Want to know how users might misuse technology? Try it on a teen

In a small Central Oregon town, a bunch of educators are innovating on education. Redmond Proficiency Academy was established in 2008 by educators who wanted to create a more inclusive and flexible learning environment. The RPA approach was described to us as “if the regular approach is to hold time constant and have the student’s rate of learning change, RPA flips this around and holds the rate of learning constant, for each individual student, while time is allowed to fluctuate.”

This makes RPA a great place to experiment with new learning tools for educators and students alike. We wanted to test out a new AI-specific design sprint ideas and couldn’t think of a better place than a classroom full of RPA teens who were both digital natives and curious about how to design apps and AI-enabled products.

The RPA kids broke all the rules early on—in a good way. Cognitive tricks that we use to cement key concepts for adults in our corporate workshops were spotted immediately. No confirmation bias here. Ethical conundrums were met with practical, rather than idealistic, suggestions for, say, preserving privacy while balancing a data set that would otherwise perpetuate historical bias. They saw solutions from the perspective of the minority and were intuitively sensitive to how the solution would be perceived.

As we took the class, workshop style, through the key design concepts for AI-enabled products, we watched how they responded to simple prototypes that made app functionality and behavior concrete. One of the first things to break: geolocation and navigation apps that display high sensitivity to the behavior of early users. The kids found novel ways to force an AI to trace patterns that weren’t always “safe for work.” When we asked how they came up with the ideas, one answered “because that’s the first thing I would do.”

We learned a lot from this and now routinely test for weaknesses in app design by having a few handy teens tell us how they’d break the app. As a user group, a teenager is perhaps the next best thing to a professional hacker.

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