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The Root of the Problem

by Aashna Saraf

On 25th March 2020, India announced a nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19. It’s been over 400 days since and schools have still been ordered to conduct remote learning. While older students could begrudgingly bear through zoom lectures and classes, the littlest learners were left behind in what some might call the greatest learning loss of the century.

I was taking design thinking at the HIVE (I mean zoom) and had the opportunity to creatively think about this problem: how might we mitigate the learning loss caused due to COVID? New parents had suddenly become preschool teachers overnight and were struggling to juggle work, family, and kids. Having volunteered at preschools every winter break, I was determined to really engage with problems parents were facing adjusting to this new normal.

Using the design thinking approach, I cold called at least one parent or school teacher every day for weeks and asked about their struggles with raising toddlers and managing school. The design thinking and AEIOU framework was easily adaptable to truly help empathize with user problems. It felt odd at first asking parents to vent and sometime conversations were awkward with long pauses. But overtime with some help from the book The Design Sprint by Jake Knapp it became easier to elicit real pain points and struggles parents were facing.

Two salient ones that surfaced were: 1) I feel very guilty taking a minute for myself and just handing a device to my child 2) “too much screen time at this young age is terrible.”

So now I had some great problem to work on. I knew that something analog/physical would be difficult to deliver at scale given that all manufacturing had been mandatorily shut down as had transport. The concern regarding screen time needed to urgently be solved. So, I started digging deeper. What is it about screen time that bothers parents so much? Addiction? Eye health? Socio-emotional development getting hindered? Passivity? It turns out that addiction to devices was the prime concern.

It was settled; I would develop a gamified learning app that is engaging enough that it keeps a child’s attention, but elusive enough that children are not glued to the device. One of the core features of the app that came to be was an auto quit function that prevents kids from playing more than 1 learning game per day (10-15 mins). The second one being developed is customized physical activity recommendations with minimal materials that directly help build on children’s weakest topics.

I had an extensive research background on what skills my games should target (Thanks Prof Smiley and the Psych Major!) and some knowledge on the idea generation method (Thanks Jo!). With iterative and collaborative mind mapping I could narrow in on the kind of games on the app. Within a span of a week, one wall in my room was covered with over 50 post-its with different ideas for games–from dress up games to save the animals, to grocery adventures and mystery kitchen.

I had entire game progressions and logic mapped out on these post-its but zero game development and programming skills. While I was learning how to use the game development engine Unity, I realized I couldn’t produce each of these games and have kids test it rapidly. Failing quickly and learning even faster was key to the process!

Inspired by the idea of low resolution prototyping, I got small white boards, wrote a few scripts, made a few paper cut outs, and downloaded sound effects on my phone. As an aunt of 4 little nephews and a niece I had a wide participant pool to test on. I sat with my 4 year old nephew and asked him to choose 1 post-it at random. He happened to choose mystery dinner, a counting game. I proceeded to draw out the scene on the white boards while narrating what was happening. As his attention piqued I asked him to take “3 magical onions” (the paper cutouts placed on the white board) from white board 1 and put them in the big steaming cauldron drawn on white board 2. Once he was satisfied with the number of magical onions he’d transferred I played some sound effects and drew steam coming from the cauldron, and then drew a fully prepared dish. I carefully watched as he responded to each of these game scenarios, scoring each of the games based on his reaction.

Only the games that received both laughter and claps made it to production!

Soon I had specs ready for over 14 games, but I wasn’t getting any better at using Unity. I was fortunate enough to raise funding from the Schmidt Futures Tools Competition and outsource development. As of today, I have launched my app, called Root, on the playstore, and pilot tested it with 120 little learners in India. We have created composite learning scores, spoken to over 35 parents at length for candid feedback, and are developing a personalized game play algorithm to improve app experience and support parents and children in their learning journey through COVID.

Human centered design has played a pivotal role in both empathizing with my users and thinking through cost effective, creative and impactful ways of testing my solutions to user problems.