Maarten Van Mechelen, PhD in the Arts

Giving those who are destined to use a product or service a critical role in its design is a core tenet of the Participatory Design (PD) tradition. PD is characterized by a process of reciprocal learning, co-realization, and the sharing of decision-making power among relevant stakeholders in the design process, including envisioned users. PD practices often incorporate generative techniques, such as co-design, which enable participants to externalize and embody their thoughts and ideas by the act of making artifacts.

In the Child Computer Interaction (CCI) community, children are often involved passively in the design of technology (e.g. as testers). Through the growing use of PD practices, children have become active contributors to the design process, co-determining the direction and the final design outcome. However, two particular issues are insufficiently addressed in the CCI community.

The first issue relates to challenging group dynamics that limit children’s participation in design and hamper their creative abilities. If this problem is addressed at all, CCI researchers tend to focus on remediating asymmetrical power relationships between adults and children, while neglecting group dynamics between children themselves. The second issue concerns the analysis of children’s contributions in co-design activities. The CCI community lacks robust methods to integrate visual and tangible dimensions of co-design artifacts, and their verbal explanations into a coherent analysis. The unilateral focus on the verbal explanation implies that co-design techniques are regarded as a direct means to access children’s perspectives (cf. naive empiricism). In addition, interpretative approaches that aim to go beyond the surface level of children’s ideas often lack rigor and transparency.

To address these issues, this PhD project combined a research through design and case study research approach. Based on insights derived from a review of the academic literature and four case studies with 9- to 10-year-old children, the research resulted in a co-design toolkit.

The first part of the toolkit presents CoDeT (Collaborative Design Thinking), a co-design procedure that builds on the theoretical models of Social Interdependence Theory and Design Thinking. With the CoDeT procedure, design researchers prepare and conduct co-design activities with children that account for challenging group dynamics. The procedure is especially useful for high child-to-adult ratios (1 adult for 15 to 20 children) such as in a school context. CoDeT is unique in how it structures sufficient work-group features and strengthens children’s Design Thinking abilities in co-design activities. In the toolkit, the different steps of the procedure are presented in a ‘what why how’ structure, offering concrete instructions as well as in-depth information about why these steps are important. CoDeT is therefore a flexible procedure that can be used in a broad range of design contexts.

The second part of the toolkit presents GLID (Grounding, Listing, Interpreting, Distilling), a method that relies on a values-led approach to PD, Multimodality, and Means-end Theory. GLID identifies children’s underlying values embedded in co-design out-comes resulting from CoDeT. With GLID, value conflicts between children and other stakeholders can be accounted for, shifting the focus to what endures beyond interaction, that is, the outcomes and lasting impacts of technology. Another characteristic of GLID is its thorough consideration of different modes (tangible, visual, textual, et cetera), which are analyzed for similarities and differences. As with the CoDeT procedure, the toolkit presents GLID in a ‘what why how’ structure. The method provides detailed guidelines for design researchers to analyze co-design outcomes in a transparent and coherent way, beyond the surface level of children’s ideas.

Together, the CoDeT procedure and GLID method comprise a holistic approach to involving children as design partners at the early stages of technology design.


  • Prof. dr. Bieke Zaman (supervisor, KU Leuven)
  • Prof. dr. Bert Willems (co-supervisor, UHasselt)
  • Prof. dr. Veronika Vanden Abeele (co-supervisor, KU Leuven)
  • Prof. dr. Ann Laenen (co-supervisor, KU Leuven/LUCA)

Research Unit: Inter-Actions

Duration: 2014 - 2016