Research case study: Co-design as a way to bridge cultural divides in a Swedish preschool

Conducted research, including crafting interactive prototypes for co-design sessions.


  • Background: A preschool in the Skåne region of Sweden was being redesigned as the  'smarter' , healthier school of the future.
  • Problem: The school was also dealing with social tensions stemming from an influx of immigrant families who did not speak the language.
  • Solution: Co-design research using workshops and software + hardware experiments investigated how an interactive installation might help bridge cultural divides.
  • Results: Installation design was explored through many lenses, and design principles were distilled for the Skåne government stakeholders.
This research was my MSc thesis while in the Interaction Design program at University of Malmo, Sweden.

I was one of several researchers helping on a health initiative led by the Skåne region government to re-envision a preschool to be 'smarter' through investigating how digital technologies, diet, social innovation and fitness could mitigate health issues.

My research specifically was a co-design process exploring how an interactive light installation could help alleviate social issues stemming from an influx of non-Swedish speaking immigrants.
Örkelljunga preschool is described as a “socially deprived area” (Bengtsson). A factor in this – aside from being a remote, lower-income area – is a growing population of immigrant families who do not speak Swedish or English.

This dual communication gap (linguistic and cultural) was causing challenges for teachers, children and parents:
  • Miscommunications
  • Frustration on both sides
  • Important social bonds were not forming
  • Childrens’ interests were not represented (Adair)
Stakeholders included:
  • The preschool teachers
  • Architects redesigning the school
  • A health sciences researcher from the University of Malmo
  • Children attending the preschool
  • Government representatives
Roles & Responsibilities
I led all research and prototyping including:
  • Literature review
  • Co-design workshop with a preschool teacher and children
  • Co-design workshop with architects & health sciences researcher
  • Software and hardware hacking to create playable prototypes for workshops
  • Field research
  • Synthesis into the final package given to Skåne region representatives
The scope of this research was not to create a final interactive installation but rather to contribute design insights about behaviours and interaction patterns for an eventual light installation to address the aforementioned social issues.
Research Questions
Before this research I had a background in interactive installations, and having witnessed their power to bring people together and stimulate social interactions, I focused my research on exploring an installation as an intervention.

My key questions were:
How can a welcoming atmosphere be created for multicultural community members of a preschool that encourages playful interactions and possibly stimulates communication?
  • How does Örkelljunga’s multicultural community influence the conceptual & content possibilities for an installation?
  • How can playfulness help encourage social connections? 

  • How can diverse abilities, learning styles and cultures be served?

  • How might lighting impact the social atmosphere? 

  • How can parametric design principles help sustain long term engagement?
Literature Review

Co-design Workshops

Participatory design workshops involved stakeholders in imagining possible futures for an installation.

Co-design helps ensure a design process is sensitized to the needs and perspectives of stakeholders; see the thesis research for details:
Binder et al noted that co-design methods are “a way to meet the unattainable design challenge of fully anticipating or envisioning use before actual use takes place in people’s life-worlds” (Binder et al., 2011, pp. 157-8).

Brandt, Binder and Sanders suggest this is done through participation with the community so their perspectives go “hand in hand with the making of things that make the community imagine and rehearse what may be accomplished” (Brandt, Binder & Sanders, 2012, p. 148).
Constructing V1 of a live prototype
To bring in the perspectives of participants in imagining light installations, I created a flexible, open-ended light tool that would let non-expert participants direct the colour, shape, and animation in whatever way felt interesting to them.

It had several features: 
  • Abstract (non-figural) content constrained to colour, size, and movement allowed for diverse interpretations from different learning styles and cultural perspectives, and also stimulated imagination in play.
  • Sections could be physically reconfigured allowing exploration of many formats (e.g. single panel vs distributed).
  • Generically life-like behaviour via a pulsing animation to give participants an affordance that the lights could move, come to life, or might have personalities, without being suggestive beyond this.
Co-design With the Children
This prototype allowed the children to use simple controllers to play with the light so I could see what scenarios they imagined while playing. Documentation of childrens' play was not captured in accordance with research ethics; see reenactments below.

Some children imagined they were playing games like on the playground, others thought they were flying planes or helicopters. Others imagined animals, e.g. a girl thought a small red dot was a ladybug, another girl found a yellow dot to be a spider – in this fashion, a small green line became a grasshopper to one child, and a frog to others.
They assigned significance to the intersection point and ends of the triangle, noting how the vertex was the ‘goal’ or scoring area they needed to reach, and some other children decided it was a fun game to make blue and purple ‘kiss’ in the joint where the lights come together.

This session also revealed that the placement of the lights influenced what games and interpretations the children imagined.
Co-design With Architects + Health Sciences Researcher
Based on insights from the preschool site-visit, I adapted the prototype for the next round of exploration with the architects.

This time, I made the light tool even more configurable, and prepared several different material possibilities before the session.

This allowed the group to envision many different installation formats while discussing how each might fit into the floor plans and material strategies.

This workshop process sensitized the architects to the insights from the findings from the session with the preschoolers, and also established several feasible directions an installation could take.
Final Synthesis for Stakeholders
The research steps shown here are only highlights from a more involved process that included several expert interviews and design space explorations; details and results are available in the paper.  

At the end of this process, the research and recommendations were shared with all stakeholders.


This research revealed many design implications for interactive installations to address social issues and aid in childrens’ development in the Örkelljunga preschool community.

  • Identified need for light installation & specific ways it can improve social situation at this preschool (and others in Sweden)
  • Actively involved diverse stakeholders in the design process while sensitizing them to formats, play types and technologies
  • Three potential installation formats identified that could influence social dynamic
  • Specific design principles that can be used in any format or budget
  • Recommended path forward for research and introductions to others who can continue it

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