What is the relationship that teens have with the environment? How can teens better understand their decision making process and how that impacts the Earth? I explored these questions through my graduate thesis work, during which I employed a user-centered process to design a service for teens that gives positive feedback to good decisions involving the environment.

Reusing and reducing has not reached the same critical mass as recycling. With my thesis, I created a service design that will foster improved behavior in relation to the environment through positive feedback, shrinking the gap between action and effect in the process.


Through research with teens, I worked to identify the current world-view that teens hold, and the habits that teens practice in relation to the environment. I created journals for girls in Pittsburgh and New York to complete. They cataloged their daily thoughts and actions in relation to environmental issues.

Journal kit given to participants.

Two pages of completed journal pages. Participants took photos of objects and experiences that prompted them to think about the environment.

Generative Research

I worked with six girls in the ninth grade and eight girls in the seventh grade. Over four sessions in spread over two weeks in a school art room, they explored problems in the world and worked in teams. First, they drew pictures of current world and then a version 50 years in the future. Using the differences between these two pictures, we talked about environmental challenges they saw. Next, they broke into teams and created prototypes of designs that would solve the problems they had identified. I provided them with materials including felted spheres, cylenders, cubes, googley eyes, pipe cleaners, stickers and other crafting items. The materials were abstract so that the girls could project their own meanings on to them. One team used a felt cube as a bee habitat. Another group used it as a television. During the last session, they presented a scenario of usage for their design and took questions from classmates about their design.

The future is looking up: in these drawings of the current and future state of the environment, there is less litter and everyone drives a carbon-neutral electric car.

Design called "Tidy Trash" created by a pair of participants. A live turtle wrapped in litter is displayed on the beach. This reminds people to be careful with their trash.

Affinity diagram of game "I see, I wish." Participants focused on both abstract “world peace”-level problems as well as local deforestation challenges.


While considering scholarly, exploratory and generative research, I created a list of design guidelines and user characteristics to keep in mind when developing designs for teen girls to connect better to the environment

  1. Use animals.
  2. Show off actions.
  3. Connect to a cute physical object.
  4. Do not focus on screens.
  5. Create a physical community.
  6. Positive, fun feedback is best.
  7. Use current recycling habit as a base to build new habits.
  8. Connect to online social systems.
  9. Create a platform for users to inform others.

Although each girl I interacted with was individual and unique, I noted a pattern in their levels of knowledge around the environment and motivation to improve it. I created a diagram to show this. I set personas, or typical personalities, into a matrix of knowledge and motivation and added catch phrases to sum up each outlook.


After considering all that I had learned about the environment, children and behavior, I met with fellow grad students interested in changing teen behavior. We played improv brainstorming games. One was called “Yes And.” For two minutes, we scrawled on Post It notes and drew a symbol for a design and a name on each note. Then we shared each design idea in a very structured way. One person would read a Post It Note aloud. For example, “FishTank: watching fish to understand ecosystems” and someone would say, “Yes, and the electronic fishtank is linked to a local a stream or pond so that you see local ecosystems.” Next. someone else would say “Yes, and you can check in at your local pond and the fishtank at home will give you points,” and continue building in this way until no one could ad to the idea.

We created thirty design concepts. From this set of concepts, I selected five to develop in Illustrator and present to an audience for feedback. A few are presented below.

Brainstorming meeting with fellow graduate students, Corinna Sherman and Jenny Shirey.

Service Matcher: A concept that involves matching students to environmental service opportunities while leveraging Facebook to provide social support.

MyStuff: A concept that involves organizing virtual possessions between groups of friends and viewing resultant environmental impact.

Scenario Development

Based upon my personal reflection and feedback from a public poster session, I moved forward with two design concepts (RealTank and SwapMe). While refining the designs, I renamed them to reflect changes in the designs as I refined them (EcoSpace and ReUseIt). I added portions of each design to Facebook. Rather than creating an actual physical tank, I opted to move EcoSpace to Facebook and develop it as a game in which users would care for a small piece of land or ocean and watch an ecosystem develop. With ReUseIt, I moved story attachment and the catologing of objects to Facebook so that items and stories could be more easily shared and would not require a login to a separate site. The Facebook platform would also help create social interactions that would support continued use of the designs.

To test user actions and design outcomes, I developed scenarios of usage for ReUseIt and EcoSpace. In comic book style, I sketched out each step a user would take to interact with the systems I created. For example, the first step in ReUseIt is a teen girl discovering ReUseIt stickers at the checkout counter at a store. So, I sketched her and the counter and stickers. Then I wrote a thought bubble for each of the four personas This helped me to see the world through their eyes to test if any of the teen girl personalities would like or use these system designs.

This is one frame of a scenario of usage for the Facebook application ReUseIt. Wireframes are mapped to the personas of yay!, eep!, sigh, and nvm. Their needs and feelings when using the application are described.

Visual Research

I researched current trends in visual design familiar to teenage girls. I visited popular clothing sites and researched popular artists featured on Billboard.com. I also visited colourlovers.com and pantone.com and searched for color trends and patterns that appeal to teens. I found two strong trends: a Lady Gaga-esque aesthetic that recalls a goth alien, and a vintage, distressed, screen-printed paper look. As ReUseIt is about the reuse of objects, I opted to develop its wireframes and screens with a vintage look.

Evaluative Workshops

To gauge response to the two concepts being developed, I conducted evaluative workshops. Sixteen ninth grade girls participated across four sessions. Their first challenge was to create a persona, wireframes and scenarios for a Facebook game about ecology.

Next, I gave each participant an object to spend time with (scarf, ring, bracelet, stuffed animal, and squishy toy). At the next session, they each wrote a story about their time with their object. Next, they traded objects and the process was repeated. After two trades, the girls were assigned to teams and given design challenges. They drew solutions for story attachment to objects, visual indicators that objects held stories, accessing an objects history and planning to trade and object. They presented their solutions to the class and received feedback.

Generative workshop session.

Wireframes of window garden game created by a team.

A few of the objects that participants carried with them.


This workshop ensured they would fully experience the trading and attaching of stories to objects as well as learn a bit about design. To test ReUseIt, the service design I had created for them, I presented slides of the proposed Facebook application screens and asked them to evaluate them anonymously. After looking through the wireframes and personas they had created, and considering class conversations, I synthesized findings into the following key points:

  1. Ecology is not a topic of interest for teen girls.
  2. Participants did not currently use games on Facebook and do not imagine that they could ever use games on Facebook.
  3. Eight of 16 girls kept the objects after the workshop was complete. Four of 16 girls kept the story books that accompanied the objects. This supports the finding that story trading adds value and interest to objects.
  4. Participants gave positive feedback (six of 15) to using the system for trading.
  5. More positive than negative feedback was given regarding the concept, usability and aesthetics of the system.
  6. Of 15 participants, ten said they would use this system.
  7. Of 15 participants, four said they would like to see objects and stories beyond their friend list on Facebook.

Responding to participant feedback, I changed some aspects of the design. Specifically, I made it possible to trade objects with non-friends in public meetups at malls and made these in person trading options more understandable in the text in the Facebook App. I made the Facebook application very bright, included both friends and an inventory on the landing page, and used images of objects rather than illustrations on the instructional screens.

Service Blueprint & Final Design


To fully understand and explain the experience of ReUseIt system, I created a service blueprint. It maps each action that a user takes (attaching a sticker to an object), what the physical evidence of this is (sticker, stuffed animal), what is “onstage” or presented by the design (Facebook App page), employee actions (none in this example), and support functions (back end Facebook recording of sticker number, text for story).

The final design is a service that includes cards, stickers, swapping events at malls, a Facebook application that can be used to catalouge and attach stories to objects, and view friends’ objects and stories.

On the last day of our workshop, half of the girls kept the swapped objects with stories attached. They were motivated by an interest in story telling, creating bonds with friends and improving the environment by making less stuff in the world. The girls I worked with were excited to use ReUseIt should it become available beyond a design concept.

A note

This thesis was completed as part of a Master of Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University in May 2011. Bruce Hanington was my ever patient and insightful thesis advisor. Thank you to the Ellis School for Girls for kindly opening you art room doors to me.


A selection of books read, scholarly articles read and videos watched.

  1. Murray, Tara . Affective Industrial Design: Understanding Our Emotional Attachment to the Products We Love. Master’s Thesis, University of Calgary, 2003.
  2. Penelope Trunk Blog
  3. Fogg, B. “The Behavior Grid: 35 Ways Behavior Can Change.” Communications of the ACM (2009)
  4. Buchanan, Richard. “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice.” Design Issues Vol. 2, No. 1 (1985): 4-22
  5. Schell, Jessie. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2008
  6. Braungart, Michael and William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2002