Chapter 5:    The main study

5.1   Introduction

The first part of the chapter explains the organisation and procedures of the main study. The second part draws together the data obtained. The final part of the chapter is a summary of the research data to address the ten criteriaused in chapter 6 to answer the main research question:

What are the design features required to improve the quality of computer interface interaction for 5 to 7-year-old children

5. 2&    The organisation of the main study

The following Hertfordshire schools were chosen for the study. The visits were made by the researcher between 9th and 20th May, 1997.

  • School A, in Harlow is described by the headteacher ‘as a primary school of 200 children with limited IT support.’ The teacher interviewed described the school as consisting of mainly pupils with a working-class background, many families with strong emotional problems, but still a happy, friendly school; the aim being to create an atmosphere some do not have at home. Most children in the class were aged 9 but their ability was generally below the country average.
  • School B, in Harpenden is average in its resources and variety of catchment area.
  • School C, also in Harpenden is a formal school in a prosperous area with limited IT resources.
  • School D, in Hoddesdon is the county’s model IT school with a first class, well-informed headteacher and generous IT facilities.

The schools were chosen to give a sample of pupils with a wide range of abilities. The aim was to achieve a variety in quality in both pupil and teacher abilities as the priority was not to test the teachers’ abilities or the IT provision, but the Research Tool, whatever the classroom situation. The schools were chosen from locations away from the researcher’s home area and were unknown to the researcher, except for School B where the researcher had made visits a year previously while at the BBC.

Each visit lasted a whole school day and was organised to follow the same sequence. The day began, whilst children were at assembly, setting up the Macintosh computer on which the Research Tool was installed and the Minidisc digital audio recorder in the classroom. Then the researcher met the whole class and explained the project using the pre-defined introduction presentation. Before lunch every member of the class, in groups of 3, worked their way through the activities watched by the researcher following the Observation Schedule. In some cases children stayed on during the lunch hour because of the large number of children in the class. After lunch, the researcher carried out the individual Child Interview Schedule. It had been hoped to interview the teacher at lunchtime, but in all cases it was more convenient for the teacher to stay behind after pupils had left. In all, the schools provided the following sample numbers for the study:

Total number of pupils observed: 110
Total number of pupils individually interviewed: 17
Total number of teachers interviewed: 6


5. 3   The organisation of data

First, evidence from the researcher’s observations, the audio recordings of interviews with children and interviews with teachers were gathered in response to the 8 different interfaces in the Research Tool. The information was transcribed into Microsoft Word and then placed in the 3 corresponding database files in the Filemaker Pro software as described in the research methodology in chapter 4. The work was carried out by first listening to the digital minidiscs, and digitally marking the beginnings of each question for quick reference and making notes of key comments for the second listening, when transcription took place. Observation notes for each interface were entered by the researcher and each field in the databases manually checked for correct operation and accurate numbering.

The data were then analysed manually using the electronic file cards, which were searched, and responses to the questions collated using the software’s ‘find’ function and then by printing out the collated data. The ‘find’ and ‘layout’ options of the software were flexible so that on-screen the whole card could be viewed. Also, individual responses could be presented in such a way that, for example, many responses to one question could be collated for analysis in a condensed format on a few pages for efficient comparison. Using this technique the replies to one question could be accurately cross-referenced across the 3 sources of data as described in the second pilot. The research data material was constructed around the ten activities of the Research Tool presented to the groups of three children (110 in total) and the individually interviewed children (17), and the teachers (6) and are listed here as a reminder of the interfaces described in chapter 2. These are as follows:

The Opening

Screen:     Users choose from icons representing ‘stories’, ‘songs’, ‘things to do’ (activities)

Activity 1:     Users click and drag letters to spell, ‘star’, ‘moon’, ‘sun’ from 3 jumbled sets of letters.

Activity 2:     Users put into a boy’s pockets ‘star’ and ‘shooting star’ icons to aid familiarisation with music pattern.

Activity 3:     Users put planet icons into a series of pockets, to make a rhythmic pattern. Users learn about the structure of musical notes, using the syllable pattern of words as examples.

Activity 4:     Users create star tunes using percussion instruments – choosing an instrument for each star, moon and sun picture.

Activity 5:     Users choose a music sound for different stars – 5 stars each with different instrument sounds. When the instrument for each star is chosen a tune plays.

Activity 6:     Users hear and see demonstrated the main phrase of the Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ (To Thee My Country) theme with the aim of identifying a tune. They can recreate the tune and then create their own tune using the same notes.

Story:     Icons of children are ‘click and dragged’ by users into Granny’s house and she tells the first episode of 12 stories of Starcatcher.

Song:     Users hear all or part of the first verse of one of the many songs from the radio series by clicking on moon icons.

Teacher’s Control Panel:     The 7 stars on the opening screen that switch on or off items from each list of 7 lists: Programme Options, Story Options, Song Options, Activity Options, Sound Controls, Teachers’ Notes, Star Words.

5.4    The evidence

The evidence from the main study is presented in this section of the chapter by collating the responses to each of 4 features of interface design to improve the quality of interface interaction which are:

  • The audio and written instructions.
  • The screen design.
  • The mouse movements – the operation of the interactive features.
  • The teachers’ control panel.

In the second part of this section each of these 4 features was assessed in terms of the ten criteria listed in Section A: Standard Interface Design Practice and Section B: Innovative Design Features of Research Tool, as described at the end of chapter 4.

Within each section of the chapter dealing with the audio and written instructions, screen design, and mouse movements, evidence was generally presented in the order in which children used the interfaces. The evidence was the result of the researcher counting events and counting positive and negative responses to questions and carrying out word searches across each of the databases. The typical number of cross-referenced responses was 15 for each question drawn from the responses in individual interviews, 6 teacher interviews and 110 observations in groups of three children. Numbers were added for clarity not statistical significance. In other cases, the general terms ‘most’ or ‘some’ were used. At the end of the chapter responses were quantified, analysed and discussed. The reader should refer to the Research Tool on the computer while reading the text below.

The opening screen was the obvious starting point as it was the first contact a user has with the Research Tool. It has the potential to set the tone and create expectation of the subsequent use. It also presented a child with a new situation to be dealt with, a challenge and an opportunity for co-operation or conflict with the peer group.

5.4.1    The role of written and audio instructions

The first of 3 key questions about the instructional element of each interface was ‘Did you understand what children were telling you to do?’ The aim of this question was to explore and elicit an understanding of the role of the text and sound instructions that used children’s images and voices within the interfaces.

The Opening Interface This screen elicited a wide range of responses from children. Most child interviewees expressed a preference for clicking on the star, slightly fewer wanted to click everywhere to ‘see what happened’. Considerably fewer preferred the boy followed by the grandmother and then the girl as clickable items.

Observation evidence differed. Most interviewees appeared to want to click on the boy, then the star, followed by clicking indiscriminately with Granny and the girl the least popular. This observation would tend to confirm that children consistently went to the ‘things to do’ section (the boy icon) first.

Teachers thought that the open question ‘Who is Starcatcher?’ was lost in the other information and that the spoken phrase should have been included as a roll-over, possibly on the star. However, one teacher thought that despite the question being provided: ‘They would still explore. I don’t think they stop and listen, because the mouse is there. The nature of having a mouse is to click and find out, not listen and find out.’

Teachers commented on the boy as the most popular object quoting his position pointing at the star, being a boy and the reference to ‘Things to do’ as the most exciting aspects. Gender issues were not investigated in this research. The focus was the transfer of existing resources to multimedia. In the original illustration the image of the boy was pointing to the Star and the impression of action was used in the multimedia version for the sequence of activities.

The opening interface presented children with an open question. ‘Who is Starcatcher?’ in text and audio. The effect of using an open question appeared to work. The opening page was observed not only to be exciting to children, but also provided a confusion of images. The confusion was compounded by the roll-overs, which operated quickly with audio and visual feedback and instantly took users to the new ‘page’.

Activity 1, in contrast to the exciting confusion of the opening screen was visually and intellectually much less demanding, with one main task: to click and drag a letter from a jumbled list into a box to spell a word correctly.

Children’s comments, observations and teachers’ interviews confirmed the clarity of the instruction and the task. One teacher thought the written instruction should appear on the screen as well and that a demonstration might help too. However, the physical task required manual dexterity skills, which were the focus of attention, and the subject of group discussion and involvement.

Activity 2, in contrast, required children to do 3 physical tasks. First, the audio instruction was to put 4 icons into each of 4 pockets of a boy and sing along and clap hands in time with the rhythm of the name of each icon repeated four times after the last icon of the 3 sets of ‘star’, ‘shooting star’, ‘shining brightly’ icons was placed correctly in the pocket. The audio file was provided four times emphasising the beats in the rhythm i.e. ‘shi-ning bright-ly’.

Most children were observed not to clap their hands, and noticeably longer was taken to work out what to do in comparison with the previous task. More time was spent discussing, asking questions and telling each other what to do. The children’s response was that most understood the early instructions. Yet no one mentioned clapping hands at all, with only 2 references out of 14 even mentioning putting icons into the pockets and ‘it would say the words’. There was a concern in the interviews with teachers about the number of instructions that children can absorb.

Activity 3 required children to absorb 4 elements in the instructions: put icons into pockets, replace them with other icons, move the pockets around, and clap hands to the chanted rhythm of the words as the sequence played when the last icon was put in the pocket. They were also asked to, ‘Put more star words in more pockets and see what happens.’

The main feature of the observations and interviews of this activity was that the discussion had a reflective element as children talked about what the icons were, before they put them in the pockets. Another key feature was that the hand-clapping task was only carried out by a small minority.

Activity 4 had 3 elements to it but children did need to memorise a large amount of the instructions as in the previous activities. The reason is possibly partly because of inherent problems with the design. This only allowed users to click on a beater to play the instrument that appeared once the instrument icon had been moved to the star, moon, and sun symbols. The instrument disappeared and the beater appeared. Only then could it be moved around to the 3 symbols to create a tune at random.

From observation children quickly moved the instruments to the symbols. Most children were able to remember what to do for the last activity in the instructions, which was to engage in discussion about trying each instrumental sound to capture the feeling of each of the symbols. Two children began to discuss the relative merits.

Activity 4 had an attractiveness that set it apart from the previous elements. All individually questioned children except one, said they understood the task to be carried out. A teacher thought the instructions were fine, ‘because you’re focussed in on what you have to do and then what you have to do with it. Also it’s telling you something you can make.’ However, one teacher pointed to the conflict between instruction and actual events on the screen, ‘It asks them to use the beater and they’ll look on that screen and say, “It hasn’t got a beater.” You don’t get the beater until you’ve done it, but they [children] learn by doing.’

Activity 5 instructions were observed to be clearly understood, but the operation of the reward or results of the actions differed from previous screens: the instruments were put into the star symbols. The instrument symbols disappeared. The symbols were all variations of one star design. However, in this activity, the sounds started to play automatically with no way of stopping them until they finished. If they were moved around as instructed, the tune continued to play.

From all the observations it was clear that children’s ability to memorise what the sounds were and in what order they should be moved was very limited because the instrument icons disappeared as they were put into the symbols. Some children started to make their choice of sound as in the previous activity, but control was taken away from them as the sequence started playing automatically. ‘It just does it itself’ summed up the attitude. Children were generally confused, lost interest and moved on. Some children were also frustrated, others were trying to make it work clicking and struggling to move things around (which was not possible once the sequence started playing). The activity was observed to be the most confusing of all interfaces in the Research Tool.

Teachers identified one key element, ‘Oh I see it moves on top of it. Why does it work sometimes with you [the user] clicking it and why sometimes without?’ And, ‘I was expecting it to be exactly the same as before [the previous activity]. Was I to move the star around or was it these [the instrument icons], because I’m sure I heard “move the star around?” ’

Activity 6 was the most popular of all the activities. The instructions for Activity 6 were staged, with a demonstration of what to do and a pause for children to act, with the opportunity to do a further open-ended activity. The task was to listen to the demonstration of 12 bars of the ‘Jupiter’ planet suite by Holst, then a sung (la-la) version by the teacher, to click on a large icon of the planet Jupiter to hear the orchestral version as a series of icons (Jupiter’s planets) highlighted. Children were then invited to play the tune. The tune was a la-la version. (It was technically too complicated to ‘cut up’ the orchestral version.) Children were observed to be listening more closely to the instructions for this activity.

Noticeably, unlike other instructions, one child recalled exactly what the task was, ‘What you have to do is, you had to listen to this about the music, then put the music on and then remember and then do the tune with the moons.’

The pattern here seems to suggest a case for the value of a ‘sequenced construction of audio instructions’ because the pattern of the sequence follows the most traditional of educational credo in a new media form: i.e. ‘Tell them what is about to happen, demonstrate it, repeat it, do it yourself, repeat it again, and then add a small change that further advances learning.’

On the other hand one child said, ‘I thought you could move them around and make a different tune’, based on the expectations created by the previous interface. (It was possible to play another tune but not move the moons around.)

All teachers thought this interface was very attractive ‘The planets, the interaction between sound and visual, and movement by hand, and the sound is the strength.’ ‘This is more didactic isn’t it. Nice and clear.’ ‘The music echoes the voice.’ ‘They can go back…[and have another go]. There is flexibility.’ ‘There is lots to do.’ ‘I’ve heard a child say they feel sad at the music.’ ‘These [icons] are very close.’ ‘The visual clues I noticed.’ ‘He played those 3 notes as the same because he went by colour.’ This teacher thought there was the opportunity for another level of instruction ‘There could be another level where they can play their own tune. Can you move them round?’ (Researcher: ‘No.’) There was comment about the delay caused by the software making it difficult for children to click and get a note quickly.

In response to a supplementary question ‘Why do you think they are spending so much time on this?’ one teacher responded, ‘Because they can create their own music. They feel very special. Specially those children who don’t play an instrument.’

In response to a discussion about extension activities in the classroom, these instructions were stated to have the quality of offering a child further opportunity for action and, as one teacher put it, ‘Yes, so they have a chance to think, “Well what is this?” and “What is that?” “I can go on to do this.” They can work out what they’re going to do.’

The Story Activity has 3 components, the first being a screen showing 4 icons of children outside grandmother’s house at night – children had to click and drag each of the child icons and take them into the house. The second screen showed children with grandmother in the sitting room. Finally, the Starcatcher story animation appeared as children asked Granny to tell them a story.

The general observation was that there were too many words of spoken instructions for children to absorb and that the aim of the activity was lost in the operation of moving the child icons into the house.

The Song Activity consisted of a single screen with one verse and chorus of the Starcatcher song. At the beginning of each line was a small moon icon. Clicking on the icon started and stopped the song, which, when the sound files started, highlighted each word.

The researcher’s observations record that the instruction, ‘Click on the moon and see what happens’ was not precise enough and that, ‘Join in and sing along’ might elicit a more positive response.

5.4.2    The role of screen design

The second of the 3 key questions asked during the research was ‘Was it clear what you had to do just from the pictures on the screen?’ This section collates the evidence of responses to the focus on screen design. The screen design was taken to include the visual artwork and the layout and does not include the interactivity element, which was the focus of the mouse movement section.

The Opening Interface The impact of audio instructions and the screen design operated together for the reasons indicated in the previous section.

Activity 1 observations showed most children were clear what they were required to do just from the picture itself. Children started the activity straight way after the sound instruction was heard. There was some expectation that it was necessary to type the letters in. However, in all cases there was discussion on how to do the task but the discussion was caused by the difficulty in mastering the click and drag routine.

Teachers commented that the artwork was not enough in itself to give clear guidelines what to do. Verbal instructions were required. One teacher thought the artwork was good enough to keep their interest. However, the artwork was not enough alone to indicate the task. ‘But then very few (CD-ROM screens) do that.’

Activity 2 observations showed unanimous and immediate understanding of what had to be done. The pockets were recognised as pockets and, with a ‘Wow’ and a ‘This is brilliant’, children were observed getting right on with the task. A group of 7-year-olds waited for a period of 20 seconds to work out what to do.

Children who were interviewed were not quite so confident that they understood what to do, with 6 out of 11 responding positively.

The 4 teachers were divided equally in their responses. Two thought that though what was to be done appeared to be clear from the artwork alone, what was to be achieved was not clear, and suggested there was nothing to indicate just from the visuals that children should put things in the pockets or that they should also join in the clapping activity. The design was not especially clear. The other two thought the screen design was lovely, and that a bright child would work out immediately what needed to be done.

Activity 3 The main observation of Activity 3 was that from the visual design perspective children chose the most pleasing planet to put in the pockets, seeing them as favourite shapes or wanting to reveal what they were from the audio response, even before the instructions were finished. Identifying what the icons were from the visual image alone took up some time – suggesting that the icons were not drawn clearly enough. One group was organising the order of the icons in the pockets into stars and then planets.

Two out of 8 child interviewees thought the pictures did not give a clear idea of what to do. Teachers thought that the experience of the previous ‘pocket’ activity would make the screen design clear about what had to be done.

Activity 4 at first caused one group of children to be observed from the visual design perspective to have difficulty working out what to do. When the beater appeared after moving one of the instruments into one of the icons, they thought it was a spoon. The instrument icons disappeared as they were put into the symbol too. The loss of visual clues at this level also caused discussion as to what to do. There was no obvious visual relationship between the instruments and the icons as existed in the previous pockets activity. It was not possible to move the star icons around as in the previous activity.

Five out of 9 children thought they were clear what to do just from the pictures on the screen.

Two teachers thought the screen was clearly understandable, two said, ‘Where’s the beater?’

Activity 5 was observed to cause children difficulty in working out how to use it from the visual information alone and after a few seconds went on to the next activity. Those who persevered did not appear to be happy. The instrument icons disappeared when they were put into the star icons, and then they started playing before they could be moved around. There was no reward or reassurance of a clear visual feedback. One group tried to move the stars to the instrument icons, which suggest there was confusion as to the layout of images or their visual priority. There were just two lines of icons of visually equivalent in terms of colour and size, and dependent on the sound instruction alone for the clue what to do.

Seven out of 10 children understood what to do from the way they conducted themselves.

A teacher pointed out a problem caused by the disappearing icons, ‘If they are at all like me they’ll have forgotten what they’re supposed to put there.’ Another said, ‘I feel like the village idiot here – I’m not quite sure how this works.’ Another said, ‘It doesn’t show as much excitement. You don’t have a beater. All they want to do in a music lesson is get to the beater. Sit anywhere near them and they’ll be playing with that beater, straight away. Here they haven’t and you don’t know what’s coming.’

Activity 6, in contrast to the previous example was observed to absorb children in a variety of ways. It was common for children to start singing with the narrator’s voice right away in the demonstration element of the instruction. Children were co-operating, working together to solve the problem of making it work.

Children watched the moons highlight as the main ‘Jupiter’ tune played. These moons also highlighted when children played them. One child tried to click on the moons and drag them about. Another child tried to roll-over the moons instead of clicking on them. One child clicked on one moon and waited, possibly expecting the whole tune to play from one click. One boy explored all sorts of different combinations of the moons.

It was common for children not to listen to the whole instruction but to click on Jupiter right away. It is the biggest element on the screen. However, children were heard saying, ‘How are we supposed to know which one is which?’ (i.e. their names presumably) and ‘Put it on Mars – it might be funky music.’ Some children did not realise that the planets were illustrating the main tune – ‘It is the brown planet that people eat.’

Out of 9 children, 3 answered clearly that they understood what to do from the illustrations, 6 said they did not know what to do.

The Story Activity With the Opening Story Screen, children were observed to talk more and with a wide variety of comments when solving the operation of this interface

There was little response to the Meeting Granny Screen partly because the dialogue to this screen started on a slight movement of the mouse. The audio was self-explanatory and Granny started to tell the story. This screen cleared to display the Story Screen.

The story page itself consisted of a screen of stars. As the story unfolded, some of the stars disappeared and the Starcatcher, made of stars, appeared as a small black figure which moved across the screen. The figure produced a small catch net, gathered some stars and then each of the stars forming the outline of the figure turned a golden yellow.

Four out of 7 children interviewed knew what to do on this page just from the screen design.

One teacher thought the opening story screen design gave them the impression ‘Starcatcher is inside because they glow and because they’re being drawn in. The whole house is glowing.’ ‘Is Granny Starcatcher?’

Another teacher thought, ‘The light coming from that was good because it obviously indicates the focal point of the picture.’

A third teacher thought it did not matter that there is an instruction immediately the screen appears, ‘They will click all over. Whilst it doesn’t react I like it because it is exciting. While I watched children doing this they were absorbed instantly, because they have to focus on something. I think that is a good start.’

A fourth teacher thought the artwork indicated the task clearly, ‘In that the door is open. There are lots of stories where the door is open, where you go through an open door where you follow through, but I think it is a good idea there aren’t any words on it that they find out by clicking on the person. Although the very first person I clicked and didn’t move.’ Researcher: ‘You want them to click to move them through the door?’ Teacher: ‘It’s nothing that we planned but children think that’s it. If they’ve clicked that they think they’ve done it.’

The Song Activity Most children joined in to the Song Activity right away. Children reacted quickly and most started singing. Everyone in these observations could read the words in the song. Children jigged about in their seats. Very few tried to learn the words. Those who were observed to be less interested in the subject matter clicked on and off the lines and tried to click on the words as they highlighted. Most children only played and joined in the song once before clicking, ‘Back’.

5 out of 7 children understood what to do just from the pictures from the way they conducted themselves.

All the teachers agreed, ‘Yes, though you have got a choice and some might go to the chorus first, because we have a duty to learn that first. We teach them [the chorus] first [normally in class]. Could you have had a larger moon or one dark until you clicked on it?’ ‘Without the voice? From their experience of other CDs, I would imagine yes [they would know what to do].’

5.4.3   The role of mouse movements

This section is confined to observations specifically about ‘click and drag’ mouse movements, i.e. in terms of how the mouse was used to move objects around.

The Opening Interface ‘Click and drag’ mouse movement was not applicable to the opening interface. However, in terms of where the mouse was moved, children were observed to be clicking on everything with preferences as discussed elsewhere (see page 76). It was possible to use the mouse movements to create several features, i.e. highlight the three figures, make three sets of words appear and three corresponding sound files play. When one or two of the groups were excited and ‘roll-overed’ frantically, the effect was to fire off a quick moving range of events and the result was confusion.

The ability of the mouse to not only provide feedback from a roll-over but also from three hot-spot areas sent some children off in one direction instantly. Most children discussed what to do. One or two groups, who had been identified by the teacher as having little computer experience, stared at the screen and did not touch the mouse, but tried to use the keyboard.

Activity 1 involved observing most groups in a discussion between themselves about spelling but in the context of moving the letters around to get them in the right place.

It was frequently observed that one child would tell another what to do and to discuss turns. It was observed that what had to be done as an intellectual activity was solved immediately, but how to do it took longer but still within 30 seconds. Two groups of children thought they had to type the words in, but before they had solved how to do it, someone had clicked and held down the mouse button causing the letter to move.

Children were asked, ‘How easy was it to move the letters around?’ Most answered that it was easy. Ten children were also asked, ‘What did you find out when you moved the mouse?’ Most referred to how hard it was to control the mouse. A teacher thought click and drag in the task had an educational advantage because it avoided children writing, and another teacher observed that children were quick to use it in comparison to using the school computer because they have to click and drag to mark out text.

Ten of the children interviewed were quite clear about what they had to do for this activity, which was clicking and dragging letters into boxes. But 5 children described varying issues regarding the clicking and holding down the mouse as opposed to, ‘just clicking it like that computer over there’, and also the task was hard, ‘because you had to get the text into the right place’. The comment suggests that the motor task difficulty might be unconsciously perceived as being related to the intellectual task. One child liked the task because, ‘I like to think what they could be.’ This comment may suggest a potential for physical mouse activity to be related to forward thought, a projecting of what might be through the manipulative activity. The observation notes suggested children had no problem with understanding and achieving the task. Most discussion was about how to spell the words and suggestions on which box to put the letters.

Teachers did not comment on any difficulty children might have had ‘Very quick even though the least able were using it.’ But they were quite clear that moving objects was a desirable activity especially from the point of difficulty for young children to identify required letters amongst the QWERTY keyboard and difficulty of typing text. The advantage was ‘That’s the sort of thing they like doing. They’re also in control.’

Activity 2 was a variation of Activity 1, applying the same click and drag task in a different context of moving planet images into pockets. All eleven respondents except one were observed to be clear about what they had to do right away. Children recognised that the icons got bigger when they were pressed, a feature which was actually a mistake in the programming.

Most children were observed to have no difficulty in clicking and dragging the mouse to put the icons in the boy’s pocket. Those children that continued to have manual dexterity difficulties appeared to be put off by the time it took to complete the task and when one set of icons was completed, jumped on to the next activity screen without following up the other two tasks.

Where a group organised themselves so that each child put one star in at a time, a large amount of their time was spent in controlling the manipulating activities. They did not clap or even say a word.

It was observed that children with the mouse, busily involved in clicking and dragging, did not have a hand free to clap.

In reply to the question ‘What did you find out when you moved the mouse?’ all answers from children involved issues of manipulation skills and nothing to do with the actual musical task.

From the observations the effect was enjoyable, and appeared to be an end in itself for some children. One child described the need to ‘let go’ of the icon in the pocket. Another child described a problem that, ‘sometimes it [the mouse, the object?] gets stuck where the mat comes to the end. I make it all dizzy.’ The child is graphically describing two features of problems encountered when moving objects with a mouse. First, as confirmed in the observations, it is clear that, in some circumstances, such as long distance moves of the mouse, i.e. dragging a planet icon from top left to bottom right, ‘the mouse is required to be lifted up’. The reason is that the distance to be moved is more than the distance of the mouse (centred on the middle of the mat) to the edge of the mat. Second, the apt description of the wild movements of the object while the mouse is being brought under control as ‘dizzy’, leads one to be reminded of the need to be aware of a child’s point of view. For a child, not only does this design problem detract from the main task, but might also be intensely pleasurable, or frustrating or even humiliating in a group situation.

Teachers were pleased with this task and thought it was easy for children to move objects round. ‘They become involved. The minute they are doing it they become involved.’ One teacher said, ‘It doesn’t hinder them. It increases fine motor control. It improves. I wonder if that is why Max [a pupil with motor problems] was going off the top [enjoying the task to the point of over excitement]?’

Teachers thought the click and drag was easy to use because of Apple’s single mouse button. This interface was much more friendly for children to use than current computer programs. ‘The worst that can happen is that you go to the previous activity or start again.’ Another teacher reported, ‘It increases fine motor control. It improves [their skills].’ ‘They are discussing the task as well’ and, ‘I think it helps because it focuses them on the objects.’

Activity 3 During this activity most children were observed to have no problems with clicking and dragging events. It was an enjoyable activity and created a constant stream of creative discussion how and what to do. Children engaged in 3 separate choices: putting instruments in the icons, playing the sound and moving them around.

Children made an issue about deciding on further choices of icons to create different sequences. One group said, ‘Have to force it out.’ This is a response to the fact that children cannot take things out of the pockets unless another is put in, ‘forcing it out’ after the first sequence is complete.

Children said, ‘This time it was easy.’ Children were observed to have no problems in moving objects and discovering all three aspects. One child uttered ‘Weeee!’ while moving an item.

Eight children interviewees were asked, ‘What did you find out when you moved the mouse?’ All the responses related to the operations of the mouse and not the learning taking place. Children interviewed unanimously both liked ‘moving things around’ and found it easy to do.

One teacher asked, ‘How do they know they’ve got 3 [possible kinds of choices of movement]?’ The answer is that they have an audio message, but this forms one sentence as the activity screen appears, before children start exploring, and the message is not repeated.

A teacher made the point that ‘I know that moving the things into the pockets is important but the end product is that they pick the rhythm. So I think I would have to explain to them how the thing worked and what they were.’ Another teacher commented, ‘Sometimes there are missed learning opportunities. Sometimes I am half-and-half on learning discovery and demonstrating using an analogy. If you don’t tell them, they haven’t anything to choose between.’

Another teacher commented on the range of tasks that could be performed using the click and drag mouse: ‘They have two things they can do; it plays then you can also swap places. I don’t know if it is an extension or a confusion. They were getting all the space things in. I think there is a problem with this that there should be the words on top they have forgotten, also they repeat that sequence, that particular pattern, they can only repeat it by changing the order around.’

On reflection, perhaps there is a case for ‘small changes in activities’ which might be based on providing children with simpler examples of tasks so that there is achievability at lower skill levels, then a progression in terms of intellectual and motor activity. But woven into the sequence there is a need for continual development and build up of expectation and excitement of some new event.

Activity 4 This activity required a more sophisticated set of control movements. Children had to choose an object, which then turned into a beater, and then click and drag it to make it operate on another icon. The beater then disappeared, but by clicking on the object a note could be created. In addition all the icons could be ‘clicked on’ by the now invisible beater. An additional form of movement control is available: if another icon was dragged into an icon that was already occupied, then the old sound icon would ‘pop out’. There was generally observed to be more of a pause before children began making this work, but they went straight to it with constant clicking and dragging plus clicking of the beater. Children were surprised at the sudden appearance of the beater and concern over the disappearance of the instruments and the disappearance of the beater.

Out of 27 replies to questions related to mouse issues, the majority of children quickly found how to make the tunes. ‘It was pimps [easy] and exciting.’ Children discovered ‘You could make your own songs and you could quickly exchange them.’ Speed and ease and creativity are the themes running through the responses. Children were not disturbed by the disappearance of the beater as might have been expected. In fact, surprise was an added bonus ‘Surprised that I found that if you cleared all the instruments [from the top line and put them into the icons] it would make them play. It felt very good.’

Children were asked, ‘What did you like about using the beater stick?’ All enjoyed it and thought it was exciting and fun. One child answered, ‘That you could move these into the star, moon, and sun and make the same noise.’

Teachers made the following comments on the operations of the mouse: ‘I think this is OK. It is all going to depend on a good mouse. If I want to get from there to there it is quite a long way.’ And, ‘I don’t think you can answer everything in the program itself. I think it would be in the teachers’ notes to suggest.’

‘Would it be better to point out things and ask children to each have a go at a screen? It’s more valuable on a teaching point or a learning point if each person has a go at one screen, but would they lose interest?’

The reason for the lack of concern about the beater disappearing might be provided by the teachers’ observation that: ‘This is maybe where first time round they investigate. Then the second time you may have it more directed with questions with which instrument sounds like the sun or moon. I think there is a lot of potential there. There is surprise but equally the potential for in-depth work. Yes, I like that. Shame the beater is not on the screen.’

Another teacher commented, ‘I think it needs the beater on the screen. I quite like the way it appears when you get it in the right place.’

In terms of extra potential of the open nature of the operation of the activity, a teacher suggested: ‘As a teacher I’d make a little card. You could show the whole group and then ask if they can make some more up on the their own. You limit by explanation on the screen. You could write a poem and create the sound effects for the tune.’

On reflection, from observations and from just listening to the Minidisc digital audio recordings, it seems that if children are confused by the disappearance of the instrument icons, they are also intrigued. Children were fully involved here, in moving and action and holding the mouse button down.

Activity 5 The researcher’s observations were more critical. Of 11 observations, there were none of the usual comments about chat. Children were silent and appeared to be struggling, clicking around and not getting anything out of it. Some children were taking a star to the instrument. If the star was moved first the sequence failed to work for a few moments. One child called out, ‘Bright star in Bethlehem, Wake up time.’ It was possible to put a star over the back button and jump out of the activity. It was also possible to stack instruments on top of each other and so go off-task by making this an activity in itself. The stars jumped around if children kept their hand down on the mouse button. Children could not remember where they put sounds once the stars moved around. (Perhaps this is like the game of finding the pea under the 3 tumblers trick?)

From a total of 27 replies to children questioned about the control of objects, all children knew what they had to do and could achieve the task physically, and most children appreciated the similarity to the previous activity. The attractive feature was the tune that played after the sound icons were all placed inside the star icons ‘Same as the other one you could make your own sound and move it around quickly. It would do it by itself. Not like in the last one when you had to push it down.’ The surprise was appreciated too ‘Quite funny. You move them around and suddenly it makes you jump when it makes a sound. It is a bit difficult. It gives me a shock. It is a bit strange.’

Six children answered the question, ‘What did you find out when you moved the mouse?’ Most responses referred to the operation of the mouse but there was little comment on the confusion caused by the mouse itself. Children do tend to understate problems they encounter (Crook, 1992).

Teachers pointed out the confusion caused by the mouse movements as children put the stars into the instruments when the programming requires that mouse function is suspended:

‘They don’t know whether to put it in or take it out.’

‘I actually thought that me moving the arrow actually caused the noise. That is what I thought until I moved here and another sound started playing. I hadn’t connected that it played in a sequence. I was moving this around.’

Teachers thought the activity was a little strange too ‘I think I’m confused. If I move to the star it moves and my expectation is that pitch would rise. Now I’m clicking on star burst I’d expect it to play the sound.’

Another teacher also thought that moving the object around hindered understanding: ‘I think it hinders the task. I didn’t understand what I was achieving. I certainly didn’t know when I moved it [the mouse] it was going to play the whole thing, because it was so slow. I thought that every time I moved the mouse it was actually clicking on this [a star icon] and I thought I was going to get the instrument icon down. The picture ought to appear underneath.’

Activity 6 Most points about the interface have been made in the other sections above. Children were observed to find difficulty at first playing the tune at the right speed moving and clicking the mouse. However, there were only 9 responses from children about ease of use. This was possibly because there were no other issues arising, as it was so clear, easy and trouble free to use. There were many more responses to the screen design and sound element (17 and 16 respectively). Children were only required to click, not move objects around. However, children reflected on the number of different responses to the several elements the activity was capable of: ‘It would sing some music. You had to do the same thing. It could make noises like ‘La’. When you pressed on that you could get the [whole] tune.’ The responses were positive and clear. No one child was able to sum up all the range of possibilities.

The large size of the Jupiter icon made it easy for the mouse to be moved over and rolled-over to start another sequence and this may have helped the repeat process.

So much was going on in these observations that a clear pattern was not observed, only that the freedom to repeatedly go back and forward having listened to the Jupiter tune and then trying to play it themselves was fully explored.

Eight children were asked, ‘What did you find out when you moved the mouse?’ Most children referred to the ability to use the mouse to get the tune.

Children were asked, ‘What are the different things you can do with this task?’ They were able to list the things they could achieve.

Teachers commented on the accurate use of the mouse, that nothing seemed to go wrong and the importance of the ability to go back if they have missed the instructions. The flexibility was appreciated.

Teachers were asked, ‘How does this task differ from the previous task?’ The responses were ‘You have a specific challenge. You are holding that tune then find it. The other element given is a challenge, a specific challenge, a beginning or an end. This is so finite. If you have copied it what do you do now?’

The observations recorded problems with moving the mouse when they found the mouse difficult to move at the right speed to keep up with the tune and that Jupiter icon was so large they could easily roll-over it and start the sequence again by accident.

The Story Activity Observations regarding the moving of children into the house suggested it is easy to achieve but appears to have emotion attached to it. ‘They disappear before they get into the door. It feels like you are moving someone else. Like they are using my feelings. They haven’t got any of their feelings; they are using my feelings. It does make your hand feel funny.’

Most of the children that were observed appeared to be testing to see if holding down the mouse button caused the stars to be moved or made them disappear. They had difficulty with Starcatcher disappearing at the end of the story.

There were 33 responses from children to questions in this area. Most responses relate to the fact that children were trying to click during the storytelling when they were not required to do so. There was confusion caused by the apparent relationship between clicking and disappearance of stars (part of the storyline).

Children were asked, ‘What they found out when they move the mouse?’ Children commented on how the child icons disappeared and that they went through the doors or windows. There was some apprehension of moving children round because it was not nice, they were vanishing and the house looked ghostly and dangerous. This was the only screen where the manipulated icons of human figures not inanimate objects.

Teachers made comments about: ‘They don’t see themselves as going into the story [with the icons]. Children experience it as observing it from outside like a programme on TV. They observe themselves like the third eye – another person watching it.’ ‘Children are expecting to do something to catch the stars with the mouse [Story Screen]. They are not used to just watch. They expect something to happen all the time. They expect to be in control.’

A teacher reacted to the click and drag element: ‘I think it is a lovely idea. Whether they empathise with them I don’t know. Do you have to take each of the children?’ (Yes, they each take a child). The observations confirmed the confusion children had with previous uses of the click and drag into the story which was so limited in relation to other activities, and this feeling of frustration was compounded when the story itself was a passive experience not requiring clicking or moving objects.

Song Activity Observations covering mouse clicking during this activity have been discussed in sections above. It was observed that children were clicking on the words as they were highlighted. Otherwise there was no actual problem, the activity focussed on singing and all children were fully involved. Anticipated issues did not arise, perhaps because clicking on the narrow icons only had to be done once or twice to achieve the task.

Children were asked, ‘What did you find out when you moved the mouse?’ Fifty-nine replies were analysed relating to, Criterion 7: Is the control of movement of an object easy for small hands to achieve?

This activity only required children to respond by clicking the mouse button. The issue here was the size of the icon at the beginning of each line, and the accuracy required of a child manipulating the mouse into the small area of the hotspot and then holding the mouse still to engage the click action. Ten responses suggested there seemed to be little difficulty: ‘It’s fine. It’s good. It gets the song to going. Very exciting.’ Teachers were in agreement: ‘That’s the way they learn songs, listening and repeating at this age.’ ‘It’s good. They are much more likely to click rather than be told to learn.’

Of ten children, who were all asked, ‘Tell me what it is like making the mouse move things round the screen?’ 4 said, ‘exciting’, 3, ‘weren’t sure’, 2 said it was ‘all right’, and one found it ‘difficult’.

If the concept of movement is widened to consider the highlighting of words on this page then the teachers’ responses were positive. They thought that children were encouraged to read but splitting the syllables would have been an advantage.

5.5   The teachers’ control panel

Teachers were asked a range of questions around the hidden control panel which allowed the teacher to select in theory 60 activities, 10 episodes of the stories and 10 songs from the original 10 broadcasts. In the Research Tool, one story, one song and 6 activities only were active. However, the teachers’ control panel did demonstrate how these selections could be made. Table 5.1 lists points to which teachers were asked to respond:


1.    ‘They say that because you, the teacher, can switch sections on and off, the software puts you in control.’

2.    ‘How would this screen help you organise classroom activities and learning?’

3.    ‘The authors believe the control screen allows you to organise work for different ability levels in the class.’

4.    ‘Would you find this (control) screen easy to use yourself?’

Table 5.1: List of teachers’ control panel issues presented to teachers for comment.

This group of questions were designed to reflect Criterion 10: Is the totality of interface activities in a product capable of flexible organisation by the teacher to facilitate learning?

To this group of questions, 4 replied immediately ‘Yes.’ The majority of teachers gave varying degrees of positive response. All teachers thought it was important to be in control and ‘We should get from these what we want to get.’ One teacher commented how an existing CD-ROM (My World), with an open menu method of defining levels of complexity, could be changed by children. The problem was that the teacher might set the level and tasks, only to find ‘In ten minutes they’re doing something different.’

Teachers thought they could organise CD-ROM multimedia work differently if they had the high level of control provided by the teachers’ control panel. Prompted about what kind of different work, the response was ‘I can put children on different levels according to their ability’ and ‘…because you could plan progression.’ Another said, ‘Yes and also to reinforce things.’ Also, ‘You are not just setting up levels on different activities. You are setting up different activities. You have a lot of options.’

One teacher thought that it was still hard work having to listen through all the items and that a print-out was preferable. (This is an option in one area of the control panel.) ‘It is easier to use but you really would need the teachers’ notes too. You have to have the terminology in the National Curriculum so you’d know whether it was listening or speaking, it was rhythm or pitch, whether it was recognising sounds.’ The control panel does not define activities according to these categories.

Regarding the two secret keys, teachers thought children would eventually find how the secret keys work, but that they would be good about not touching them. The temptation was reduced by making the keys a bit difficult to remember.

Teachers were also asked, ‘Does the organisation of the software fit in with everyday classroom practice?’ All 5 teachers answered in the affirmative. Concern was expressed about the irritation of the sound, but it was pointed out that the teacher could control the sound simply from the teachers’ control panel not through the computer’s system controls. This was thought by one teacher to be an added advantage.

One teacher summed up the advantages: ‘Yes in that you can leave children to get on with it so you don’t have to be there all the time explaining the next activity. They will find their way to and fro quite quickly and you will have limited them to what you will have wanted them to do, so you can say you want every child to spend ten minutes on this machine then you only have one activity available to them. You could fit it in a day when you had a day with lots of other things going on. Or you could make it a much longer activity and know that you only wanted two groups of children that day to thoroughly go through it.’

It is important to reflect that teachers’ control panels in CD-ROMs have improved since this study has been carried out, notably in Riverside Explorer (AUCIE, 2000).

5.6    The analysis of the evidence

The aim was to use the data to answer the main research question:

What are the design features required to improve the quality of computer interface interaction for 5 to 7-year-old children?

In this section the evidence was analysed according to the 10 Criteria or ‘Rules of Engagement’ listed in Table 4.1 (p. 144) in chapter 4. The first 4 criteria relate to standard interface design. The other six reflect on the innovative design features in the Research Tool.

5.6.1   Criterion 1: Are users clear about what task they can do with the interface?

The success or otherwise was gauged by the user’s understanding of, ‘What can I do with this screen?’ The conclusion from the evidence was that of all the different interfaces investigated in the main study: the simpler the task and the shorter the instructions, the easier users find the activity, as in Activity 1. However, there were also a wide range of variations and apparent inconsistencies in children’s reactions to the other interfaces. In the opening interface, for example, there was a wide range of responses, and preferences for action. The responses appeared to be in conflict. According to Criterion 1 the opening interface has failed in its objective. Yet children found it exciting and they wanted to find out more and clicked ‘everywhere’. The intention of the opening interface was to be open-ended and to give children choice, to engender mystery and excitement. Clarity was not the objective. However, further thought on how to manage the clarity of the ‘mystery and enchantment task’ rather than ‘choice task’ might inform an improved interface design. Criterion 1 was included because of its references in several multimedia design manuals though not necessarily applicable to educational multimedia.

The commentary in the section takes as its starting point the possibility that the simplistic definition of success – users being able to analyse consciously what can be done with an interface – was in itself unsatisfactory. Children do engage in reflective self-questioning during activities (Beard, 1972). However, the assumption even that adults engage in the process in a planned systematic and thoughtful way at the computer was equally ambitious. This criterion was a design guide for software, which was at the time not accessible through simple buttons and multimedia interfaces. The multimedia interfaces had not yet been conceived.

Users were now provided with a new kind of interface, not just a line of code, or text, or single function, or single image. Users were faced with a complex visual and audio image as well as the text.

There was also another design feature in the Research Tool – the ability to manipulate objects. What can I do with this program? was originally applicable for command driven (DOS) interfaces. In a Windows type environment, where the manipulation of objects was more intuitive, the meaning of ‘do’ has now changed. Previously ‘doing’ involved typing in words, positioning the cursor with the arrow keys and clicking. Later the mouse functionality allowed the easy positioning of the cursor. The evolution of the operating systems through Windows type environments, of which the mouse was part has hidden the real development –‘do’, now involved physical activity at the computer.

The ‘doing’ – manipulation facility in the Research Tool software design – had 3 effects:

1.     ‘Doing’ was no longer an abstract cognitive process. Children did not have to think logically or create a mental model, even if at their age this level of abstraction was not to be expected.

2.     Children did not have to read instructions or listen to instructions to make the computer respond.

3.     Computers were capable of responding very quickly to a child’s ‘wish’ to move objects, enhancing a sense of control through the sophistication of the windows type operating system.

‘Doing’ in its simple linguistic sense, as understood by the early software designers’ understanding of metaphor, was now replaced by ‘the real thing’ in Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) meaning of the experiential metaphor. Children, using the mouse were in a holistic process that involved their mind and body physically in their ‘doing’. The interactive interfaces enabled children to be children; they could play, talk, try again, make mistakes or just fiddle about. The effect was that the experience of watching children using an interface could look (and sound) like chaos. Logical events on a computer did not appear logical to children. Moreover, the cumulative effects of these developments meant the events were no longer in the control of teacher or parent, or even under the control of the traditional logical development plan of a designer. The ‘sum’ of the interface was greater that the designed parts.

‘What can I do with this screen?’ only made sense if interpreted with the manipulation facility as ‘What might I do if I physically explore everything on the screen right away?’ The interpretation took into account children responding by clicking everywhere to see what happened and moving on quickly if something did not work right away. The software was no longer failing and did it matter that children could not remember more than two instructions in a sequence, because they could always return and have fun trying again?

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 1, the question may have become less significant in terms of its original context of cognitive processes in the light of the new media developments, especially manipulation of objects, that have taken place since it was formulated.

5.6.2    Criterion 2: Are users clear how to make the interface work?

A user asks, How do I do this task? The evidence showed children spent time answering this question out loud, speaking to themselves and to others at each interface in the Research Tool. They took variable amounts of time at each interface to solve the question. Children talked to each other to resolve this question. They asked the question, but out loud in the form of, ‘How do I make it work?’ The question was resolved not by an internal, intellectual process, but as part of a pattern involving the help of other children and by a trial and error, ‘try-it-and-see’ technique. More significantly as in criterion 1, the ‘try-it-and-see’ technique was a physical process, i.e. moving the mouse, not an abstract intellectual process, indeed so was the resolution of the problem as posed by the activity.

The evidence also pointed to a clear distinction between the kinds of interactivity that involved users in fruitful and meaningful discussion using positive language, and discussions with varying negative expressions from boredom and frustration, through annoyance and simply moving on to another screen. The analysis of these discussions has been difficult: partly because the unusual feature of this software was the ability to move icons around not just click on them. In this context it was not surprising that what is to be learnt, i.e. musical patterns, was not necessarily the priority for users; how it works has to be resolved first. The difficulty was compounded by an assumption made by adults of educational software design that children should automatically be able to make an interface work first time. This assumption was made even though adults themselves sometimes have the greatest difficulty using the same commercial edutainment products.

Some confusion about ‘How does it work?’ has also been caused by the software functionality of the computer being in its infancy (Activity 5). Clearly, disappearing icons, events that make unreasonable demands on memory and also multi-events without feedback cause the ‘discussions of frustration’. Less forgivable was the unclear identity of icons and symbols.

Finally, it is necessary to comment on a third kind of discussion between children: talk that reflected the excitement of discovery and the appeal created by the changes in demand between one activity and another. The exchanges were about issues around the fine line between making procedural standardisation and clear functionality, but bore users – a point considered in more detail later in this chapter.

There remains the consideration that teachers liked the idea of discussion between children at a computer. The availability of computers in a primary classroom was limited and often children shared its use. The educational value of discussion to solve problems encouraged verbal and social skills. There was also a fine defining line between the discussion that was a working around of some complication in the software and a planned requirement that discussion should take place. For example, some teachers commented that they were quite happy that children were trying to work out the identity of the planets from the rather indistinct symbols, when the researcher was very concerned that they were not instantly recognised and the cause of the problem was the artwork briefing. To summarise the results from testing Criterion 2 the test results suggested the subtle possibility of ‘designing in’ discussion as a valid educational exercise.

5.6.3   Criterion 3: Are users clear about what is happening when they use the interface?

Users asked themselves, What is happening? Why did it happen? and, What does this mean? Users expected a simple feedback response. In the interfaces, especially Activity 5, which caused the most problems, children and teachers were confused as to what was happening and why. In these cases the feedback was insufficient or confusing.

Users may not have understood how the computer was carrying out the tasks. But there were responses, which the computer was expected to make and these responses became formalised after a very short time. The acceptance of features such as ‘click and pop up’ as the norm and ‘click and drag’ as something that was new, reflected the speed with which users got used to a computer program. The Research Tool worked in a different way to existing commercial products at the time, especially in the manipulation facility. The new facility did provide instant feedback of a new kind that needed time to assimilate both for the researcher and users.

Also as each interface acted in a slightly different way, there was a new challenge at each screen. These slight changes are suggested to have been a constant source of pleasure and involvement and enhancement of the quality of engagement. However, in Activity 5 both the initial action and the events that followed, broke all the expected ‘rules’ expanded upon in each successive previous activity. To have a tune play endlessly and automatically, as the result of no clearly defined action and with no real aim is a case in point.

Criterion 3 has as its assumption that there has been an event to which one feedback element occurred, because it was formulated for the early system software where an event was only a text based command line not a graphic image with many competing visual and audio elements. To summarise, with a multimedia interface came the need for a new holistic paradigm to formulate the synchronicity of a variety of visual, audio and tactile feedbacks. The successful interface was one in which questions become, What are all these happenings? Why did they happen? and What do they all mean? was understood by a child.

5.6.4    Criterion 4: Do users find it easy to navigate around the software product?

Users asked themselves, Where am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going to? The success of the criterion was the degree to which positive responses were received to these questions. In general, the design of the Research Tool was planned to overcome the issue of navigation problems, identified as prevalent in commercial CD-ROMs and sold as having educational value.

The evidence pointed to the main issue – that of becoming lost – endemic in many software products, which was solved by the system of switching on and off pages given to the teacher to control. This result was a simple and easy to use structure. If, as planned for the final production version of the Research Tool, teachers chose to switch on every element, 10 songs, 10 stories and 40 activities, users would require time to navigate through the product. But as each of the three sections; stories, songs and activities had a linear structure within each of the 3 elements, achieved by using simple backward and forward buttons.

In the Research Tool, during the school tests, all three choices on the opening screen were activated, but with only the story, one song and the 6 activities. There was no visual priority or other weighting given to one of these three elements. The proposition was that the coherent structure of the original radio programme and resources allowed children to gain an insight into whatever element they explored first and finally an ‘overall picture’. In contrast, teachers suggested that the story should have been logically given as the first choice.

Where navigation can be said to have created a problem or an issue, it was to the extent that there was a clear policy to create an open-ended choice at the beginning of the software. The evidence from the opening interface questions pointed to a particular kind of problem that a conventional criterion for good navigation cannot satisfy. There appeared to be a conflict between the need for clarity and the need to create an open-ended experience.

The opening interfaces of the edutainment software delivered in the CD-ROM in Primary Schools Initiative (NCET, 1994) usually had a clear choice structure but were text not audio based. In the Research Tool this form of textual limitation to a child-centred approach has been removed and given to the teacher to manage, and been replaced by artwork which was intriguing and exciting to children.

To summarise this section on Criterion 4; through the thesis, the understanding of how adults’ expectations of what an opening screen should do was broadened to encompass the possibility of ‘being lost’ in certain circumstances, as a desirable state in which to put users, where discovery, excitement and pleasure were harnessed as a learning event. The process included the following considerations:

1.       A lack of clear didactic structure of the subject matter in the opening interface was desirable. There should be a clear structure but it could be hidden.

2.       The software was allowed to reveal its secrets through reuse.

3.       The depth of engagement inherent in computer games of discovering new things all the time, the so-called ‘cheats’: choices, variations, secret complicated codes that need breaking to discover more. These operated on the borderline of uncertainty, pleasure in concentrated effort, discovery and finally resolution.

5.6.5    Criterion 5: Is the interface activity an enjoyable and absorbing experience?

  • It has to be recognised that as the subject of the Research Tool is music. It was a popular subject for many children in the age group. The research must recognise the ‘head start’ in the pleasure and involvement inherent in the subject matter.
  • It was a conventional wisdom that children learn best when they were enjoying themselves. Yet one child’s idea of a pleasurable activity was not another’s. Learning activities cannot always be enjoyable, however well-intentioned. The evidence suggested the ability of individuals to find pleasure in tasks that might not appear to be interesting in themselves, but absorbed and involved users in concentrated activity.

With these two points in mind, the evidence suggested some features of the Research Tool interfaces may be said to contribute to achieving the enjoyable and absorbing educational experience which is the focus of the criterion.

Features inherent in games have already been identified in the previous section. The responses to the opening interface confirmed its ability to stimulate suspense, excitement and wonder. The excitement generated can be said to be clearly nothing to do with music, which for music teachers may be seen as a drawback. However, this followed the conventional radio technique of ‘hiding’ the message within a story. Some of the triggers to excitement and pleasure were known as conventional media techniques: non-realistic images, soft outlines, rich colour contrasts between gold and dark. However, the evidence seemed to suggest that the combination of the old communication codes of involvement and the new interactivity may provide the key to what was enjoyable and exciting from a child’s perspective. The conventional triggers could be excessive. The evidence pointed to an overloading of attractive features. For example, an error was made through lack of understanding of the visual attention given to the largest star on the opening interface, which could have had a useful roll-over functionality. The significance of the cluster of attractive features of the boy, his pointing, and the audio and visual message of things to do were not consciously designed to have primacy on the screen. However, they did have an overall visual priority. It should have been planned!

The key textual and audio question, Who is Starcatcher? in the opening interface was not really recognised to be the focus of children’s attention. The reason should have been understood; it was a clear question but the means of answering it were not clear to children. It was ‘swamped’ by the other multimedia events; the physical movement and control of the mouse was children’s main focus of attention. Making it work, finding out what it would do dominated the activity. There was a satisfying instant response available from the three roll-over icons. The response was a combination of sound, text and visual (the glowing highlighting of the border). The result was confusion and the source of the problem was roll-over functionality with a high-speed response which allowed the blurring of one roll-over with another, a combination that might turn excitement into chaos.

The opening screen differed significantly from a conventional opening screen design. It was a design based on the researcher’s experience of designing ‘openings’ of radio programmes which explore the ability to inspire, motivate and excite. Here, the quality of engagement analysed and managed from the first screen of a software product for ‘total impact’  – a  concept described in chapter 6 – could be a valuable method in future. Conventional multimedia production methods militate against the estimation of the total impact of an interface. Unlike film, a multimedia story board cannot fully convey non-linear functionality, though a story board is often used in the design process for many multimedia productions. However, multimedia production schedules require that the artwork and programming are only fully functional at the end of the process. At this point there are often so many elements to the product that the task of analysing effectiveness of one screen is not easy.

In regard to the other interfaces of the Research Tool, the evidence pointed to depth of engagement through pleasure and concentration generally being identified with the manipulation of objects that were presented as tasks in a clear and a rational way. Where the manipulation had no meaningful feedback, enjoyment caused children worry and confusion.

The evidence may be said to show that the ability to repeat the tasks was an element in the enjoyment. The reasonable assumption was that children were free to enjoy the repetition if they were successful in completing the task and able to solve the problem without criticism. The simple structure of the interactive task and navigation both facilitated this process.

The evidence of the success of Activity 6 seems clear and was commented on by pupils and teachers and in observations and therefore deserves a detailed assessment. The structure of the tasks arose from an attempt to simply transfer the radio script to the opening instructions. The sequence of: demonstration, simplified example, instruction to join in and try yourself are an application of the basic educational radio script writing ‘design code’. It was arguably something with which children would be familiar. Therefore children could be confident of the task, with additional features of time to absorb the information through repetition. The instructions could also be repeated without going back to the previous screen. These were all features not present in other interfaces besides the opening interface of the Research Tool, features that were in the best tradition of conventional classroom teaching practice.

On top of the stepped, paced, clear introduction was built a level of interaction that has not been available to teacher or pupil before. New media has allowed for the analysis – the visualisation – the revelation of the structure of the music with the ability to repeat at will the discovery of the elements. Children have control. Also there was a further level of activity, an ‘added creative and interactive value’, of the hidden ability for children to reorder the notes in their own way – to play a different tune. All these elements within a recognised pattern of teaching structure made the activity a success.

The success of Activity 6 may be ascribed to the features, operating structure and content as above. However, they may be invoking more than a series of processes forming enjoyment as described by Csikszentmihalyi’s (1992) eight processes (see p. 94) These were interpreted and expressed by the researcher in the context of children using the Research Tool interfaces as follows.

1.            Children are confronted with tasks they can complete because of their empowerment. These same music tasks in a classroom situation have inherent problems of physical manipulation skills which are resolved on the computer.

2.            Concentration is easily achievable for the young age group because, first, only three children rather than a whole class are involved. Secondly, the manipulation and handeye co-ordination requirement stimulate focussed involvement.

3.            and 4 (There are clear goals and There is clear feedback). It is worth noting the similarity between the language and the processes in this context and interface criteria terminology in the Standard Interface Design Practice above (see Table 4.1, chapter 4, p. 144)

5.            Children appear to be removed from the ‘worries and frustrations of everyday life’ in their own terms, i.e. the teacher, the rest of the class. The absorption may come from in making the ‘thing’ work successfully with their friends in a comfortable classroom atmosphere.

6.            The experience may allow children to exercise control over their actions and is enjoyable.

7.            Concern for the self disappears, which can be intimated from the lack of evidence of conflict between children and the general atmosphere of co-operation, discussion and positive approach to problem solving. There is no evidence to suggest that children gain a stronger sense of self-emerging. The research has not specifically measured this element, only to the extent that there is a consistency of the positive responses to the overall experience.

8.            Csikszentmihalyi’s references (p. 49) to the loss of time experienced by those immersed in pleasurable activities were similarly not measured in this research.

Activity 6 of all the activities contained the greatest collection of these 8 features, but the result was not just enjoyment, the quality of engagement was enhanced. When the traditional codes of involvement and the new interactivity were combined successfully they form a concept of the ‘total impact’ of an interface. Whether numerical data would give statistical support to a general impression that most of the 8 elements appear in Activity 6 but not all or in different combinations in the other interfaces was quantitative research beyond the scope of the present thesis.

To what extent the general experience of the interfaces was educational was not so clear. The focus of the research was not to find out what had been learnt from the interfaces. The evidence pointed to confidence expressed by the teachers that further use in the classroom would achieve its educational aims, that music learning would take place, but that it would require input from the teacher. However, teachers made a positive response to the amount of control and involvement in its use.

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 5 this section has sought to use the evidence to answer the question, Is the interface activity an enjoyable and absorbing experience? As far as the opening interface and Activity 6 was concerned the evidence pointed to an overall positive answer which was certainly, ‘yes’ and to the other interfaces to varying degrees of success. By using the criterion as part of assessing the ‘total impact’ of an interface, design planning could be refined to incorporate traditional and new techniques to absorb children in an enjoyable educational activity.

5.6.6    Criterion 6: Does the interface activity engage users in concentrated activity through movement?

This was proposed as an innovative design feature in the Research Tool. The evidence suggested that control of movement was a prime instigator of concentrated attention and activity. The constancy of references to children’s use of the mouse was a central feature in the research. The movement was not of the ‘click and something appears or disappears’ functionality expected by children. The ‘click and drag’ involved children in more overall concentration of attention, first, in learning new manipulation skills and second, in completing the task.

The evidence did not directly relate to the findings reported in the literature relating to visual search and hand-eye co-ordination. Techniques using an eye camera would be required to test the hypothesis that focus on attention through movement in the Research Tool interfaces was facilitated and/or accompanied by physiological ‘focussing’ that included reduction in the saccadic eye movement, narrowing of eye search pattern and reduction in the size of the foveal oval. However, the literature did indicate that these processes took place when movement occurred.

The design of the screen interfaces of Activities 1 to 6 was specifically arranged with this manipulation as the core activity. These screen layouts with their white backgrounds and functional structure were patently not a page or a graphic image as in the opening frames of the story interfaces.

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 6, there was evidence that the visuals of the interfaces alone did not give a clear indication of the activity to be performed. However, the absence of written instruction avoided reading problems and a visual distraction from the main task. Another feature enhancing the quality of engagement came from the audio messages with their encouraging message and tone, with the physical manipulation and the ability of repetition regardless of instructions and despite making mistakes. The learning objectives of the screen were not made clear – that is the role given to the teacher. The design gave a child the freedom and the license to repeatedly try, explore, test, and investigate.


5.6.7   Criterion 7: Is the control of movement of an object easy for small hands to achieve?

This criterion was also proposed as an innovative design feature in the Research Tool which has been applied to take into account problems observed by children in the early research phase, problems such as using a large mouse, adult computer layout and desk design.

During the main study the researcher’s computer was used but the desk size and position could not be controlled. However, the keyboard was removed from in front of the computer – the normal configuration. This allowed the mouse to be in front of the computer, not at one side as is normally the case, (even when the keyboard is not used) and with space to rest the heel of the hand on the desk. The result was that children did have more freedom to move the mouse on the mat than usual. The mouse was an adult size, though the Macintosh mouse (with one button and a smooth round design) might be easier to use than the average PC model.

One feature of the Research Tool had been adapted during the first pilot. It was observed that children had difficulty dragging objects for long distances across the screen. The cause was the relationship of the length of movement across the screen and the length of journey the mouse has to travel across the mat. The situation might be resolved by training as the mouse can be lifted and replaced in the mat centre. It was considered to be beyond the ability of children to lift up and grip an average-sized mouse and there was no time for training. The problem was solved by repositioning the icons on the screen and testing the mouse moves required.

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 7, as a result of understanding the significance of observing the need for control of movement of an object, provision could be made easy for small hands to achieve in most of the interfaces. The story interface click and drag problems were not just caused by the mouse but by not specifying precisely the area to which the objects could be deposited. However, the small size designated for hotspot areas made fine movements of the mouse more of a task for children to perform.

5.6.8   Criterion 8: Do small changes in the design of screen activities stimulate involvement of the user?

This criterion, an innovative design feature in the Research Tool, arose not out of the early pilots and reading but originated in the creative process of designing the Research Tool. The interface designs were a response to the classroom tasks featured in the radio programme and the teachers’ notes. They also explored the capabilities of the software which at the time were in their infancy. The order of the activities was changed after the first pilot, putting the simplest activity first followed by the other activities in increasing order of conceptual complexity.

The rational argument for the practical ordering of slightly different tasks came from two sources in the literature review. First, the physiological aspects pointed to the tendency for the human eye to become less efficient at recognising features in similar images as they are repeated. Second, the advantages of pleasurable anticipation, testing of skills and concentration showed by Flow Theory. The evidence from this criterion suggested small changes do enhance the quality of engagement. In addition, there was a general concern at the time amongst educationalists, and expressed as a key element of the MENO Project at the Open University, that the structure of ‘multimedia programs or sometimes the lack of it, affected learners’ comprehension, often adversely’ (Laurillard, 1994).

The structure of the Research Tool was contrary to the conventional methodical CD-ROM design structure with its requirements for ease of navigation through visual and textual conformity. In these CD-ROMs, navigation buttons and layout meant one page was much like another. The result was a great tendency to click to go to another screen to relieve the boredom and, in many cases, the ‘boredom clicking’ was compounded by little interactivity within any one page.

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 8, the Research Tool may be considered chaotic according to the current multimedia design. However, this criterion tested the quality of this style of CD-ROM to continually intrigue and involve users. The researcher considered that the evidence showed it was through these small changes that engagement provided a stimulus to involvement.

5.6.9     Criterion 9: Does the interface have multi-functionality within an activity creating flexibility that enhances the quality of engagement, but does not cause confusion?

Another innovative design feature in the Research Tool, which from the evidence, revealed there was a clear distinction between multi-functionality that caused confusion, and multi-functionality that was absorbing and enjoyable. Activity 5 in many respects has the unorganised excitement of the opening interface, but the former did not provide the feedback of the latter. If the technique used for instructions in Activity 6 was applied to Activities 3 and 4 it is reasonable to think that their multi-functionality would have been exploited more quickly by children.

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 9, it was considered that this criterion has validity in focussing attention on engagement as well as a logical series of events. It was a tool for ‘building in’ fun and pleasure as added value and making these instinctively recognised vital elements less arbitrary and uncontrolled. Conversely, the logical design process was enhanced, because there was a counterbalance to the boredom that was associated with its methodical approach.

5.6.10    Criterion 10: Is the totality of interface activities in a product capable of flexible organisation by the teacher to facilitate learning?

This innovative design feature was a criterion separate in all respects from the other criteria as it relates to teachers alone. However, it has an integral functional relationship to all the other criteria. Teachers are the instigators and mediators of learning. If a teacher is not wholly informed, conversant and able to choose the elements of the software’s content, the other criteria would have very little chance to be met. The main study showed it was possible to create an effective teachers’ control panel interface to meet this criterion. Teachers were universally in agreement with the advantages of this new design feature. The desirability, the ease of operation and educational value were considered useful by all the teachers interviewed.

The innovative nature of this screen design did mean that teachers had never come across the level of control before (the ability to look at all the resources quickly and easily due to the organisation in segments within the teachers’ menu). They saw its advantages over existing designs. Their experience was the greatest difficulty in finding the content of the edutainment CD-ROMs delivered in the CD-ROM in Primary Schools Initiative. For this reason, organising a valuable learning experience was also difficult.

To summarise the results from testing Criterion 10, the teachers’ control panel was contrary to the style and expectations of multimedia structure. The concept had much more in common with games design where users goes into a bank of further information (e.g. weapons) to add to the main action. It was possible that a future development of this principle might, as children have become familiar with multimedia, be told to go into the ‘teachers’ area’ which might be called ‘your learning bank’ to pull out their own learning experience under guidance of the teacher. However, in the context of this study teachers would have had to go through the planning process themselves to gain a fuller picture of the operation of this facility.

5.7    Summary

The tabulated summary of results of the criteria informing the research question:

What are the design features required to improve the quality of computer interface interaction for 5 to 7-year-old children? is listed in Table 5.2.


Features that improve the quality of interaction

Criterion 1: Are users clear about what task they can do with the interface?

Interface features that are simple tasks with short audio instructions are clearest. There are benefits from ‘sequenced constructions of audio instructions’. The Windows interface is now intuitive and ‘doing’ –  using manipulation – means a child can respond directly. However the quality of engagement is enhanced with this feature.

Criterion 2: Are users clear how to make the interface work?

Interfaces especially using manipulated objects are explored by ‘try-it-and-see’ technique prompting the question asked out loud by children ‘How do I make it work?’ and discussion using positive language, when successful and discussions expressing boredom when frustrated. There is educational value in this process.

Criterion 3: Are users clear about what is happening when they use the interface?

The successful interface is one in which What are all these happenings? Why did they happen? and What do they all mean? is still answered successfully by the child. Graphic images capable of manipulation and with visual and audio elements challenge users. With a multimedia interface comes the need for a new holistic paradigm for design.

Criterion 4: Do users find it easy to navigate around the software product?

An opening interface that is intriguing and exciting to children is a possibility by giving control to the teacher to organise simple navigation, but there are issues about the uncertainty caused.


Features that improve the quality of interaction 

Criterion 5: Is the interface activity an enjoyable and absorbing experience?

Interfaces that are enjoyable and absorbing can be designed using ideas inherent in radio programmes and in computer games and potentially given a formal structure using Flow Theory.

Criterion 6: Does the interface activity engage the user in concentrated activity through movement?

Interfaces that give users control of movement in terms of manipulation of objects is a prime instigator of concentrated attention and activity.

Criterion 7: Is the control of movement of an object easy for small hands to achieve?

Interfaces can be made easy for small hands to achieve in most of the interfaces, but early testing is essential to overcome issues that may arise.

Criterion 8:Do small changes in the design of screen activities stimulate involvement of the user?

Interfaces were reordered putting the simplest activity first followed by the other activities in increasing order of conceptual complexity. Evidence from this criterion suggest small changes do enhance interaction.

Criterion 9:Does the interface have multi-functionality within an activity creating flexibility that enhances the quality of engagement, but does not cause confusion?

Interfaces can have multi-functionality that causes confusion, and multi-functionality that is absorbing and enjoyable. This criterion may have validity in focussing attention on the quality of interaction as well as a logical series of events.

Criterion 10:Is the totality of interface activities in a product capable of flexible organisation by teachers to facilitate learning?

An effective teachers’ control panel interface can be created to meet this criterion.

Table 5.2: Design features required to improve the quality of computer interface interaction for 5 to 7-year-old children.

The criteria in this chapter have been tested thoroughly and they have proved to be largely a set of useful tools for analysis informing the research question. There were two qualifications. First, with hindsight, adapting Csikszentmihalyi’s (1992) study techniques might have provided a more thorough analysis of what constitutes enjoyment in computer learning. Second, the definitions of interactivity could be reassessed. Interaction as the process of control and feedback (Cotton and Oliver, 1994) and participation in terms of frequency of interactions, choice available and ‘significance’ (Laurel, 1991) did not describe fully the interactivity of the mouse manipulation processes that have since become available for common computer use. Nevertheless, these two qualifications highlight the results of the main study that a new holistic paradigm was required – a coherent relationship between a child and a computer – formulating the features of a deeper quality of engagement achieved by using a combination of: open ended tasks, audio instructions, physical manipulation, 3-D interface simulation, concentration, pleasure, small changes in tasks and hidden elements to be discovered. This was a relationship made more effective by the proposed features of optimum computer desk and screen configuration. The paradigm of whole child-computer relationship proposed in this thesis was given its holistic coherence by the ontological nature of the container metaphor (see chapter 3, p. 106). In the next chapter results of the criteria informing the design features to improve the quality of interaction are formulated in to a practical method of developing multimedia products embodying the new paradigm.