Design Challenge: Child-friendly Parental Scheduling

Recently attorney Tina Mills wrote to me with an interesting design challenge for children who need to keep track of their parents schedules. She’s given me permission to post her text in its entirety:

Some parents want to chart their child’s school and activity schedule. Some parents fight over a child’s time in a divorce; and, some parents want to have 50/50 time over the calendar year. Vacations, staycations, holidays, extended family events, education, extracurriculars, events with friends, etc., can all factor in. Sometimes one parent has more school year time; and, the other parent has more hours with the child during the summer. Maybe you can design a way to divide up the hours. Also, sometimes, a parent will have a confusing work schedule (like a rotating schedule for a nurse or police officer). Maybe there is a child-friendly chart that you can create. I know of a parent that instructed his child to use colored stickers on a calendar to help the child know which job he was at on a particular day and when the child would be with him instead of the other parent. Some children are confused about which parent will pick her up from school or which family she will have dinner with. Maybe these concerns will help with idea generation.

When I was a child, I didn’t have this kind of demand on me, so I find it fascinating. I’d like to take a crack at it, but not having kids myself, I wanted to share the design challenge with you guys who might have a lot more personal insight than I.

I’ll let you in on a design secret: when I start designing a productivity form—or really, anything—I have to find what I think of as the “emotional need” in addition to the “functional need”. For example, the Task Progress Tracker grew out of a dissatisfaction with to-do lists, because I had listed a bunch of tasks that took so long to do that I couldn’t cross them off. So the functional need of tracking tasks combined with the emotional need of wanting to feel like I was making progress; I decided to track effort measured in units of time, because that would meet the emotional need.

For the child-friendly schedule, I can imagine what the emotional need might be, but I suspect I am over-dramatizing it in my head. The last thing I want to do is design something that panders to children who are in a situation that I don’t understand. The one emotional undertone that comes to mind from my own memories of childhood is that to create a semblance of control without crossing the line into mandatory busywork. When I was a kid, I remember that the greatest thing that I could do by myself was anything that afforded me high levels of mastery and choice with my peer groups. For me, that was computer programming, which transcended the understanding of most adults at the time. It was an activity that did not depend on my parents, and it was something I could do at home in my bedroom. That was fortunate, because I as a highly-unscheduled child. Hm, that might explain a lot :-)

Anyway, I think the emotional undertone for a child-friendly scheduling chart is probably along these lines, giving shape to a chaotic and demanding world so the child can see it and, by extension of the chart being theirs, personally gain the power of prediction and stability. In a way, I see such a tool as a way of becoming more of an adult earlier than one might have to, but this is the nature of the world today perhaps. It’s not the world of Harriet the Spy as much as it’s Harry Potter, with its young protagonists co-existing in the realities of a darkening world and navigating their way between adult issues. Oh, and finding the time to play with owls, battle with brooms, and study magic. Perhaps this design challenge is to create some kind of practical magic…

But I digress. I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences on this design matter, so please feel free to leave a comment.