(25 January 2018) A group of designers, researchers, psychologists, and experts on children’s rights and protection convened recently in Helsinki, Finland during a 48-hour talkoot* event with the aim to create an open and free digital guide to integrate children’s rights into the design process for products used by children.
The 48-hour event, co-hosted by UNICEF Finland and Elisa, took place 19-21 January 2018. Researchers and usability designers from around the world were invited to present on child privacy and digital rights and to work together to create a set of principles in the form of a guide for ethical design for children’s rights.
Because technological innovations and media have provided children with unprecedented opportunities to express themselves, access information, learn, share, play, and communicate, the talkoot set forth an ambitious agenda aiming to address the increased exposure to risks that may compromise children’s well-being, through better design. Recognizing that exposure to age-inappropriate content or violations of children’s data privacy have become challenges for children’s rights in today’s world, the goal of the talkoot was to provide guidance to design products in a way that minimizes the risks while maximizing the benefits for children. The event aimed for guidelines that would integrate children’s rights into the design of new products and services from the very beginning.
The resulting Design Guide consists of a set of key principles written from the perspective of children as consumers to designers of products for them. The principles ask designers to consider different needs and scenarios from the perspective of a child user.
The idea for the event came originally from the company Elisa, Finland’s largest mobile operator and main sponsor of the talkoot. Elisa’s designers tested UNICEF’s Child Online Safety Assessment tool and suggested to complement the tool with a guide that gives more specific and detailed support for designers of toys, games, and programmes for children, and to integrate child rights considerations into their design process. Elisa invited UNICEF to bring in expertise on child rights as a co-organizer of the workshop to work with designers, researchers, and other experts to raise awareness of child rights issues among the designer community and help develop a guide to fill the gaps in the design process.
According to Irene Leino, Corporate Responsibility Advisor for UNICEF Finland, “one of our strategic goals is to get companies to respect and support children’s rights in their business. We’ve come to realize that the general level message on Children’s Rights and Business Principles does not easily translate into action, as it’s quite high-level policy advice, and doesn’t provide concrete guidance and recommendations to specific industry sectors.” “So we decided to try a new approach where we talk to the ‘doers’ – designers of digital products – directly and get them involved to think about what child rights would mean in their work. They are the best experts of their own work and through dialogue and co-creation we can both learn from each other and do something together,” Leino added.
Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, UNICEF Innocenti’s expert on digital technology and child rights, was invited to present recent research from UNICEF’s Global Kids Online programme, to inform designers about pressing child online protection challenges that could be met by designing with children’s rights in mind.
Kardefelt-Winther noted a specific design challenge wherein children are exposed to violent or age-inappropriate content online when using new technology platforms that, for example, show users videos with similar titles and tags in succession, without any awareness of the user or the kinds of content that is eventually displayed to them. “It’s important to consider how we can design from a child rights perspective because policy solutions sometimes take a long time to implement and evaluate, so by the time policy is implemented, technology has moved on and is no longer applicable,” Kardefelt-Winther said. “So, if you can encourage designers to design products that are child-rights compliant from the beginning, you can avoid some of the issues that we would otherwise need policy solutions for later on – it’s a preventative approach that can complement the policy approach well,” Kardefelt-Winther added.
Shuli Gilutz, a children’s usability researcher on digital technology, presented on Privacy by Design and its role in design and development processes. “In Privacy by Design the responsibility for privacy and safety shifts from the users to the designers, and any products in the EU will be legally bound to do this starting May 2018,” Gilutz said. She added that Privacy by Design is even more critical for children and offered three principles that could make products safer for children:
Gilutz added, “I hope this is just the beginning of a strong process that will eventually include many experienced professionals who are passionate about children's ethics, and the future of technology that children use. Ideally, we can create a clear and simple guide to designing, developing, and assessing, products for children, and grow both consumers' – and the companies' – awareness about this. Once parents, teachers, and policy makers understand both the issues and the possible design solutions, they may prefer products that are ethically designed, creating a shift in the industries' priorities as well. And that's when children will receive the digital experiences they deserve.”
Minna Kylmälahti, an advisor who participated in the event on behalf of Save the Children, attended the talkoot because the aims of the event were closely aligned with her work in child protection and in developing effective measures to prevent child sexual abuse. “I felt, and I’m quite sure others in the event are sharing the feeling, that we are stronger together when trying to enhance child rights and prevent bad things happening to children,” Kylmälahti said. “I had so many good conversations and I got lots of new ideas how to raise awareness about child sexual abuse in business sector and especially when designing products that any child may use. After the talkoot, I better understood how designers see the possibilities on protecting children’s rights in their work.”
Participants brainstorm at the Children's Design Guide talkoot in Helsinki.
What’s next after the initial development of the Design Guide principles?
According to Leino, the talkoot “was such a great experience that we’ll explore possibilities to organize similar co-creation events in other contexts – perhaps other sectors, other target groups – in the future.” The participants of the talkoot have agreed to edit and improve the existing principles to shape them into something more formal. They also aim to create an online community to allow designers, researchers, and others to continue collaborating in this space.