Chapter 6:    Improving the quality of interaction

6.1    Introduction

The chapter is a reflection on the research question in the form of a practical method of improving the quality of computer interface interaction for young children. The results of the investigation into

What are the design features required to improve the quality of computer interface interaction for 5 to 7-year-old children?

were formulated as a selection of intellectual tools tentatively called the total impact assessment toolbox.The total impact assessment toolbox was a practical, day to day method, not a theoretical model, for discussing, planning, and developing a new multimedia product with a coherence that offers a greater depth of engagement. The toolbox metaphor incorporated the briefing tool, the educational task tool, the visual task tool, the manipulation task tool, the classroom context tool, and the teachers’ control panel tool. The tools in the toolbox embody the new holistic paradigm. After describing the toolbox, the underlying concepts and principles were briefly summarised confirming the contributions to the toolbox from the literature review (Section 3.2: IT in primary education and Section 3.3: Interface design) and the main study (Section 5.6: The analysis of the evidence).

6.2     The total impact assessment toolbox

The wide ranging sources in the literature research in chapter 3 and the results from the Research Tool converge around one central principle: the need for practitioners to be alert to the interrelationship of physical and physiological factors between children and computers in classroom environments that can be used to enhance the quality of engagement. The total impact assessment toolbox is a practical guide for producers and developers for everyday use in the busy workplace. It is not just meant to be a simplified summary of the research. The terminology is also intended to be child-like. The effect is to give the whole design process as far as possible a child-centred approach with the specific purpose of maintaining the focus on the client.

The first advantage of the tools in the toolbox is chiefly in their child-centred approach but also their brevity, pages of systems-style analyses are avoided. The second advantage is that the tools focus on key elements of the product.

The briefing tool

A brief is a common feature of any job to be tackled effectively. In the first draft of the brief, the conventional planning methods of educational product design, such as the factual content of what has to be learned, the age of users, and the National Curriculum content, will be prepared in ways which are appropriate and familiar. In addition the conventional plan should include two important elements:

  • The product must be trailed with children early in the production process to identify basic errors in interface design.
  • The teacher should have a method of ensuring comprehensive control over aspects of configuring the product for classroom use.

However, using the particular language of the briefing tool, the first draft was turned into a language that focussed the software development team to the needs of the 5 to 7-year-old child. A series of child-centred questions were proposed. These are listed in Table 6.1 below; ‘you’ refers to the designer/educationalist, ‘me’ and ‘I’ refer to the child end-user of the software being developed.

The briefing tool

  • What is the single most important message you are trying to tell me?
  • What other things are you trying to tell me about?
  • Can I complete what you are asking me to do in a normal classroom session?
  • Can I understand the voice instructions?
  • Can I move things around the screen?
  • Is the mouse difficult to use?
  • Is the next task a bit different? (Are tasks progressively challenging?)
  • Is it enjoyable and fun to use?
  • Are there secret things to discover?
  • Can I go inside places and things? (Will children benefit from using a 3-D interface?)

Table 6.1: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: questions that assist the briefing process.

It was suggested that a similar child-centred approach could also be employed in the next three sections by using the appropriate level of language – of a child – to the product being designed. In this way the focus of the appropriate level of complexity may be more easily achieved.

1:   The educational task tool

The educational task tool in Table 6.2 was not intended to test whether children were aware of their own learning, but was presented as a self-questioning didactic tool – familiar to teachers to be critically aware of their actions – that should also be used by practitioners to ask questions which might start the design team on a comprehensive process of sensitisation of their own preconceptions of the educational value and clarity of the instructions in the product. ‘This’ refers to an opening screen image, ‘I’ refers to the software user.


The educational task tool

  • Opening screen: ‘This looks exciting’, What shall I do now?’, ‘Is it fun doing this?’
  • Audio instructions: ‘What is Mr/Mrs computer asking me to do?’
  • Text instructions: ‘Can I read those words out aloud now?’
  • Manipulation: ‘Moving those things around could help me learn more?’
  • 3-D screen design: ‘Can I look down on information in ‘rooms’ so I can search for information and find my way round more easily?’
  • Order of tasks: ‘Is the next task more challenging that the last?’

Table 6.2: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: questions that assist educational value and clarity of instruction.

Software designers should talk to the screen in the first person, putting themselves in the position of the child user. This method, apparently fanciful was a serious attempt to follow Piagetian principles. Piaget identifies ‘talk and action’ as a key element of learning through activity – children give the object that moves the attribute of ‘being alive’ (Turkle, 1984). Evidence from testing the Research Tool confirmed children do talk to the computer while they work. The method encourages adult designers to be aware of user’s perceptions.

2:    The visual task tool

The visual task tool in Table 6.3 and associated aspects are grouped around the subject, ‘Is it clear what I have to do just from the pictures on the screen?’ A downward viewpoint and images drawn in perspective have an advantage in ease of recognition. The technique of talking aloud to the screen whilst focussing on the screen visuals is a valuable aid to raising self- awareness of potential problems. ‘I’ refers to a user, ‘you’ refers to images and human figures that are part of the interface, ‘rooms’ refer to the downward viewpoint and images drawn in perspective.

The visual task tool

  • How do I make you work?
  • What are you?
  • Who are you?
  • What can I see is happening?
  • What did I see happen?
  • What does this mean?
  • Can I see where am I?
  • < li> Can I see where have I come from?
  • Can I see where am I going to?
  • Do the rooms help me see where I am going?

Table 6.3: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: questions that assist visual task design.

Using this list should remind the designer that children do actually ask themselves and each other similar questions out aloud. The rhetorical method is often used in adult software manuals and interface design guides, especially the last three navigation questions. However, in the child’s world, children react to these questions immediately and verbally in terms of the visual evidence on the screen. Children do not think in broad conceptual terms about the product. Talking out aloud to the screen may be a way of overcoming this significant difference between designers and users.

3:    The manipulation task tool

The issues surrounding the benefits of children using the mouse to manipulate objects and so improving the quality of engagement and enhancing the learning experience were the focus of this summary in Table 6.4, ‘me’ and ‘I’ refers to the software user.


The manipulation task tool

  •   How easy is it for me to move the…(object assigned to the mouse pointer i.e. beater/stick/grabbing hand) around?
  • What do I find out when I move the mouse?
  • What do I like about using the (tool – beater/stick/hand)?
  • What is it like making the mouse move things round the screen?
  • What are the different things I can do on the screen with the mouse?

Table 6.4: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: questions that assist manipulation task design.

4:   The classroom context tool

The classroom context tool in Table 6.5 communicates the issues discovered in the literature review regarding the positioning of the computer and screen which did not feature in the main study but are suggested to be an essential element embodying the new holistic paradigm.


The classroom context tool

  • Is the computer screen on the table (not on top of the CPU box)?
  • Is the viewer’s eye above the top of the computer screen (when sitting down)?
  • Is the screen at arm’s length away (average dark focus-v-natural resting distance)?
  • Is there room on the table for users to rest their lower arm when using the mouse?
  • Does the screen tilt away from the viewer (vertical screen causes visual stress – 50 degree tilt desirable)?
  • Are children briefed to understand these issues in the accompanying manual?
  • Is the computer screen on the table (not on top of the CPU box)?
  • Is the viewer’s eye above the top of the computer screen (when sitting down)?
  • Is the screen at arm’s length away (average dark focus-v-natural resting distance)?
  • Is there room on the table for users to rest their lower arm when using the mouse?
  • Does the screen tilt away from the viewer (vertical screen causes visual stress – 50 degree tilt desirable)?
  • Are children briefed to understand these issues in the accompanying manual?

Table 6.5: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: questions that assist good ergonomic computer positioning in classrooms.

5:    The teachers’ control panel tool

The teachers’ control panel tool in Table 6.6 concentrated attention on the features and quality of the control panel to help teachers organise the use of the software.

The teachers’ control panel tool

  • What can I, the teacher, do with this control panel to organise my children’s learning experience with a short classroom session?
  • Is the product capable of flexible organisation by me to facilitate progression and differentiation of learning?
  • Can I organise screen activities to make small changes in demands on children’s educational development?
  • Can I present text at different levels of complexity for children with different abilities?
  • Can I control the audio element?

Table 6.6: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: questions that assist the design of teacher’scontrol of the software.


The ‘Rules of Engagement’ checklist

In addition, as a reminder of the quality of engagement theme in the thesis, the researcher proposed a set of Rules of Engagement in Table 6.7 be used as a final checklist – a note metaphor glued inside the lid of the toolbox. It was suggested that the checklist be actually pinned up on the wall above the computer screens of the design team. It was a quick reference list for educational software designers.

The ‘Rules of Engagement’ Checklist  (Put yourself in a child’s shoes and ask what are you asking them to do…?)

  • Do I know what to do?
  • Do I know how to do it?
  • Does my computer tell me what to do if I make a mistake?
  • Can I find my way round?
  • Is it fun (an enjoyable and absorbing activity)?
  • Am I losing a sense of time (through movement in concentrated activity)?
  • Are the mouse movements easy for my small hands?
  • Does this screen let me do slightly different things easily?
  • Does this screen do different things that all add up to an enjoyable task?
  • Can I finish this task by break time?

Table 6.7: Total Impact Assessment Toolbox: a quick reference checklist for educational software designers.

6.2     The contribution from the literature review and main study

In this section the contribution from the evidence in the literature review to the total impact assessment toolbox is summarised.

The teachers’ control panel tool was informed by the critical analysis of IT and ICT development in schools in the 1980s and 1990s which has revealed: the influence of the National Curriculum in information technology, the limitations of educational schemes that introduced ‘hardware first’ into schools, the inadequate staff development and consideration of classroom practicalities, the poor quality research into IT particularly in the early part of the period studied. In general, the result was to confirm the need to pay close attention to the reality of the classroom environment and of classroom practicalities. In particular this was achieved by incorporating a well-organised structure and a control panel interface in the research tool allowing teachers to manage learning experiences effectively. The teachers’ control panel tool in the toolbox was used to assess this aspect of good design.

The evidence from both the literature review and the Research Tool used in the total impact assessment toolbox is summarised in Table 6.8 to indicate the overall approach to improving the quality of computer interface interaction for young children.

The ten features of the Research Tool
The areas of study in the literature review

Currently accepted standards with improvements

1) Clearly defined tasks, but take advantage of vision issues.

3.3.2 Children’s eye function, field of view and vision issues.

2) An easy to use interface, but in a child/computer configuration that resolves ergonomics controversies of desk angle.

3.3.4 The role of ergonomics and human factors.

3) Clear feedback from interface actions, but actions should have a physical/ manipulation component so feedback involves a wider range of senses.

3.3.2 Children’s eye function, field of view and vision issues: Focussing of visual attention, eye movement related to thought and physical experience.

3.3.3 Conventional education theory: The significance of manipulating objects in the learning process.

4) Easy navigationbut take into account advantages of downward perspective viewpoint.

3.3.5 Interface metaphors: The potential role of improving learning using a downward perspective viewpoint.

Higher specification arising from the literature review

5) The value of enjoyable and absorbing educational activities is formally recognised.

3.3.2 Flow theory: Interfaces which combine enjoyment with activity and a deeper form of engagement.

6) Interface activity through manipulation of screen objects that engages users in more concentrated activity.

3.3.2 Flow theory: Pleasure in using one’s body.

3.3.4 The role of ergonomics and human factors:

manipulation‘giving the qualitative feeling that one is directly engaged with the control of objects’.

7) Child friendly computer desks and mouse activities easily achieved by a small child’s hand.

3.3.2 Government initiatives: Negative effect of the commercial ‘hardware-first’ approach.

3.3.2 Children’s eye function, field of view and vision issues: Computer screen configurations not optimised.

8) Interface activities that make small changes in demands on the user.

3.3.2 Flow theory: Environments that vary in difficulty increase both challenge and potential for learning.

9) Activities should have elements of multi-functionality to be absorbing without causing confusion.

3.3.2 Flow theory: Varying levels of difficulty enhances concentration and enjoyment.

10) A teachers’ control panel to manage the organization of children’s use of the software.

Table 6.8: A summary of the relationship between the features in the Research Tool and areas of study in the literature review.

6.4    Summary

The total impact assessment toolbox incorporated the conventional planning methods of educational product design but with a new coherence and in a child-centred style. Combining together intellectual tasks, visual tasks and motor tasks, the toolbox encourages designers to reflect the holistic relationship of children and their computers. Enjoyment and pleasure are integral and justified features. The toolbox allows the combination of these factors to have an allotted organised place. It is possible that these factors may be most effective when the optimum screen configurations can be achieved. The toolbox is proposed as a formal method for improving children’s multimedia products using appropriate, informal language for the age group. Just as in successful traditional media – TV and radio programmes, books and magazine articles – start from ideas ‘written on the back of an envelope’ because the production team understood the process, so these guidelines distil the features that promote success in new media. Success includes learning through a greater depth of engagement. The next chapter is a discussion of the research results, as well as suggestions for further study.