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UX Research with Children: Useful Tips for Improving User Experience

Paulina Maślona
January 9, 2023

Let’s face it, research is challenging as it is. Coming up with good research questions, managing the expectations of the developers of the product, dealing with the unpredictability of the whole process - it’s a lot. You know how you can make it even more difficult? Put a 6-year-old in the middle of it all.

Now, don’t get me wrong, It doesn’t mean children make worse research participants than adults. But preparing and carrying out a study with kids often requires extra preparation, especially if you haven’t done it before - the better you understand the specific challenges that come with this type of research, the easier it will be for you to get valuable insights.

In this short article, we outline some useful tips that can help you embark on this new journey.

1. Ask yourself a question - who do I really want to talk to?

So you know you want to talk to kids, and you hopefully also have an idea why - maybe it’s an explorative study to grasp children’s understanding of a specific topic, maybe you want to check how they interact with a certain technology or even test prototypes of an existing product.

In all of these cases, you should first create a good screener, thinking especially about the age category you’re interested in. Children are not a homogenous group, their interests and ways they interact with the world are changing constantly (I don’t think I have to tell you that a thirteen-year-old doesn’t have many things in common with a toddler). Ask yourself: who do I want to talk to and why is this age group relevant to my study?

2. Don’t use a one-size-fits-all strategy - adapt your study plan to the participants’s age and maturity.

When you're already set on a certain age group, adapt your study to their specific needs. While teenagers might be quite receptive to a two-hour-long conversation, preschoolers won’t be. Remember that when it comes to younger children it’s advisable not to plan sessions longer than an hour and consider scheduling small breaks between tasks (snacks are also a good idea if it’s not a remote study - who doesn’t like snacks?!).

Do not prepare a long script with a never-ending list of tasks as it’s highly possible you won’t even get through half of it. When thinking about the script, be mindful of younger kids’ short attention span and adapt the language you use to their age level. 

3. Don’t plan an interview, plan a playdate.

There’s a reason research with children is often called playtesting. As mentioned earlier, methods we use with teenagers can sometimes be similar to the “adult ones”. However, when it comes to the rest of the kids, we tend to rely on visual materials, and gamification, and/or we encourage children to draw, move and interact in a way they usually do when playing. 

There are many reasons for this approach. We want kids to be engaged in the process so we don’t lose their interest in the study and also to feel as comfortable as possible in a very new and strange situation. Also, visuals, games, and small exercises will help children find a way to answer even abstract questions (see point 5).

4. Make your participants feel that you care.

It’s always important how you start a session, but much more when it comes to children. Not long ago I saw my colleague do a usability test with a 6-year-old. After telling the girl her name she proceeded to ask her about her favorite subjects, hobbies and even fruit she likes. “You like watermelons? Oh, that means you probably had a lot of them now during the summer! Lucky you!”. The girl smiled - this strange adult was not only quite a nice human being but genuinely interested in what she had to say.

This is what we call building rapport: we need to make the participant feel comfortable and make sure they understand we are curious about their opinions*.

*Additionally, you can use this time to play a small ice-breaker game or ask how much fun they expect to have today - for young children visual aid like a “Smileyometer” available in Child Computer Interaction UX Playbook could help a lot (you can later repeat the question after the session).

5. Don’t be afraid of silence (but prepare the right resources to help kids express themselves).

It’s often emphasized as a general research tip to let our participants be silent for a while - in most cases it doesn’t mean they’re done talking and by cutting in we might lose some interesting insights. It’s true for children too, especially since they might need more time to process a task.

However, it’s also true that kids might struggle with expressing themselves, especially if they are asked to talk about something abstract. There are simple techniques that can help you give children some options to choose from without leading them too much. Just one of them is the adjective game in which - instead of asking for example “What did you like about this book?”, you would present the child with a list of adjectives they can use to describe it.

6. Keep parents at bay (or, if not, keep them busy).

For younger children, having parents close during the session can be reassuring. Unfortunately, sometimes parents try to play more of an active role - especially when they see that their child is struggling. It’s a researcher’s worst nightmare to have an adult start explaining things to the young participant during the session. That’s why it’s always important to emphasize what you expect from the adult. Try to gently remind them that interfering can affect the study’s final results. If needed, you can even find them something to do. In this virtual event about playtesting organized by the Children's Media Association Courtney Wong Chin, Director of Learning Insights & Design at Nickelodeon, shares tips from her own experience: she often asks parents to watch their child and let her know after the session if they have noticed anything worth noting - maybe moments when their child was particularly interested or, the opposite, bored. This approach keeps the parents busy and gives the researcher another perspective to work with.

7. Don’t make your participants feel like you’re testing them.

Again, this one is a classic. “We’re not testing you but the product” we repeat on almost every occasion. You should be aware that children are especially sensitive to judgment - after all, they get grades at school, and scores in games, valuing their performance is part of their everyday life and it might be difficult for them to understand that this is not what you want to do. Also, they can get pretty frustrated when they feel like they’re not doing well enough.

What’s a good answer here? Take time to explain to your participants what UX research is, ideally by sharing examples. In the great toolkit, Playtest with kids experienced researchers propose the Feedback story method.

Prepare a short chat with visuals to show kids how previous products changed based on feedback from other kids. Show what a previous product prototype looked like, an example or two of specific feedback from kids, and a new prototype of what the designers changed based on that.

This way your participants will understand that you’re not there to see how well they perform, quite the opposite, you’re there to ask for their help. They will feel they can improve something for other kids to enjoy - if that’s not being a hero, I don’t know what is!

8. Find clever ways to uncover kids’ real opinions.

Finally, there are many reasons why kids might not be honest with you about their opinions. After all, even if you bring lots of colorful materials and try to talk to kids at their level, you’re not one of them - this relationship will always be out of balance. They might be afraid to tell you what they think because you’re a symbol of authority, or - what’s common - they just want to please you so you’re not disappointed.

That’s why asking young participants if they like a product is not always going to give us honest feedback. What you can do, and that’s another great method from Playtest with kids, is ask them if they think the product they’ve just tested is for children their age, younger or maybe older. In most cases, they will start explaining why they think it’s not good for them without thinking they might hurt your feelings.

So that’s just a few tips to get you started, but there’s so much more to learn about research with children. Luckily, we have more and more really useful resources prepared by experts in the field, below you can find some of them:

Child Computer Interaction UX Playbook - interesting methods and techniques

Playtest with Kids Toolkit - it’s not only a toolkit prepared by research experts but a website full of useful resources and case studies

User Research with Kids: How to Effectively Conduct Research with Participants Aged 3-16 - book by Thomas Visby Snitker

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