The kids are alright
Andrew Therkelsen, director at Discovery Research, explains why kids are the best co-creators, and sets out how to get the most out of them.
Co-creation has its fair share of detractors. There are those who argue that consumers are not creative, and that the job of market research is to extract the insight while the client applies the creativity. But the best way to create something new and different through research is to start with respondents who are open to new ideas, enjoy using their imagination and have few inhibitions in expressing their opinions. That’s why the best co-creators are usually still at primary school.
Having carried out a number of co-creation projects with children in categories including food and drink, publishing, broadcasting and entertainment we have learnt that the most effective insight arises when we let children do what they do best - exercise their imagination. Everything just seems to click. The key to success is about choosing an approach that plays to the strengths of the audience rather than simply adapting the same methodologies we’d use with adults. When you get this right, children will express existing ideas in new ways, bringing fresh insight, fun and vitality to tired concepts.
“Because co-creation is not about selling pre-conceived ideas but rather about putting kids at the centre of creating them, parents find the research experience is both more authentic and rewarding for their children”
There is a clear argument that we should be co-creating with children more in the early stages of product development, when the opportunity is greatest to harness their imagination. We want to allow them to help create the things that they will then ultimately consume. The earlier we involve them and work with them, the more likely we will be to design things they actually want. At Discovery we’ve found that clients are increasingly receptive to this notion, and co-creation with children is now considered to be one way of ensuring more marketable and sustainable products. Kids work from their very first creative ideas, lending authenticity to the process. This provides the whole team with a degree of motivation and understanding that has hitherto been missing. Co-creation helps de-mystify the audience.
But co-creation with kids is not easy. Anyone who has done qualitative research with kids will know that it often walks a tightrope between two extremes. In one scenario we have the over-stimulated groups. You hear them before they enter the room and the effectiveness of the discussion correlates almost directly to the amount of E-numbers charging around their bodies. The second scenario is the under-stimulated group that looks at you with puppy dog eyes in silence. No amount of bean bags and coaxing will produce a response.
What makes children good at co-creation can conversely make them potential nightmare respondents. Their lack of strategic choice and rigourous thinking means their responses are lawless and decision-making is a constantly shifting and unfathomable process. Unmanaged, co-creation, like many other qualitative research techniques, quickly becomes a free-for-all. If you’re not careful you can start to feel like the gazelle surrounded by lions. So how can you successfully employ kids in co-creation?
Start from a framework of ideas
It’s important to have a set of ideas, each reduced to its nucleus. This provides the initial structure for any conversation as well as the theme from which the children can work out. It is important within any particular session to have a number of nuclei - all will be built upon, but respondents will adopt only some of them as their own.
Let kids own the ideas
This sense of ownership is the most important part of the group dynamic. Children need to feel the idea is theirs to mould as they want. Any session needs to be set up with this in mind and the children must understand that they are there to engage, interact and create - not simply respond. If they are not engaged with the idea, they tend to default to the things that they find the easiest to visualise, or those closest to what they already know. Sometimes children have a tendency to choose the safest option, and we have found therefore that generally the most inoffensive, ‘vanilla’ ideas can float to the surface.
Keep emotions out of it
Early propositions should be stripped back as far as possible and should not seek to elicit an emotional response. If the core of the idea is good enough children will inevitably weave their own emotional response on top, creating the layer of emotional complexity that provides rich data for marketers.
Get the environment right
Children have fewer preconceptions of their role within the research process than adults, so we can afford to create a more flexible, less concrete research environment for them. While discipline is important, it’s important not to over-structure the discussion. The best insight can come from the what is said around the main discussion topic. Co-creation of this sort requires an intimate environment. Research with kids has proved to be much more effective conducted in places where they believe they can express what they really think and not what they believe they ought to say. For some of our work with publishers we’ve carried out research with kids in their bedrooms sat next to their bookshelves.
Get involved before and after
Pre- and post-tasking with kids can significantly increase the sense of active participation. This helps encourage creativity and peer group discussion beforehand. With kids so familiar with social media we often do this online via our online qualitative tool, The Thinking Shed. Imaginative pre-tasking can include creating traditional collages, drawing, poetry, haikus or stream of consciousness around the nucleus. Encouraging participants to talk to their friends beforehand has proved that the playground can be a seedbed of fertile new ideas. Whatever the method used, we want kids to be firing on all cylinders before they arrive. Through this approach we can encourage them to bring drawings, scribbles or even interpretive dances that help to describe how they feel about the ideas.
Break the ice
We spend a lot of time before and after the sessions to ease them gradually in and out of the process. When the kids arrive at the discussion they meet the team through games and ice breakers. It is critical for us to create an environment where their imaginations can be set free, but not to overstimulate them. This is where the role of pre-tasking helps to focus discussion when the time is right. It also means that the sessions need to be carefully planned so the pre-tasking can be incorporated in the most seamless way once we’ve got over the initial ice-breaking phase.
The discussion itself is often a succession of games and techniques that allow the kids to move into an imaginative, less pre-defined world, and start to push outwards from the boundaries of the initial idea. This is most often achieved by guided fantasy exercises, role-playing and characterisation, allowing children to take on the experience of the concept, and feel what it is like. From this point they can re-shape it to fit better with their deeper needs and desires. The sessions always produce a huge amount of creative material creating a hierarchy of concepts and demonstrating which idea is worth pursuing.
Research with kids is a specialist skill. We encourage parents to take part in the process on a separate level, which creates buy-in and trust, which are crucial. Showing that we adhere to stringent industry regulations when researching children is of course a crucial element in building this trust. Finally, because co-creation is not about selling pre-conceived ideas but rather about putting kids at the centre of creating them, parents find the research experience is both more authentic and rewarding for their children. This again helps us gain their support throughout the project.
The way that kids help us with research, and their flexibility to adapt to co-creation, proves that there is plenty to learn and apply to co-creation with adults. Overall we should remember that creation comes from imagination - and getting adults to remember what it was like to be a child and use childlike thought processes may be one way of getting more out of co-creation. Exercising the imagination is something we find harder to do as we become older. Visual and creative exercises, closing eyes, sitting and thinking and exercising the brain are a good starting point and can also act as a great group leveller, particularly when clients are involved.
If we want our respondents to be creative we must be brave and experimental with our methodologies and techniques. Using kids in co-creation requires different approaches and skills, and in devising ways to get the most from children, we’ve created some new techniques that when adapted have proved very successful with adults. Working with kids can not only bring clients great creativity for their products and brands, it can also be a stimulus for us as researchers to challenge the way we do things, generate new approaches and break the routine.
Case study: Hothouse Fiction
Hothouse Fiction approached Discovery to help them develop and launch a new series of books aimed at boys aged 10-12. They wanted to involve children in the creative process.
Before the co-creation sessions each child was given a story synopsis printed in an otherwise blank book, with a plain cover and a blurb on the back. To encourage them to engage from the outset, we got them to draw their own front cover.
The texts they had been given were used as the basis for a role play exercise, which enabled the kids to start using their imagination. Using subtle prompts we were able to gain a picture of the world they created in their heads.
We then asked the kids to imagine they were their favourite character from the synopses they had read, and this flowed into developing a storyline. The sessions produced a huge amount of creative material, helping us to prioritise concepts and work out which of them the target audience would engage with.
The resulting book series, Darkside, was an immediate success, selling over a quarter of a million copies in 20 countries, and winning the Waterstones Childrens’ Book Prize and the Calderdale Prize.
Andrew Therkelsen is a director of Discovery Research, focusing on international research, new product development, brand strategy and customer engagement