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Citation: Fitton, Daniel, Read, Janet, Horton, Matthew, Little, Linda and Toth, Nicola

(2012) Constructing the Cool Wall: A tool to explore teen meanings of cool. PsychNology,

10 (2). pp. 141-162. ISSN 1720-7525

Published by: PsychNology Journal




This version was downloaded from Northumbria Research Link:

http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/10922/ Northumbria University has developed Northumbria Research Link (NRL) to enable users to access the University’s research output. Copyright and moral rights for items © on NRL are retained by the individual author(s) and/or other copyright owners. Single copies of full items can be reproduced, displayed or performed, and given to third parties in any format or medium for personal research or study, educational, or not-for-profit purposes without prior permission or charge, provided the authors, title and full bibliographic details are given, as well as a hyperlink and/or URL to the original metadata page. The content must not be changed in any way. Full items must not be sold commercially in any format or medium without formal permission of the copyright holder. The full policy is available online: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/policies.html This document may differ from the final, published version of the research and has been made available online in accordance with publisher policies. To read and/or cite from the published version of the research, please visit the publisher’s website (a subscription may be required.) PsychNology Journal, 2012 Volume 10, Number 2, 141 – 162 Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool Dan Fitton*1, Janet C Read1, Matthew Horton1, Linda Little2, Nicola Toth2 and ♣ Yukang Guo3 1 2 3 Child-Computer Inter. Group, School of Life Sciences, Dept. of Computer Science, University of Central Northumbria University Swansea University Lancashire (UK) (UK) (UK)


This paper describes the development and exploration of a tool designed to assist in investigating ‘cool’ as it applies to the design of interactive products for teenagers. The method involved the derivation of theoretical understandings of cool from literature that resulted in identification of seven core categories for cool, which were mapped to a hierarchy.The hierarchy includes having of cool things, the doing of cool activities and the being of cool. This paper focuses on a tool, the Cool Wall, developed to explore one specific facet of the hierarchy; exploring shared understanding of having cool things. The paper describes the development and construction of the tool, using a heavily participatory approach, and the results and analysis of three studies. The first study was carried out over 2 days in a school in the UK. The results of the study both provide clear insights into cool things and enable a refined understanding of cool in this context. Two additional studies are then used to identify potential shortcomings in the Cool Wall methodology. In the second study participants were able to populate a paper cool wall with anything they chose, this revealed two potential new categories of images and that the current set of images covered the majority of key themes. In the third study teenagers interpretations of the meaning of the images included in the Cool Wall were explored, this showed that the majority of meanings were as expected and a small number of unexpected interpretations provided some valuable insights.

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Paper Received 25/06/2012; received in revised form 27/09/2012; accepted 28/09/2012.

1. Introduction Good interaction design is governed by the maxim that to create engaging and enticing products and technologies, the designer has to understand the user. Many methods exist for better understanding users; some of these aim to describe users

Cite as:

Fitton, D., Read, J. C., Horton, M., Little, L., Toth, N. & Guo, Y. (2012). Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool. PsychNology Journal, 10(2), 141 – xxx. Retrieved [month] [day], [year], from www.psychnology.org.


Corresponding Author:

Daniel Bowen Fitton ChiCI Research Group, University of Central Lancashire, Fylde Road, Preston, PR1 2HE, UK DBFitton@UCLan.ac.uk

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based on models, personas and scenarios, others aim to take a more holistic view by embedding the design team in the intended population or context and thus giving the designers empathy and understanding of the user group. Often a designer is considering a user group or user context with which he or she is broadly familiar; even then, misunderstandings can occur when a designer incorrectly models a user based on some biases or assumptions that he or she brings to the design space.

Designing for children and teenagers is one area where the gap between what is considered to be understood and what is actually understood can be large. Adult developers and designers may assume they know about children and teenagers on the basis that they once were in that grouping, but each generation has its own unique motivations, values, culture, understandings, technologies, and ways of appropriating technologies. Most of these factors will perhaps only ever be fully understood by the teenagers (or children) of that particular era.

This paper has two interlinked aims, firstly to develop a robust tool to enable the exploration of cool in the context of teenagers, and secondly to provide insights into the shared understanding of having cool things. Both of these aims are within the broader context of understanding how to design cool technologies to engage teen users.

2. Engaging with Teenagers in Interaction Design

The process of directly involving end users in the design of their own technologies derives from the socio-technical and participatory movements of the last century (Blomberg and Henderson, 1990; Muller, 2001). The underlying principle behind these approaches is that by engaging users in discussion around technologies they might better accept the subsequent technologies when they come into use (Schuler and Namioka, 1993; Simonsen and Robertson, 2012). In the field of HCI, talking with, working with and designing with end users is seen as good practice (Abowd and Beale,

1991) and Participatory Design has been referred to as the ‘third space’ of HCI (Muller and Druin, 2010); that resides between domains of users and developers.

Most of the work in this field has focused on adult users but following early work by (Druin, 1999a; Druin, 1999b; Kafai, 1999; Scaife, 1997) more and more research studies employ participatory methods in work with children – both to give the young people a say but also, and possibly more importantly, to allow the research team to

142 Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool

better understand these populations (Mazzone, Iivari, Tikkanen, Read and Beale, 2010). Examples include (Druin, 1997; Garzotto, 2008; Guha et al., 2004; Read, 2009).

Published work on participatory and informant work with teenagers is relatively scarce. This may be because the interaction design community has shied away from engaging with this population or may be because there are few research projects concerned with designing for this group. Certainly when it comes to actively involving teenagers in research and design projects there are very few studies and those that are reported typically position the teenagers as users or testers rather than as informants or design partners (Batson and Feinberg, 2006; Coyle and Matthews, 2004).

3. Cool as a Design Requirement for Teenagers

In much the same way that there is little work on designing with teenagers, there is also a shortage of published work on designing for teenagers. Designers and developers often design products based on a set of guidelines or heuristics; the HCI literature is littered with papers that provide guidelines – some of these are very specific for example (Read, MacFarlane and Gregory, 2004; Stanton, 2001) whilst others are very general e.g. (Nielsen, 1994; Shneiderman and Plaisant, 2004).

The more general that guidelines are, the less useful they often appear as, in designing a product, the designer will have a complex set of requirements that require understanding of several different guidelines – for example a product might be required that is mobile and engaging for teenagers – the hapless designer will go in search of guidelines for mobile design (Gong and Tarasewich, 2004; Sharples, 2000) and will then look for guidance on designing for teenagers – here he or she may come unstuck.

To design engaging technologies for any user group it is necessary to understand what it is that they engage with. One approach to understanding this space, in the specific area of designing for teenagers, is to come at teenage engagement from the perspective of designing ‘cool’. Cool is, in their own words, ‘owned’ by the teenage community (Danesi, 1994). It is considered to be what teenagers are and what most adults are not; thus - in understanding what cool is from the perspective of teenagers it may be possible to distil guidelines for the design of engaging products and technologies for this population.

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4. Theoretical Understanding of Cool The literature in marketing and psychology contains several papers that examine what it is to ‘be cool’ e.g. (Nancarrow, Nancarrow and Page, 2002; O'Donnell and Wardlow, 2000). These studies concur that within ‘cool’ communities such as a teenager’s peer group, it is assumed that people can identify that certain things and certain people are ‘cool’. Cool has been variously described by many different commentators – some take a view of cool as being very much about consuming, others focus on cool as it applies to behaviours (O'Donnell and Wardlow, 2000; Tapp and Bird, 2008). From the literature, the authors have previously distilled the following Essential Categories of Cool, these are summarized in Table 1 (Read et al., 2011).

CODE Explanation and References REB Rebellious and / or illicit (probably has some socially or morally unacceptable line to it) (Pountain and Robins, 2000).

AS Anti social (encourages anti social behaviours – maybe avoiding the need to mix with others or encouraging anti social behaviours like bullying and violence) (Pountain and Robins, 2000) RET Retro (clearly from a previous era) (Nancarrow, Nancarrow and Page, 2002) AUTH Authentic – the real thing (more about items that are ‘the must have’ brands – and maybe are ‘hip’ or trendy at the moment) (Nancarrow, Nancarrow and Page, 2002), (Schuler and Namioka, 1993).

RICH Many desire – affordability issues – big money (probably less about brands and more about features – where having this item would mainly signify you have a lot of money to spend) (O'Donnell and Wardlow, 2000).

INN Innovative - original (something that is really a bit of a surprise – where – on encountering this thing – people would be impressed by it for its unusualness rather than for any of the other items above) (O'Donnell and Wardlow, 2000).

Table 1 - Essential Characteristics of Cool In (Read et al, 2011) where these categories were first described, the authors derived a hierarchy of cool as shown in Figure 1.

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At the top of this hierarchy there exists the ‘holy grail’ of cool – that is ‘being cool’, in a rather bigger space, and more accessible there is the behaviour of cool (doing cool), and lastly, and most common, the having of cool possessions (‘stuff’). The design space is primarily situated in the ‘doing cool’ zone but has an overlap into both ‘being cool; and the having of cool possessions.

In our previous work (Read et al, 2011), discussion focused on the relationships between the categories from the literature and the Cool hierarchy. Some aspects, for example REB, (rebellious) AS (anti-social) and INN (innovative) were hypothesised to be mainly associated with the ‘doing’ of cool; others RET (retro), AUTH (authentic) and RICH (high value) were hypothesised as being primarily about items or products (as in having).

The Cool hierarchy is therefore seen as a beginning point for understanding cool – further work is needed to better understand each of the three layers especially in regard to the layers’ impact on interaction design. To begin that work, this paper starts at the base layer of the hierarchy where there is considered to be the greatest density of cool. In the study this base layer – the having of cool possessions – is unpicked.

The authors began with a premise that there is a common understanding amongst teenagers of what cool is, but also with the expectation that within this general understanding there might be some ‘things’ that would be considered less or more cool by certain subgroups. ‘Things’ refers to physical objects, primarily possessions (e.g., a type of technology) or other physical items that we choose to consume (e.g., a specific kind of food) or associate with.

5. Designing the Cool Wall While the model of cool provides a theoretical framework to understand the salient facets of cool, pragmatic insights are needed to explore whether there is a shared

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understanding of what is cool or if, for example, opinions are polarised within a specific community or peer group. These extra insights are needed to, for example, begin understanding how to design technology that can be appropriated in cool ways.

Believing in participatory approaches and user involvement, the authors aimed to investigate this area with teenage informants.

5.1 The Cool Wall as a Research Tool To this end the ‘Cool Wall’ prototype was developed, intended to be deployed in the field and used to collect insights into cool preferences in a simple and low-cost manner.

The Cool Wall provides an interactive visual tool for allowing pictures to be sorted into four categories (‘serious uncool’, ‘uncool’, ‘cool’, ‘subzero’) using a touchscreen (Figure 2).

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