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

(2012) Too Cool at School – Understanding Cool Teenagers. PsychNology, 10 (2). pp. 73-

91. ISSN 1720-7525

Published by: PsychNology Journal



N .pdf

This version was downloaded from Northumbria Research Link:

http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/10923/ 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, 73 – 91 Too Cool at School – Understanding Cool Teenagers Matthew Horton*1, Janet C. Read1, Daniel Fitton1, Nicola Toth2 and Linda Little2 1 2 Child-Computer Interact. Group, Department of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire Northumbria University (UK) (UK)


Cool can be thought about on three levels; the having of cool things, the doing of cool stuff and the being of cool. Whilst there is some understanding of cool products, the concept, of being cool is much more elusive to designers and developers of systems. This study examines this space by using a set of pre-prepared teenage personas as probes with a set of teenagers with the aim of better understanding what is, and isn’t cool about teenage behaviours. The study confirmed that teenagers are able to rank personas in order of cool and that the process ofusing personas can provide valuable insights around the phenomenon of cool. The findings confirm that cool is indeed about having cool things but in terms of behaviours cool can be a little bit, but not too, naughty.

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Paper Received 25/06/2012; received in revised form 12/10/2012; accepted 12/10/2012.

1. Introduction Designing interactive products requires an understanding of the potential users as well as an appreciation of the context of potential use. User centred design methods stress that it is important to invest time and energy in ensuring that these aspects, especially understanding the needs of users, are well understood (Gould and Lewis, 1985). Methods employed to realise this include the use of ethnographic study, the adoption of participatory approaches and the use of contextual enquiry. Participatory methods span the activities of engaging with potential users in the establishing of requirements (Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1998), working with users in the specific co-design of aspects of the interactive system (Blomberg and Henderson, 1990) and the inclusion of users in evaluation studies both during, and at the end of, the development lifecycle (Dumas and Redish, 1993).

Cite as:

Horton, M., Read, J.C., Fitton, D., Toth, N., & Little, L. (2012). Title. PsychNology Journal, 10(2), 73 – 91.

Retrieved [month] [day], [year], from www.psychnology.org.


Corresponding Author:

Matthew Horton School of Computing, Engineering & Physical Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK E-mail: mplhorton@uclan.ac.uk

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Within user centred design, whilst participatory methods tend to be favoured, several user centred, but not user participatory, methods have been developed that allow designers to study and model a population and to then design for that population without there being a need to directly engage with the intended users – this approach, of applying knowledge about a user group, is especially valuable where access to the intended user group is limited. One method that is widely used in this space is the use of personas (Cooper and Reiman, 2003; Grudin and Pruitt, 2002). Personas are attractive to designers as they do not require the design team to ‘hang out’ with the intended population but do provide pseudo real users with which to evaluate products and ideas. The use of personas in the design lifecycle has traditionally been static.

Personas are developed by the research / design team and then used to inform decisions about the design – questions like ‘would Craig use this?’ and ‘how would Mairie do that?’ are used to help the developers and designers focus on the target group.

In our work we are designing interactive technologies for teenagers. Access to this user group is limited and whilst not being a problem for the research team, the developers and designers in this work were less able to meet teenage users and so the work aims to derive some knowledge about the teenage design space that can be formalised for use by these groups. The present study aimed to therefore establish a method to engage with teenagers in order to better understand their world specifically, in this instance, we aimed to examine how personas could be used in a participatory activity to discover more about cool.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows: the first section reviews the literature on the use of personas in design, on the study of designing technology for and with teenagers, and then leads into the literature around understanding cool as it applies to design contexts. A participatory study is then described that had teenagers evaluate a set of teenage personas for their ‘coolness’. Findings from this work are discussed and interpreted and the paper closes with discussion as to both the method and the results in terms of using personas in this way but also in terms of learning about cool in the context of teenage design.

2. Background Literature Whilst previously used in marketing contexts, personas began to gain favour in design with the work by (Grudin and Pruitt, 2002) and (Cooper and Reimann, 2003). A persona is described as being a realistic representation or a stereotype and is

–  –  –

introduced to help the design team focus on these pseudo-users. Personas of children and teenagers have been used in child design by (Antle, 2006) in the design of a mentoring application, and in e-health design with (Bredies, 2009); several authors have studied the efficacy of the use of personas including (Grudin and Pruitt, 2002), and (Ronkko, 2005) who claimed limitations as to their use in standard design and development activities. One of the problems in the use of personas for design is in ascertaining that the persona set is representative – i.e. that it adequately models the target population; this is discussed in some length in (Ronkko, 2005). Personas have occasionally been used in other ways – an example that is close to our own work is the work by (Meissner and Blake, 2011) who use personas as prompts and probes in order to better understand an alien culture.

In terms of the general area of designing for and with teenagers, there is a relative shortage of published work. In terms of engaging teenagers in design studies, most of the work has teenagers as design informants or as designers of specifics as found in the literature on co-operative and participatory design. As examples, (Danielsson and Wiberg, 2008) used participatory approaches with teenagers to design computer games, (Buechley, Eisenberg, Catchen and Crockett, 2008) engaged with teenagers in the design of craft technologies using Arduino technology, (Mazzone, Read and Beale,

2008) carried out design prototyping with teenagers in the UK in a short stay school using plasticine and biscuit making to explore the design space of dialogue and visualization. Sewing kits and other prototyping products were used with teenagers to participate in the design of Telebeads (Labrune and Mackay, 2006) where the focus was on the physical and functional aspects of the design and teenagers were employed as testers of technologies in (Read, 2005).

For individuals wishing to design for, as opposed to design with, teenagers, there is a need to understand them and their worlds. Heuristic sets for design for this group do not exist but the design of ethereal aspects, fun, privacy and confidence (as examples), as highlighted by (Wixon, 2011), point to a need to understand design in the space around the functional, and in the particular case of teenagers potentially to design for cool which has been identified as a teen ideal. It is the case that things that teenagers use are often referred to in terms of their coolness (Rudolph, Abaled, Flynn, Sugimura and Agoston, 2011).

In the literature, Cool is variously described in terms of things, behaviours and people. As an example, (Poynor, 2000) refers to cool in terms of objects by suggesting that cool stuff is “great stuff to own”, but other literature couples cool objects with the

75 M. Horton, J.C. Read, D. Fitton, N. Toth, L. Little

coolness of the person using them, thus moving the emphasis away from the artefact to the person (Southgate, 2003). Belk (2006) referred to cool in terms of it being a performance that needs to be validated by an audience; writing that cool “refers to a person who is admired because she, or more often he, exhibits a nonchalant control of emotions, a rebellious trickster demeanour, an ironic detachment from the regard of others, and a “cool” style of talking, walking, gesturing, and grooming”. This definition lines up well with what many consider to be the origin of contemporary cool as being an attitude adopted by African Americans as a defence mechanism against prejudice (Belk, 2006; Moore, 2004; Nancarrow, Nancarrow and Page, 2002) but also aligns with what (Thompson, 1983) claimed when he wrote that the origin of cool was with the Ibo and Yoruba people of Nigeria in the 1400s where cool was defined as “grace under pressure”.

In terms of teenagers and cool, cool has been associated with behaviours around authenticity and laid backed-ness and is rooted in an urge to challenge convention (Frank, 1997; Moore, 2004). It has been, since the 1960s, detached from adult culture and has become associated with an “I want that!” attitude (Neumeister, 2006).

According to Southgate (2003) “the cool” are always looking to be different so that they can express themselves in an authentic manner.

Figure 1. The Hierarchy of Cool (Read et al, 2011)

Designing for cool, and specifically within the context of teenagers demands attention to all aspects of cool – the having of cool things, the doing of cool stuff and the being cool. These aspects are clearly related but the relationships between them are not all that well understood in the context of design. In an attempt to better identify where interaction design might be able to associate with cool, Read et al. (2011) described a hierarchy of cool (shown in Figure 1), which tentatively identifies the space for design as being primarily about understanding what is ‘cool to do’; this approach has some synergies with the early work by (Shneiderman, 2004) where he investigated the potential to design for fun by considering ‘fun in doing’ and also to the work by

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(Holtzblatt, Rondeau and Holtzblatt, 2010) where cool is considered within the context of product design and interactive technologies.

3. Study The aim of this study was therefore to investigate cool with teenagers in order to better understand our own design space. The decision was made to do this work by having teenagers evaluate a set of teenage personas in order to look holistically at how teenagers themselves might judge another teenager, having knowledge of what the teenager looked like, his or her demographic information, social background, likes and dislikes and the technologies owned by, or accessed by, in terms of coolness. The method took some, but only little, direction from the work by (Meissner and Blake,

2011) who used the creation of personas as a data gathering exercise. Our work differs slightly in that it uses personas in order to better understand a user population.

The intention was not to then deliver new personas (as is indicated in the work on provisional personas by (Goodwin, 2009)) although it is acknowledged that that could be one outcome from the conversations that took place around the existing persona set.

For our study, the main research question was:

Can researchers discover cool traits with regards to ‘having cool’ and ‘doing • cool’ by evaluating personas with teenagers?

and an associated question, which would be answered in the work was;

Does the original persona set provide a diverse range of teenagers on the cool • to uncool spectrum that can be used by researchers in designing and evaluating cool?

3.1 Method In order to determine what cool was, the research team could have considered asking teenagers to isolate and identify ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ individuals and then inform the research team as to what it was about these individuals that made them cool or not. This approach was rejected as a method on several counts. Firstly, there was an assumption that this kind of study, in a classroom, would be laden with histories and prejudices and could be damaging to the participating pupils. Secondly, in a classroom, individuals might not have with them their cool items, and thus only

77 M. Horton, J.C. Read, D. Fitton, N. Toth, L. Little

behaviours would be captured. Thirdly, there would be no way of replicating the study, nor of generalizing the findings from the classroom.

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