Safety : Young People in Virtual Environments

Based on my experience working with virtual online community spaces for young people, I was asked to be on a panel at Professor Richard Bartle’s Protecting and Engaging Kids in Virtual Spaces Forum, October, 2009. Here are my thoughts from the event:

1. Useful stats about young people’s online usage
Marc Goodchilld from the BBC quoted some really useful stats from Childwise Report 2009. These stats relate to 5 – 16 year olds in the UK
• 87% go online
• 55% own computer
• 37% access in own room
• 33% of 9-10 year olds go online – that increases to 59% for the 11 – 12 year olds due mainly to them being driven online to do their homework.

2. Difficulties with engaging parents in the online safety of their children
The BBC children’s sites are one of the most popular sites in the UK and parents associate high levels of trust that it is safe and appropriate. However, there is evidence to suggest that many parents do not know what else their children are doing online. The Byron report suggests three areas for concern: inappropriate content; contact and conduct. There were some surprisingly low stats measuring parental concern around these areas. As “digital immigrants”, the parents simply do not have the time and in a lot of cases, the digital skills to be able to follow and monitor their children online.

There is a cry from many groups that parents should be educated to help their children understand what steps they should take to ensure that their children are safe online. There is a period of 8 – 10 years where these education programs are important as the next generation of parents will be digitally literate themselves – digital natives. There were some good examples of active education cited such as Sky who teach parents how to use pin locks when they install their services in the home.

As is the nature of technological innovation, there are continuous new developments that present both further ways to protect children online as well as further threats to child safety. For example, enabling live in game real time voice chat (through VoIP) presents moderation issues as it is both real time and difficult from a scalability point of view to support.

I was particularly concerned to hear about the “jigsaw effect” where it is easy to piece together what children have said in different message boards on different sites and for the unsavoury elements in society to build up quite a full picture of an individual.

3. Let’s engage young people to help us solve these safety issues
My passion is to engage users in designing solutions to the challenges that we face. Children are the digital natives – they understand what they do online better than the older generation that are making and implementing the policies. I talked about my tried and tested ways of engaging users that you can read about on the rest of my blog.

Tamara Littleton, who founded eModeration embraced these ideas around engaging users –
“The most crucial thing we can do to improve internet safety and enjoyment is education of the young users. Better than a purely didactic process which may be rejected by teenagers, is peer-to-peer leadership/mentoring, and input from the target group themselves as to what they want to learn and how it should be taught.”

Here is a picture of my panel – Kevin Holloway from Finesse Management, lil ol me and Tamara Littleton from eModeration.
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Engaging users also in the implementation of safety education, for example, giving them jobs in the virtual environment to help self-police, also provides good experience for them to build up a CV style portfolio and from a business point of view, is likely to create more user loyalty from those involved. It echoes the e-bay model of self-policing taken to a younger audience.

My view was also supported by information from Marc Goodchild at the BBC, where he pointed out that children as young as 10 have developed the abilities to discern malicious behaviour and they are able to take the necessary steps that a publisher provides them to report the incident.

Oisin Lunny from Sulake that own Habbo talked about some great examples of campaigns where it became cool to participate and spread the word – such as their Childline campaign, where users proudly collected and wore their badges. With the younger sites, such as the BBC, it is easier to craft engaging sites where the real time elements can be limited as they theorise that the user experience is more about enjoying activities online, playing together that may not require users to be able to communicate with each other in a free text live format.

4. Be open, honest and give young people the respect of being savvy!
Having worked with many young people, I also reinforced the message that young people are savvy and should be given the respect of open and honest communication from the site publishers. Creativity is necessary in getting safety messages delivered. I have found time over that young people do not sit and read text, however, if messages can be integrated in to the game play, perhaps using existing reward structures within virtual environments to incentivise safe behaviour and good active policing then like the Childline campaign in Habbo, users will help publishers to get their message across. To my point about user engagement, Habbo have had great success from their “Idea Agency” where they launched a virtual ad agency in Habbo, setting users challenges on how best to run campaigns in the Habbo environment – designed by users.

5. Recognise the power of Virtual Environments for their educational properties
The other topic that I raised was that we should recognise the educational properties of virtual environments. Futurebrand in a report associated with Becta, identified four ways that engagement in virtual environments can be educational:

1. Virtual environments are a persuasive medium that can affect young people’s thinking providing positive opportunities to inform young people about important contemporary issues such as injustice and the consequences of ideological conflict.
2. The Constructionist theory is that children’s development takes place through participation in a social world and interaction with people, events and objects. These are ideal platforms for young people to try out ideas, make decision, communicate with others and explore or make new worlds. It is active and participative rather than passive and merely receptive.
3. They enable us to create environments for authentic activity –learning occurs most successfully when it take place in authentic contexts. For example, learn about a historical period by exploring and interacting in a virtual environment that has re-created it. They also have to learn to deal with many inputs and outputs at the same time, collaborate with other players to take risks and experience failure in a safe environment. Some sites allow learners to adopt the identities and practices of professional innovators in a variety of fields. These are also the sorts of skills that will equip the younger generation for the 21st century and their work lives.
4. Media Literacy learning is often talked about as a positive educational take out from engagement with virtual environments. The futurebrand report also frames this excellently, referring to
a). Critical Consumption
The ability of learners to be able to read and produce media – to understand the politics – how media are produced, for what purposes and to what effects – how media organisations operate, how audiences receive and respond to different media and how the exchange between media produces and consumers impacts on social relations and culture
b). Creative Production
Young people become the designers and creators of media. They learn by constructing media, and having to consider design, distribution, representation and audience. Media literacy is important across the board not just for those in media studies.

Mobile Youth Report (OTA ’09)

The DragonsI was invited to run a session at a mobile developers conference Over the Air (OTA’09) by Daniel Appelquist. I saw a great opportunity to bring a panel of teenagers in and give the conference attendees an opportunity to pitch the Dragons – after all, feedback is a gift!

The Panel (pictured here) are Nick (17, nearly 18), Rachel (17), Sophie (14), Aidan (14, nearly 15) and Peter (13). All live within the M25and are well educated mobile-savvy Teenage Dragons. See link here for more pictures of the session aswell as the “people, places and things I like” presentations that they each put together prior to the session:

The products that were pitched were
1. Locomatrix – a mobile, outdoor, gaming platform that allows users to design their own games. ‘Jumpers for goalposts for the Wii generation… Bringing gaming back outside’

2. Qootia – interactive digital signage platform that enables user interaction with content on big displays – i.e. moving on from traditional billboards, advertisers can deliver messages that viewers can interact with using their mobile phones

3. Wikitude from Mobilizy – presents the user with data about their surroundings, nearby landmarks, and other points of interest by overlaying information on the real-time camera view of a smart-phone (with a touch screen). “Geo-tag the world”

4. Traveline / Next Buses – gives the next bus times anywhere in Scotland, England and Wales straight to the mobile phone

Before I share the insights with you, I must point out that this was a sample of 5 teenagers – all rather well – heeled! In addition, the users viewed demos of the products rather than being able to try them out themselves. These insights help to deepen our user understanding but must not be used to make broad statements about what teenage users want. This is a good starting point for further insight gathering activities – user design workshops especially.

1. Useful won over Entertaining
Whenever I review digital products I advise that the offering should be highly useful, highly entertaining, or preferably both – a useful product must still offer an entertaining user interface. The highest ranked products in this session were the Next Buses / Traveline service and Wikitude.
– Sophie thought that everyone she knew would use the Wikitude service as it was so useful
– Nick said the Next Buses service was “a good idea and practical”

2. The importance of the user experience
Our current teen generation have grown up with technological innovations and as such, they have experienced some poor experiences with early lifecycle products. If the user experience is too clunky, slow or laborious, they will quickly give up trying and move on. For each of the products, questions were raised about how they would start using the offering and how much they cost. Katrina commented in her documentation of the session that “although apt at figuring out gadgets for themselves, quick, visual instructions that clearly illustrate concepts and functionality are key to capturing teens’ attention.”
– Peter asked about Locomatrix “Why would I pay for an application for a game I can just make up/imagine for myself?”
– Peter was also concerned that some of the applications would only work on certain phones.
– Rachel commented that she would be unlikely to take her phone out while she was waiting at the bus stop as she didn’t want to be mugged

3. The teens were good at building on the ideas that were presented
I am a firm believer in facilitating end users to help companies build out their offering and keeping users engaged throughout the whole development process. This panel had good ideas for each of the products presented to them and I would recommend further innovation & design workshops with the teens to flesh out the ideas further.
– Aidan suggested that Traveline/Next bus “would be more useful if you could link it to live updates across all other forms of public transport; most of my friends use Tube, trains and buses and often a combination of 2 or more for a single journey”
– Nick suggested that the Traveline/Next bus should “add a countdown system” and also that Wikitude should add “user feedback and comments” to make the content more engaging and social.

4. Some apprehension towards the overlay of the virtual in to the real world
– On the winning application – Wikitude, Nick commented that “The beauty of travel to new places is the fun of exploring and discovering new places. Doesn’t this app take away the authenticity of that experience?”
– This challenge was echoed by Aidan with regard to the Locomatrix offering: “Why would we go outdoors to play a lo-tech mobile game when we have amazing visually and intellectually challenging computer games?”
– Nick was also concerned about taking virtual gaming outside (Locomatrix) “doesn’t that contradict the whole idea of bringing reality out from behind the screen?”

5. Be Cool!
Peter was concerned over the Locomatrix offering – “it wouldn’t look cool to be gaming outdoors”. He suggested that it could work better with a younger age group. Rachel thought some of the video presentations for the products were “very cool”, however it did not distract her from questioning the presenters on the content and usability. Once again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to engage your potential users and ask them what they think is cool. We oldies often get it wrong!

6. Reality hit for offerings where users can build their own games
There are some great examples from the virtual gaming space of users creating content – a great recent example I have seen is Roblox. Aside from the necessity to make the user interface really intuitive, it must be remembered that the majority of users will consume the offering that is presented to them while a smaller group engage in the creation of content. When I reference “building content”, I mean to the degree that Locomatrix enables users to build their own games rather than the lower level of self-expression when for example users choose items from virtual stores for their avatars. This was reflected in this teen panel, where one of the teens seemed to like the idea of creating his own games and the others were rather confused.

Katrina, who was documenting this session, puts this well as she considers Screen wars: Consoles v Mobile Apps: “Modern day teens into gaming have been brought up on Sony PS, X-box and Nintendo and have become accustomed to:
– HD graphics and cutting-edge technology as standard computer game issue.
– “Intelligent” games/challenges with increasing levels of difficulty.
– Having their pick from a wide range and variety of games designed FOR them.
While mobile gaming apps can’t (yet) match the high-tech specs of console games, they need to offer something else to attract and sustain the attention of a demanding teen gaming community. Moreover, how much does this target market actually want to be involved in co-creating a game when off-the-shelf professional games are quick and easy to access, relatively affordable and easy to use?”

7. Don’t pull the wool over their eyes!

Most of the teen panel struggled with the idea of Qootia. From previous insight sessions that I have run, today’s teens are really savvy and they are prepared to openly engage with brands if they feel the benefit of doing so and/or if they think the brand/product is “cool”. Tomaz from Qootia was pushed by the panel who were trying to understand the offering and he did suggest that it could be “useful for finding ‘lost’ friends at music festivals or for killing time while waiting at the bus stop”. They got that, but they still couldn’t quite understand what the user experience would be. It would have come to life for them if a clear scenario had been presented, for example, a multi-player big screen game brought to you by a particular brand advertiser where users could work their character in the game using their mobile. Suggest that someone sponsors me to run a further session in to mobile and digital advertising as it would be fascinating to get teens views in this area – I have good insight from the virtual world environment.

8. Blackberry vs iPhone
The two older teens were devoted to their blackberries and the younger teens desperately wanted iPhones. From research that I ran over a year ago, the blackberry was storming the teen market because of free Instant Messaging and ease of using facebook. The adult debates around platforms were echoed by the teens as Peter expressed frustration about Wikitude “Most teens don’t have an Android or iPhone”. One of the panel further quizzed the presenter of Wikitude about why handset manufacturers can’t include a compass and location based services in their handsets.

Audience Feedback
The session was very well received by the audience with comments like “…Teens asking great questions – answers are less clear…this kids panel is better than venture capitalists when it comes to grilling the presenters…strong feeling people are better at communicating their technology rather than the benefits and uses of it…best tips on product marketing and development that I have heard in a while…”

Panel Feedback
The panel continued to mix with presenters and attendees after the sessions having great discussions around the business models, careers in the developer industry and how to pitch effectively to the youth market. They got to practice giving constructive feedback (as “I like it / don’t like it” was not an acceptable answer!) and while they were nervous about being in front of an audience, they really seemed to enjoy and revel in the opportunity to speak publicly and have their views heard. Infact, the audience were hanging off their every word! The parents that accompanied their teens on the day all felt that it had been a great development experience and all were keen to be involved in further sessions.

Presenters Feedback
Each presenter received atleast one piece of teen feedback on their product that surprised them – some smacked their forehead in disbelief that they hadn’t thought of it earlier! Each agreed that it was really worth engaging users and realised how easy it can be to do so – (with experienced facilitation of course!).

Thanks to Katrina Damianou for documenting this session and to Sam Easterby-Smith for taking the pictures.