E015 Design for Learning with Mydhili B

In this episode, we chat with Mydhili B, founder of YoungCurrent, a news platform for children, about the challenges and joys of designing for children.
Mydhili talks about her journey from a psychology major to an edtech entrepreneur and what caused the shift.
She tells us about her interesting work with the  Harvard  Graduate School of  Education, where she did her Master’s in the Technology in Education course. She also did a project with MIT Media Lab during this time, which she walks us through.
We learn about qualitative user research techniques especially when you’re working with children and young adults.
She brings out the importance of building trust and  having genuine curiosity about children’s lives to glean useful insights that can help designers come up with better educational products for them.
She walks us through what sparked the creation of Young Current and what it takes to build a child-safe news reading experience while also keeping it interesting.
She also gives us her take on where edtech is headed next and how budding edtechpreneurs and designers can find their way into this interesting field.

Transcript:

Sushi: Hey y’all! This is Design Lota.

Angie: The podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers.

Sushi:  I’m Sushi.

Angie: And I’m Angie.
Sushi: Our last episode was packed with takeaways on how to create and maintain a killer portfolio and, also tips to nail your personal branding.

Angie: Yes, do go back and listen to our chat with Martijn Van den Broeck if you haven’t already!

Sushi: I love how the internet has made it so simple to continue learning about various subjects through podcasts, videos, blogs…learning isn’t restricted to just school kids and textbooks anymore!

Angie: You know, Sushi, I feel like school kids are averse to “learning” as a concept because of those textbooks.

Sushi: And let me guess. You’re going to introduce us to someone who is doing a lot to change that!

Angie: Yes! I caught up with Mydhili, the founder of youngcurrent.com, and she talks about her own journey of curating news and creating a learning experience for kids and young adults.

Sushi: Lets listen in!


Interview with Mydhili:

 Angie: Hi Mydhili, thanks so much for joining us on Design Lota. We’re so excited about this subject of designing for children – in your case young adults. What are you upto these days?

Mydhili: Hey! Thanks for doing this too. Designing for kids and young adults is a topic that deserves more attention. So, thank you for bringing me on to your show to chat about this topic. These days, I’m a full-time mom to a one year old.

Angie: Your story starts with your degree in psychology…do you want to tell us about how that came about and what happened with that?

Mydhili: Yes, and I do still consider myself a student of Psychology. Things that I’ve learnt since then be it User-centered Design or Six Sigma or even parenting for that matter, I try to draw my fundamentals from the subject.

At the time I picked Psychology as a major, I don’t think I had thought too much about it. I really wanted to pursue a degree in English Literature and Psychology and Political Science were “filler subjects” so to speak. However, retrospectively, I think it was an outstanding decision as I thoroughly loved it. Perhaps because the first time in my life, I had chosen what is it that I wanted to study for three years and that just turned things around for me. I’d never miss college and would spend hours in the library. To be honest, I wasn’t a great student until that point!

Angie: So you think its the subject that pulled you in and made you go deeper?

Mydhili: I think what really happened was that the mix of those three different subjects –  English Literature, Psychology and Political Science – they seem like three completely different subjects, but when you study them together, going from one classroom to another, you start seeing patterns. And thats the first time I started observing patterns in anything.

I would go into an English literature class and read Macbeth, then get into a psychology class and learn about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and then I would start to draw these patterns realising, that this was what Macbeth was going through, and then to be able to connect that to the politics happening at that time was amazing. I believe every student needs to go through that experience to truly enjoy what they are studying.

Angie: Even in Design, I think we are better for it, when we have a transdisciplinary approach…where we make connections and then have light bulb moments.

Mydhili: Yes, and I’m so glad that some schools in Finland are actually following this transdisciplinary method of learning.

Angie: So after that, we see that you zeroed in on education. Can you tell us about that shift, if it was a shift at all?

Mydhili: When I joined google, I thought that I was going to do an MBA and become a manager, but google opened up a really exciting world to me – which was technology from a use perspective. This was really interesting to me as a student of psychology, because we had to look at data constantly, and all of this data was really pointing towards behavioral analytics because you were constantly trying to figure out what the customer wants. This made me realise I wasn’t really interested in pursuing an MBA anymore.

What really made me focus on education, was a side project on textless literacy for street children in Hyderabad. This sparked a curiosity about educational theory and how students learn. Now that I had a combined interest in both Human-Computer interaction as well as educational theory, I started looking for courses that would help answer my questions, and Harvard had an interesting program called Technology, Innovation and Education which helped equip with me with the basic theory of education while instilling how technology can be a game changer.

Angie: So what was your course at Harvard like? Can you tell us more about what you were learning there?

Mydhili: It was a great program! We lovingly call it ‘Hugsy’ (HGSE). The Harvard Graduate School of Education has a very balanced focus on theory, research and practice. And the courses on offer also represent this well.

Angie: At the same time you had another research project at MIT media lab, right? What were you involved in over there?

Mydhili: Yes the Media Lab was a neighbour – basically a couple of T stops away. I interned as a researcher at the Lifelong Kindergarten Group. One of the researchers was trying to understand how computational creation occurs in young children at school and at home. To that end, we first analysed the Scratch community and then interviewed a few representative users.

Personally, the biggest learning I had speaking with Scratch users and combining that with the data gathering done via other surveys, the process of getting ‘unstuck’ was so varied across the board. It was one of my favourite questions to ask the students – How did you solve that problem? The process of interviewing children is exhilarating.

Angie: Do you find with qualitative interviews, children are less inhibited so you tend to get more meaningful data out of it?

Mydhili: Just like adults, children too are different from each other. Some are very open and explain everything in detail. Most of the time, though, with teenagers or young adults, you get monotonous and closed answers to open-ended questions. The challenge there is to frame the question in such a way that you open them up. It’s really important to get into their shoes and be genuinely curious. If you’re not genuinely curious and you think you know the answer, you’re not going to be able to ask the right question.

For example, if you ask a student, “How was school today?” you are not really going to get anything out of it, but if you ask “What was one thing that made you angry at school today?” they might give you a one-sentence reply, but you can build it up from there.

Angie: Do you think it requires a preliminary ice-breaker so they feel okay talking to you in the first place?

Mydhili: That’s an interesting question. What happens when you’re interviewing a “grown-up” is that they already know that you’re in an unspoken contract, where you ask them questions and they give you an answer, which might not always be fully honest. But I find that young adults are always honest. There are times that they may not be honest about their grades, or education and you’ll have to gauge that from what they are saying. But most of the time they are honest with you, once they know that you are a non-threatening individual. You need to set up that trust, assure them that whatever they say won’t reach their parents or teachers.

Angie: What were your takeaways from the research project with Scratch?

Mydhili: Scratch is a community (which is a part of MIT Media Lab) where users build code to make things move.  The other aspect to Scratch is the community aspect, which is what we were focusing on. We were trying to understand how our users design something, say a game. Some would just go in and start coding directly, while some others would write their code in a notebook before going into Scratch. Still others would remix existing code to create something new out of it – improving.

What fascinated me was how users got unstuck if they had started on a code, but got stuck at some point. One of the most interesting things, was one girl who, when stuck, would take a break from the computer, go to her dog and explain what happened. What she had was an audience member who was listening, and when she was articulating the problem rather than writing or coding, something would manage to get unstuck. And this is actually how some professional coders too get unstuck! They talk to a rubber duck, which silently grins at them and that’s how they figure out the answers.

Angie: It’s really cool how the young girl came up her own creative way to solve her problem. So now, let’s move on to talking about the next huge thing you got involved in which was youngcurrent. How did that come about?

Mydhili: So I had this neighbour, pretty precocious. We used to read newspapers together. She enjoyed reading a few articles but most of them were just too much for her. We tried the YoungWorld and NIE newspapers available specifically for students – but here again, some articles went completely over her head, while others bored her because she felt they were written for much younger children. Then I started to pick articles that I thought matched her reading ability or challenged her at the right level. Eventually we would follow up on reading the same article twice, and she would mark out the things that she wanted to know more about, or try to find the meanings of words she did not know.

This is something we did in the physical world, but that germ just started to grow. As I continued to work with more students, I saw that regardless of the form of content – be it videos or text, there were really two kinds of students who were disengaged. Those who were bored by the content and those who were overwhelmed by it. Being challenged by the content that you are supposed to read at your grade level then just becomes a matter of luck. Personalization was key. As an educational technologist, the possibilities of automating this process of personalization got me super excited and YoungCurrent was born!

Angie: So how does this work? If I’m a student, do I get to know it through the school? Do I signup on my own, or do my parents do it?

Mydhili: We’ve seen a lot of the older students signup on their own, and parents signup younger students. Most of them find us through an organic search, or hear about us through word-of-mouth. One of the things we follow at YoungCurrent, is COPA (Children Online Protection Act), though it is not a mandate by the Indian Government.

Angie: Does this have to do with the kind of information you take from a child?

Mydhili: It includes privacy features that protects credentials when the children signup, and goes on to forget their data in case they want to delete their account. Its also got to do with how you structure the product. We identify those who write child-safe articles and segregate them based on reading ability, using an algorithm.

On the front end, a student may sign up, saying they are a 6th grader, and the website will automatically set them up with 6th grade content. What the website is eventually going to do is gauge what level the student is actually at. This is a moving target, because you may graduate to the 7th grade, and 8th grade, as your reading improves, and you may come back to the 6th grade level if you haven’t been reading regularly. Additionally there are features that enable vocabulary building and passive writing.

Angie: So what is your user base like, in terms of geography?

Mydhili: We see a lot of folks from India, thanks to word of mouth, but a considerable amount of our users do come from the US and Canada.The third biggest group of users is from China and quite a few from Korea as well…but you can see a pattern in the demographic, where these are mostly students who are learning English as a second language and want to keep up with the news.  

We go to publishers – Independent, or big conglomerates who are publishing news specifically for children. When we first started out we were trying to figure out how to create content. In the US there are companies doing similar things, but they have an army of content writers and editors at their disposal. We instead decided to become aggregators, and though we would get into creating content, once we saw some validation for our idea. But this led us to discover an entire world of content by publishers across the world, who were writing specifically for children and young adults. This was just not reaching its audience effectively, because as a parent, it’s hard to follow 15 different publications, and pick articles that match your child’s ability. So that became the problem we were actually solving.

Angie: What are some important things you learnt about how kids behave and interact with technology through your experience in all the startups you worked for?

Mydhili: Its a huge spectrum. So, if you take a country like India, and most developing nations for that matter – the wide demography of kids and young adults fall under either those with easy access to tech and those with limited or no access to tech.

In India I’ve had a chance to work with both kindof groups. On one end you have students who own upto three digital devices at home and access them regularly, and on the other end, there are those who’s access is only in a computer lab once a week at school, or at a video game center which they have to save up for to go to each week.

The ones with access to tech use it sophisticatedly and definitely take it for granted. With those who have no access to it or limited access to tech interact with it differently based on their age. The younger ones are more curious while the older ones a little hesitant but most are willing to learn.

Something a lot of us tend to get wrong is that weh we students with no access interact with technology and we put a few educational videos in front of them, we tend to think they are actually learning, and that technology is going to be a game changer, and they will be able to learn about every topic under the sun. But that’s not what happens. Technology has a novelty factor that wears off quite easily. It ultimately depends on the content. If the video’s content is boring, it will bore me, and it will bore students irrespective of their access to tech.

If we’re talking about innovations in Ed-Tech, I personally think video has had its time, because its a non-interactive medium, and Ed-Tech has always been about interaction.

Angie: So what is your take on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS)?

Mydhili: When MOOCs first came out, the whole world excited about it. This is where I would go back to the fundamentals of psychology, speaking of motivation for learning and where it comes from. When it comes to MOOCS, common sense predicts that the whole process of signing up and trying to learn is very intrinsically motivated. But how many people have actually finished a course? The numbers are disappointing. And this is when you start to question whether it was motivation, or plain curiosity. MOOCs are always going to be helpful, but I feel its not going to disrupt education fundamentally.

Angie: We have been talking a lot about the student, but what about the parents? What were some of your observations?

Mydhili: I’ve certainly spoken to parents when working with every EdTech product. Understanding the ecosystem of the child as Bronfenbrenner would put it is certainly important and adds context to your data. So this means observing and talking to parents. caretakers, teachers etc.

What makes educational products complicated is that there are so many stakeholders directly involved. Though you are designing for the student, you have to keep in mind the parent, because ultimately, they are the customer. You need to be able to align goals that match the user and the customer. Challengingly, most of the time, the goals of a student are very different from the goals of a parent or teacher.

The student wants to have fun, while the parent just wants them to learn English. Few products have been successful in meeting both those goals.

When we started YoungCurrent, we asked parents if they wanted their children to read news, and at that time, they said they did. But as we launched the product, and spoke to parents more, what became clear was that they really wanted their children to read news as a means to build their understanding of English.  They didn’t really care much about whether or not the child could now tell them a little about Space X or Tesla. Their primary interest was in knowing how many new words the child had learned from that article. The child of course, was more interested in who Elon Musk is, which is valuable learning as well!

Angie: And that’s what I remember attracted me to reading as a kid- the content.

Mydhili: Yes, exactly. So what we want to do is to get them hooked on to the content, and then get them to build their vocabulary.

Angie: I also recently read your story about how you afforded yourself a maternity leave. This was very interesting to me as I also became a new mom this year. Tell us more about that…I won’t ask you if life has changed – I know from experience that it does! But how has it changed your approach to designing for children?

Mydhili: Congrats to you too! Becoming a parent changes your perspective in a lot of ways, I think. I was oblivious to it earlier, but now I have a better understanding of what other parents go through!

Angie: Oh yes, all the cliches are true!

Mydhili: I know this will sound very preemptive of me, but I guess when I started down the road of EdTech, I convinced myself that I’ll be designing products that my children will someday use. Romantic, right? And this is something that Sal Khan (the founder of Khan Academy) talks about in his book too.

The more grown-up version of me of course now believes that it is not just up to me to do that. Which is why I take every opportunity to speak with any EdTech designer who is listening to share the lessons I have learnt. It is up to the entire edtech community to make this whole learning thing better for our children.

To answer your question though – becoming a parent hasn’t really changed my approach to designing for children. I think I’m absolutely okay with the user researcher in me informing the parent that I am but not the parent influence the designer.

What happens then is that I have all this anecdotal data is, but its data backed by research that I need to trust when I’m designing something.

Are there any books or references you would suggest to our listeners who are interested in designing for this group of users – children, young adults?

One good book I’ve read recently that sort of puts everything to think of in one neat checklist-y way is “Design for Kids” by Debra Gelman. She’s done fantastic research on everything, from how children pick their usernames to how privacy and trust matters to them. There’s also a great user researcher, Trine Falbe, someone I’ve come to know and whose work I have respect for. She also has a few articles on Designing for kids. She has been an amazing resource person for us at YoungCurrent and she is very approachable on twitter if you are looking for a critique.

Angie: This has been so much fun and so insightful. Thank you so much for doing this. Where can our listeners find you?

Mydhili: You can follow us on youngcurrent.com , and also reach me on twitter, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions anyone might have!


Sushi: That was a really refreshing discussion! Design being the little bee that cross-pollinates across so many disciplines never stops surprising me!

Angie: Yes, interesting how even Mydhili observed patterns across disciplines during her education and this led her to create the same experience for children.

Sushi: Of course, psychology is something that is deeply intertwined with every kind of design. Whether its choice of color or placement of an object, or even research methods.

Angie: Speaking of research methods, I like what she said about how being genuinely curious is a solid user interview technique. I think it would work for all ages!  

Sushi: Yeah. Especially with young adults, genuineness seems to be the key to building trust and getting them to be more open. It’s funny how open ended questions don’t really open them up and I feel to an extent this applies to adults as well…I mean, which of us has ever known what to say when someone says “what’s up?” What’s up Angie?

Angie: Yeah…I’ve drawn a blank.

Sushi: What do you think about bias transferring from one role to another- like parent to researcher or vice versa?

Angie: Now that’s more specific! I personally think it’s very difficult to compartmentalise since design has trained us to watch out for those connections.

Sushi: I feel it comes with experience to be able to notice the connections but discern whether they should or should not influence our design decisions. Ultimately it boils down to what the user’s goals are.
Angie: And in some cases, like in education, the goals for the teacher or parent differ from the goals for the student. And it’s necessary to recognise that distinction and also educate the users to help them mutually align their goals.

Sushi: That way, everyone’s dreams are fulfilled!

Angie: You know, I saw a quote by the children’s book author Judy Blume. She says –

“When you’re writing for kids, we’re not an adult telling a story about being a kid. We are that kid.”

I think that’s the perfect attitude to have when designing for children.

Sushi: Yes, That mindset of “I’m not better than you. I’m just trying to understand you” can really build trust and also bring out valid insights.

Angie: Hey Listeners, have you had the pleasure of designing for children?

Sushi: Or was it not a pleasure? We’d love to hear that story too!

Angie: Tweet to us @designlota and tell us.

Sushi: You can find the transcript and references for this episode and all our other episodes at designlota.com

Angie: Join us next time, we’re gonna talk about designers and the tools of their trade.

Sushi: Until then, bye!

Angie: bye!


References:

Mydhili on Twitter: http://twitter.com/myd
Mydhili’s product is youngcurrent.com
User Researcher that Mydhili mentions: https://twitter.com/trinefalbe
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