: A Youth-Centered Perspective for Tracking Health Data

March 29, 2023

Today, a wealth of personal, health-related data is readily available to us. “The use of wearable technology has more than tripled in the last four years,” reports Insider Intelligence, “in accordance with consumers’ increased interest in monitoring their own health and vital signs.” This intersection of technology and health has long been of interest to Yunan Chen, associate professor of informatics in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). However, she is shifting her attention a bit with her latest research. “I’ve been working on health tracking for over a decade,” she says. “The majority of research has focused on the adult population, but not much on children.”

With a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, “Designing Health Data-Tracking Technologies for Children,” Chen is documenting the need for a more youth-centered perspective. As part of this study, she is exploring technology design that can better accommodate children’s needs in different health contexts and during various developmental stages, considering the complex issues of age-appropriate content and agency.

Taking a Youth-Centered Approach
“Our preliminary studies suggested that not much work has been done with children,” says Chen. “We realized that a lot of the technologies designed to look like they’re for children are really just adult versions of the tracker with cartoons and cool graphics.” She further explains that most devices are designed for wellness, not for those with a medical condition, and they gather and present data to accommodate the parents, not the children.

“We’ve done some preliminary work with children [and] we asked them what it means to track around 5,000 steps, and many have no idea what 5,000 means and how to interpret the tracked data,” says Chen.

A large part of the work will involve identifying what data to present and how, when and where to present it. “How do we make sure this technology presents the data in a meaningful way to both children and the parents, personalized for their health context?” This involves giving children agency in tracking what is important to them to increase engagement and communication. “In our previous research, we have found that most children don’t have access to their own data,” says Chen. “Instead, they have to check their parent’s phone, so the technology isn’t really designed to help children understand and learn from their health data.”

Understanding Children’s Needs
The first phase of the grant is an interview study. Chen is currently conducting interviews to better understand children’s data needs and data literacy. She is also working with parents and healthcare providers to identify their data needs and ways of interacting and engaging with the children’s data.

“For the current stage, we’re exploring how children and their parents manage and collect their data in a natural scenario,” she says, “looking at whether they collect such data and what challenges they have encountered with data interpretation.”

She is looking, in particular, at two different age groups (younger children, age 7–11, and those age 12–18) and three health contexts (a healthy population; children with a chronic illness — asthma, in this case; and children with rare diseases). She explains most devices are focused on wellness in healthy populations. “Are they running enough? Are they outside enough? Are they drinking enough water and sleeping enough? That’s a different story from children who have some kind of chronic illness,” says Chen. “But right now, [the devices are] not designed to help children with chronic illnesses track differently from the wellness population.”

Designing for Kids
The second phase of the work will involve a co-design study. “I’m going to ask kids to envision the design,” says Chen. The younger group will be asked to explore options by creative means such as drawing or crafting. “We are unclear of the health data literacy of this age group, and whether they prefer to represent their data using a smiling and sad face, or with a number of stars, etc. We need to understand what works for them and how to design technologies to fit with their levels of health data literacy.”

The older kids will be asked to do a story completion study, imagining their technology use and relationship with the data in the context of managing their health and collaborating with people in their ecosystem of care. “We need to figure out how to design the technology to accommodate the parents’ and children’s needs as they grow, moving from a more parent-dominated approach when they’re younger to a more child-centered approach as they get older,” says Chen.

Soliciting Real-World Feedback
The final phase of the grant will involve designing and deploying a prototype, examining stakeholders’ in situ experiences and gathering feedback. “I don’t really know what that will look like,” admits Chen, noting it will depend on insights gained from the co-design study. “It’s really open at this stage!”

Shani Murray