I’m back in the classroom, running a Design Club for 11–13 year olds in west London. We’ve been prototyping social apps. Last week we discussed how apps make money and the implications for users.

New term

We started the term with an app design mini project (A3), so kids can get an idea of how the design process works with a quick prototype, before diving in to a second, more detailed project after half term.

For this first project, everyone’s working on the same challenge: help your user to make new friends. There are 12 children (or thereabouts), working in twos and threes. Each team designs for a different user.

Social networking

I’m excited about this challenge, because it’s about social networking. Children can draw on their own experience of apps like Roblox, Instagram and TikTok. I know they’re technically too young for the last two, but many use them (One Year 7 already has a mini business on Instagram — selling homemade cakes).

All sorts of thing surfaced in the first ideation session two weeks ago — as you can see from the wall shots:

These young designers seem hyper aware of things like phishingcatfishing and online grooming — even though they don’t always have the vocabulary. Teams talked about hackers, free money, online “lovers”, user verification, terms and conditions.

All teams showed concerns about safety — a general acceptance that people aren’t always who they say they are.

I wouldn’t say the children seem over-anxious about this. It’s more curiosity. Some things — like scams— are seen as an opportunity as much as a threat. I guess it’s the same with adults too — children are just more honest!

How apps make money

This week, we tried out a new activity. I wanted to see if we could have a broader debate around social networking apps, as well as introduce some ideas around the pros and cons of different types of monetisation, and how they impact on users’ security, privacy and mental health.

The thinking behind this was to stimulate a discussion about the consequences of different design features, and the intention behind those features — are they helpful to the user, or more helpful to the company making the app?

Here’s the worksheet we put together: Explore how apps make money.

There are three pages — or exercises — each one featuring a different app. Children can work in teams to fill out a page, and then compare notes. (Or each team can fill out all three pages, depending on how much time you have).

I started off with lots of screenshots showing the full user journey for each app, but we decided to condense each app down to just three screenshots — intended to stimulate discussion rather than be a comprehensive guide.

No such thing as “free”

As we’ve received funding from Grant for the Web, I wanted to touch on the emergent ecosystem of Web Monetisation, and the micropayment app, Coil (which we’ve installed on the Design Club website).

Most apps used by children are freemium, or funded by in-app purchases or advertising. I wanted to use apps they were familiar with. I chose Instagram and Roblox. But I also added in Imgur because that’s one of handful of apps that offer an ad-free experience to Coil subscribers.

While we didn’t go into Web Monetisation in detail, it was important for me that children at least grasped the concept that there’s no such thing as “free”. Apps that appear to be free might actually cost users in other ways.

I hoped this activity would help children to start thinking about the user experience as it relates to different ways of making money and the transparency (or lack of) around these.

How we might be more transparent, and how might this change the user experience?

Observations

Here are some notes from the completed worksheets:

Imgur

Create memes and share them (ads and subscription)

  • There is a subscription and you get extra stuff
  • You can see the app first so you know what you’re buying

Roblox

Play games alone or with others (in app purchases)

  • Users pay to get Robux to make an avatar and to buy game passes
  • It’s expensive to get Robux

Instagram

Share videos and photos (advertising)

  • Steals your data and sells it to other companies
  • They know no-one will read the terms and conditions

Discussion

After children filled out the worksheets in their teams, we had a great discussion. Children were keen to talk about this subject and had strong opinions. Many of them shared their experiences.

One boy said he was fine for the app creators to use his data in exchange for free entertainment. Some others agreed. Others said it was risky for companies to sell data on without your express permission. One girl asked how reliable your data was, given that most children lied about their age (among other things) to access apps.

Next time

I’m really happy we did this exercise. It fitted in well with the “Help your user to make new friends” challenge.

We did this as children were finishing off the prototyping and testing stages. Children were tweaking their designs as we were speaking.

After two weeks of defining, empathising, ideation and sketching, they’d already put some thinking into how apps worked, and what type of behaviour they were trying to encourage in their user.

I hope this bit of exploration will add another dimension to children’s thinking as we start a new project next week.

In putting together this activity, I was inspired by work done by doteveryone (Consequence Scanning) and the Open Data Institute (Data Ethics Canvas). I also found this article by Arushi Jaiswal helpful: Dark patterns in UX: how designers should be responsible for their actions.

Thank you!

Why I’m working with Design Club

A version of this post was originally published on the Design Club blog