Research: You’re not smarter than a 5th grader at designing mobile apps

A new study finds that young kids come up with more original and higher quality ideas for new mobile services than adults

The front doors of Public School 63 in New York City
Credit: Librarygroover CC BY 2.0

Inspiration and great ideas can come from anyone, anytime, anywhere. But, if you’re trying to come up with the Next Big Thing in mobile apps and services, you’re most likely to get the best, most creative ideas from a pre-teen.

That, at least, is the finding of a new paper from researchers at Free University of Bozen-Bolzano in Italy published by SAGE Open last week titled In Need of Creative Mobile Service Ideas? Forget Adults and Ask Young Children. The idea behind their work is that young children are not only more creative than adults, but are also less constrained in their ideas by current technologies than are those who’ve been around the block a few times. As a result, the theory goes, at least, young kids are better able to think outside the box and come up with more original, more transformative, and more relevant new ideas for mobile services.

[Related reading: Study proves that happy programmers are better programmers]

To test this hypothesis, the authors looked at data collected in 2006 in Finland as part of a different study. More than 2,000 people of various ages, from young children to the elderly, were asked to each come up with 20 ideas for new mobile services, which generated a total of more than 40,000 ideas. For this study, the Free University researchers randomly selected 400 distinct ideas from kids aged 7 to 12 and 400 distinct ideas from adults aged 17 to 50.

The ideas were evaluated by judges who, keeping in mind the mobile technology and services available in 2006, rated each idea for its novelty and its quality. To grade novelty, ideas were given scores from 1 to 5 for originality and for how paradigm-breaking the idea was for the time. To grade quality, the judges considered whether each idea had actually been implemented (i.e., developed, produced, and marketed) in the subsequent years and whether it was a relevant mobile idea.

The results? In short, the kids' ideas scored higher on all measures. The mean and median scores for both measures of novelty were higher for the kids’ ideas than for those of the adults. Likewise, more of the kids ideas had been subsequently implemented and more were also deemed relevant than the ideas from the adults, indicating the kids came up with higher quality ideas.

Formally, the authors concluded that the data statistically supported their hypotheses that kids’ ideas were better than those of the adults. As they wrote in their paper, the data “provided significant evidence that children’s ideas are more original and transformational in terms of existing paradigm than those by adults.”

While the results supported the researchers’ original hypotheses, even they were surprised by the magnitude of the findings. “We expected that kids’ ideas were more novel than those of adults,” authors Daniel Graziotin and Xiaofeng Wang told me via email, “but were quite surprised to see that more of their ideas were implemented six years later than those from adults, and considered by the evaluators more relevant as well.”

They also noted that, while their findings indicated that there’s a well of creativity out there which mobile service producers aren’t tapping into, the window of opportunity to take advantage of kids’ fresh eyes closes quickly, since creativity has been shown to drop off rapidly after the age of 13. “We should either utilize this source of creativity in time or we need to reflect on and react accordingly to enable children to preserve or adults to ‘re-learn’ creativity,” they wrote in their paper.

Graziotin and Wang told me that this work is part of a larger research agenda they’ve developed which they call “psychoempirical software engineering.” “We are pushing for empirical software engineering research using theory and measurements from psychology, in order to further understand the ‘human’ in the human aspects of software development,” they said. They’ll be discussing this idea in further detail at the International Workshop on Social Software Engineering in Bergamo, Italy in September, so look for more interesting software development-related research coming from them in the future.

In the meantime, if you’re stuck for an idea for a new mobile service to develop, ask the nearest grade-schooler.

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