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What we learned from prototyping the future with teens

Ally Palanzi

On Friday, August 7, Vox Product, Spotify Design, and Hyper Island hosted a one-day workshop with teens from the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club to invent the future of communication. Approximately 36 teenagers and 36 professionals working in product design arrived at Spotify’s NYC headquarters for a day of brainstorming, learning, and creating.

Throughout the day, expert facilitators from Hyper Island led different exercises designed to get participants thinking in creative ways. Participants were asked to silently draw ways to communicate without technology, to imagine the year 2025 with a certain technology (for example, 3D printing), and finally to prototype a product that allows you to communicate with people who are far away using new technologies.

You can find a full recap of all the projects on the website:

The purpose

Vox Media does a lot of events where people in tech and design talk with other people in tech and design about the future of tech and design. For this event, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to hear from different voices outside of our own echo chamber, and who better to work with than the very people who are the future? Teens.

After assessing a few summer programs in the region, we landed on a perfect partnership with the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, whose Summer Youth Employment Program afforded us the opportunity to work with three dozen teenagers who had expressed an interest in social media.

We wanted to connect teenagers with professional product designers, and give them the opportunity to participate in a hands-on event as equals. At the same time, we wanted designers from different companies across different specialties to work together for a day of ideation. In our application forms we framed the designer role as a "Design Mentor" and made it clear we wanted them to collaborate closely with teenagers.

The purpose was simple: Give both the students and the professionals space to step away from their daily routines and ways of thinking to focus on what the future could be. And for an added change of pace, we put the teens in charge!

One group's grid of sketches when asked to draw ways to communicate without technology.

One group's grid of sketches when asked to draw ways to communicate without technology.

Ally Palanzi

The takeaways

There’s value to a lesson arc. We were very fortunate to work with the talented folks at Hyper Island, the group who planned out the day’s activities. The succession of exercises was an effective way for teens and adults alike to break their normal thinking patterns to arrive at something new.

Understanding the problem before diving into solutions. Also related to the well-crafted lesson arc is the idea that we have to get to the heart of what we’re designing for before we begin designing — a lesson both professionals and students can take into their lives. During our workshop, we first talked about ideas around how we express ourselves and how we can feel understood before we started thinking about technology and the future.

Working as equals is an effective way to learn. Seeing product designers collaborating so closely with teenagers — and the teenagers so openly and freely contributing their own ideas — was inspiring and encouraging.

The importance of personal connections. Both Vox Media and Spotify are in the business of growing audiences, and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can expand that reach. One of the most surprising takeaways from working with the teenagers was that all of their ideas around communication revolve around very personal, one-to-one relationships with others. Every final prototype involved communication with family, friends or pets. No broadcasting to the masses.

Collaboration is more important than competition. This wasn’t a hackathon. There weren’t judges. There was no winner. We encouraged the groups to collaborate, and to talk to the other groups. This reduced the pressure and brought about much more creativity.

Teens are really into Drake and Prince Royce. Yes, we had to Google that second name, too. It was very fortuitous that we were able to host the event at Spotify, a streaming brand that all the students were familiar with, because so many of their ideas around communication and being understood involved music.

Photo of a group each sketching photos of people who understand them.

Ally Palanzi

The future

We’ve sent a survey out to participants to gather feedback about the event and are dedicated to improving each time we host another one. If you have any feedback or are interested in partnering for an event we’d love to hear from you. If you prefer anonymous feedback, we have a form for that, too.

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Special Thanks

This event was made possible by a lot of people from different organizations. Thank you to all who helped organize in all capacities!

From Spotify Design: Dan Sormaz, Sam Ee, Sofie Lindblom, Tobias van Schneider

From Hyper Island: Joelle Panish, Mathias Jakobsen, Lisa Pertoso

From Vox Product: Kelsey Scherer, Ally Palanzi, Ramla Mahmood, Chao Li, Sharon Wong, Ted Irvine, Lauren Rabaino

From Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club: Yasmin Brown, Tonya Lomax, Shemira Henry, Kenia Cuevas, Basiru Leigh and all of the fantastic students who participated!