Problem

Response

Research

Ideation

Reflection

TIMELINE
TEAM
MY ROLE
TOOLS

Overview

Our graduate capstone team spent 6 months remotely researching and designing a game to encourage computational thinking and storytelling in children 9 to 12 years old.

Alchemi is an interactive tablet game for kids to craft magical recipes as metaphors that promote computational thinking. Children play as Alchemi, a young witch who creates potions to help creatures with unique problems. Through a storytelling adventure, players can follow recipes, build custom creations, and join a community of potion makers.

Amy loves arts and crafts. At school, she's known as the artist of her friend group.

Science class is her favorite—she can get hands on and learn using new tools and materials.

During play dates with her friend Priya, Amy likes roleplaying and imagining stories about saving the world.

Problem 01

Only 2% of technology use by tweens is for content creation

Amy has a tablet that her parents bought her that she uses to watch videos, play games, and message friends. Despite being familiar with technology, she’s never thought about how the things she consumes are created.

Kids like Amy primarily only use technology to consume content— they don’t often use it to make art, create music, code or write, etc.

Problem 02

Coding courses are systemically taught in a solitary way

Amy has become interested in learning how to code. Her mother gave her a programming book, but she never opens it. She thought coding would be fun, but so far it feels overwhelming and intimidating.

Today, traditional approaches used to teach computer science are often met with the same reaction. Due to the solitary nature of learning in this field, the idea of coding being an independent activity is perpetuated across all age levels for beginners.

Problem 03

The field of computer science isn’t beginner-friendly and welcoming

When Amy dives into the world of coding, she finds that applications are hard to start, tutorials don’t match her expectations, and lessons don't relate to the bigger picture.

In addition, the field is still majority white and Asian men. While Amy has years before considering careers, her perception of coding is defined by what she sees and hears at this age.

DESIGN CHALLENGE

Reshape the way children ages 9-12 traditionally think about computer science and encourage creative practice.

Why ages 9-12?

Mission

Inclusive

Alchemi highlights characters with diverse backgrounds, interests and needs, and defaults to an underrepresented lead.

Iteration

The game encourages experimentation without fear of failure, using delightful outcomes and supportive messaging.

Creativity

When creating recipes, kids have the power to tell their own stories and explore new storylines with characters.

Community

Kids share in-game experiences with their friends and promote community by discovering and building upon others' recipes.

Drag-and-drop code

Learn more about the blocks

Features

Feature 01

Potion Requests

This feature offers guided play so that players can build computational thinking skills. Players take on a request from a customer in need, following a specific recipe based on the challenge and translating instructions into code blocks. When completed, they hand off their instructions to their mushroom assistants who build out the potion.

A magical creature enters the emporium...

Players can choose to take on the challenge or skip to another request. Creatures have a diverse range of physical and emotional problems, inspired by our co-design session with children.

Follow along recipe

Then, players are given a potion recipe that will address their customer's problem. Recipes vary in difficulty, may have ambiguous steps, and are designed to promote computational thinking.

Drag-and-drop code

Players sift through cabinets to locate the blocks they need, dragging and dropping various combinations together to translate the instructions into code. The progress bar at the bottom of the screen tracks the player’s progress as they advance through the recipe.

Brew potion

When the player is ready to test their creation, they press play to hand off their instructions to Alchemi's mushroom assistants. The assistants follow the code as a computer would, highlighting the current line of instruction if there is an error.

Debug and experiment

During the runthrough, mistakes and potion explosions might occur. When this happens, players are encouraged to try again and make tweaks to their code. The mushroom report emphasizes the player’s effort and growth, rather than their failure.

Happy customer

Once the potion is successfully brewed, the recipe is added to the player's Book of Potions. The customer is grateful for their help and the challenge is complete!

Feature 02

Alchemi's Lab

Players can also create and share their own stories by building a unique recipe for various creatures in Alchemi’s Lab. Here, players can independently apply what they’ve learned from the potion request part of the game. It also prompts them to explore the storytelling aspect of the world.

Creature storytelling

Players select from a diverse set of magical creatures and can fill in storytelling details such as their origin, likes, dislikes, and problems.

Code and brew

Then, they are launched into Alchemi’s lab station where they can experiment and create their own recipe sequence. When their creation plays out, Alchemi auto-translates their code into readable recipe instructions.

Add finishing touches

Once they’re happy with their creation, players can customize the potion’s taste, smell, consistency, and even draw out the design of the potion bottle.

Share

Then, their invention is added to the Potion Book, where they can customize the potion’s name and share it with the Alchemi community.

Feature 03

Explore Recipes

As they make creations, they are able to share these with their friends and unlock more advanced recipes. They can also browse and discover recipe challenges, of varying level of difficulty, uploaded by players around the world.

Framing the space

Initial problem setting

Our initial goal was to introduce children to computation as a creative medium like those found in the arts to present new and exciting ways to build skills, socialize, collaborate, and engage in self-expression. We were interested in leveraging Creative Coding, a type of computer programming that emphasizes creating something expressive instead of functional.

To strengthen our understanding of this problem space, we began our research.

Secondary research and competitive analysis

Studying the current landscape

To learn more about this design space, we conducted a competitive analysis on six leading computation education products and a literature review of 50+ published papers.

Secondary Research Notes Competitive Analysis Report

semi-structured interviews

Gathering knowledge from experts

Our literature review and competitive analysis was helpful in understanding the problem context, but we were left with a few unanswered research questions. These gaps became our research goals:

  1. What kinds of creative outputs currently motivate young adults to learn coding?
  2. What are successful methods used by educators to teach computation and creative processes?
  3. What barriers to teaching do current educators face in their classrooms?

We conducted 11 45-minute long semi-structured interviews, asking educators to engage in directed storytelling to reflect on their experiences with students. Our participants were art and computation researchers and educators (both high school and college-level).

4 Subject Matter Experts

Learn more

4 Computer Science Educators

Learn more

3 Art Educators

Learn more

Insights and design principles

As a remote team, synthesis involved taking advantage of collaborative online tools to make sense of our data. We used transcription tools like Otter.ai to comb through participant responses, identify key takeaways, and select relevant quotes. We used Figma to organize our digital post-its and affinity diagram. After several cycles of shareout, clustering, and downselection, we arrived at the following core insights:

Insight 01

Identity and representation

Self-perceived identity and lack of representation in computer science is a barrier to entry, lowers existing interest, and promotes discrimination.

Insight 02

Traditional systemic approach

The systemic and solitary assignments in coding courses can make it difficult for students to connect introductory concepts to real world applications.

Insight 03

Shifting mental models

Learning computational thinking removes the mystery of technology and offers students a shift in their current mental model of how it can be used to expand personal interests.

Insight 04

Social experimentation

Coding in a social environment where experimentation and failure are encouraged, and progress is highlighted is a way to increase meaningful understanding and confidence.

Research Insights Synthesis

Design Principles

From our insights, we discussed actionable opportunities and crafted these 5 design principles to guide our direction moving forward.

To access the complete research report and guide, see below.

Research Report

What we landed on

Design concept

We decided to make a potion building game as our design response and use cooking as a metaphor to teach computational thinking. Students drag and drop blocks to complete existing potion recipes or start from scratch to create their own. As a team, we began to create storyboards and visualize our initial concept.

Our progression of storyboards, sketches, and wireframes.

User workshops

We conducted two rounds of co-design and testing workshops (held remotely over Zoom) with five participants ranging from the ages of 9 to 12.

Session 01

Co-design

Our objective for this co-design session was to understand the nuances of child storytelling and visual aesthetic, as well as establish trust with the kids and their parents. The agenda for our initial session was as follows:

  1. Build rapport by playing an online game together and talking about their summer
  2. Engage in drawing exercises of their own creature and prompt them to share the story behind who, what, where, and why they created it
  3. Facilitate interactive story building in which they use illustrations we provided to imagine a potion recipe

The creatures, settings, and stories that participants created.

Session 02

Testing

With the same five kids we co-designed with previously, our second session was a usability test of our proposed UI. This was a Wizard of Oz experiment in which we manually created the outputs and milestones that would appear in the game, testing the core interactions of our design. The goals going into this testing session were:

  1. Evaluate whether the metaphor of creating a potion to learn computational thinking is engaging to the user
  2. Understand if the core interaction of translating a presented recipe into code (using the drag-and-drop UI) makes sense to the user

Our prototype interface and five participant drag-and-drop code outcomes.

Insights

01

Meaningful stories that relate to the complexities of human problems and emotions

The kids were excited to engage in storytelling and offered rich characters with detailed backstories. Despite these being magical creatures, participants brought up issues such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and stories involving characters that wanted to find peace or make friends.

02

Preference toward visually compelling environments and characters that are intricate and detailed

Given a range of illustrative styles and settings, all of the kids gravitated towards the illustrations that were more realistic looking, had a lot of visual interest and detail within them.

03

Engagement, quick adoption, and easily connecting to the bigger story

Kids adopted to this style of game play very quickly and easily understood how recipe building fit into the bigger story. All but one of the kids completed the recipes and had no trouble making revisions. We used feedback to embed the characters to be more visually present throughout gameplay in our final design.

We brought Alchemi to life over the next two weeks.
To access the full design UI spec, see below.

Design Documentation All Screens

Develop community

Our immediate next step would be to develop the Explore Recipes feature further, in order to facilitate deeper community interaction and unlimited replay value.

Incorporate the arts

Alchemi focuses on storytelling and coding but we believe there is potential to integrate more interdisciplinary activities. We are interested in including music, dancing, drawing, and even paper crafts.

Explore collaborative play

We have many ideas on how to incorporate more collaboration into Alchemi such as pair programming activities and group challenges with friends. These features simply did not fit within the time constraints of our initial production, but we recognize the value of social learning.

Add experimental outcomes

As Alchemi evolves, we want to encourage experimentation with delightfully unexpected outcomes. For instance, if a recipe is executed incorrectly, the player might end up discovering a completely new (but still effective) potion.

Reflection

Remote teamwork

With the exception of a couple initial problem setting meetings, the entire six month project was conducted remotely due to Covid-19. While this presented unique challenges, it was also a great learning experience that required a lot of creative adaptation. We conducted team meetings over Zoom, interviewed experts virtually, synthesized insights on Figma, and even used Miro, an online whiteboarding team tool, to conduct prototype testing with children. Over the course of this project, I became comfortable working as part of a remote team, researching and designing all from my desk at home.

Testing with children

Although I have done research and design with children before, this project grew my understanding of this age group. Testing with children remotely added an extra layer of complication, as many tools like Zoom are not designed with children in mind. However, we remained focused on our principle of child-centered design and used co-design to build rapport, ensure their ideas were heard, and truly incorporate their needs. Many of the characters in Alchemi were directly inspired by the stories the children shared with us, and it made them excited to see their creatures come to life in the final game.

Motion and sound design

I had the opportunity to dive deep into the animation and sound design for this game. While overwhelming at times, it was a lot of fun studying the principles of motion design and creating microinteractions that added an additional layer of polish to our product. After this project, I gained a new level of appreciation for game designers and all the moving parts that are needed to publish a game.