When Everything Is Embarrassing: Designing With Teenage Girls

Judy Robertson

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Do you remember what it was like to be 15? I was reminded today of the toe curling embarrassment which teenage girls seem to face on a regular basis. I went with my Ph.D. student, Andrew Macvean, to a user-centered design session with six 15-year-olds. Andrew is designing a location based fitness game for iPhone, and he wanted to observe members of the target user group playing fitness games on the Wii Fit to give him some feedback about effective game mechanics.


I often find user centered/ participatory design work useful just to get a feeling of what it is like to be a user in the target group. Mostly this has involved working with cute little kids (10-year-olds are my favorite) who give copious amounts of useful feedback and little gems of wisdom which you can write fondly about in papers. Teenagers are not so straightforward, it would seem. But I still think it is useful to work with them because it gives you a sense of what it really important to them, and it makes you aware of stumbling blocks to using your technology which you may not have anticipated.


It is important to us that teenage girls should enjoy using the fitness game, because in Scotland girls between 12 and 16 are at particular risk from obesity. We would like to encourage them to exercise more in an enjoyable way, which is one half of the battle in fighting weight gain (the other half being caloric intake). However, it is an incredible design challenge because body image is such a sensitive issue among teenage girls.


Actually, based on today’s session, everything is a sensitive issue if you are a teenage girl. Standing up in front of five other friends to use a Wii Fit? Too embarrassing! Everyone would be watching! The horror! You’d think we had asked them to tango naked around the assembly hall. (We didn’t. The ethics board wouldn’t approve it).


We finally managed to convince two girls to play a water skiiing game together. And then suddenly I realised what they had been making a fuss about. The girls were subject to altogether more negative commentary and patronizing remarks about their performance in the game than the boys were. In fact, the girls did not comment on the boys’ performance at all. I am not sure whether this is because the boys went first so the girls chose not to comment to avoid retaliation when their turn came, or whether the girls did not feel qualified to comment. At any rate, I don’t think I would have wanted to play the game with such a critical audience. And these boys were quite sweet and gentle in comparison to their peers, their teacher assured me.


There also seemed to be an issue relating to image management. The girls claimed not to like games, apart from Tetris which they would play on their phones on the bus. They didn’t want to be associated with gamers or gaming. Yet, when asked further, they were actually familiar with quite a range of games and admitted to enjoying them. During the session today they spontaneously exclaimed about bits they liked and were disappointed when the bell rang to signal the end of the lesson. So while they enjoyed playing games, they were not willing to admit it.


So designing with and for teenagers is hard. It seems to me that observation is as important as interview in terms of methodology because they may be reluctant to answer honestly in front of peers. Their behaviour may reveal their opinions more honestly, but in a way you could argue that is irrelevant because if they are reluctant to be seen to play with a piece of technology, then they will not use it willingly for long enough to enjoy it, or in this case increase their fitness. This project will be a challenge. But who says research is meant to be easy?

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