Best Practices in User Research with Kids

Need to conduct user research with kids? Never fear! One of the best ways to get great feedback from kids is to make your feedback session kid-friendly. Having conducted user research with 3-14 year-olds, I’ve interacted with a lot of children. Here are 11 ways you can ensure your user research with kids goes smoothly. Most of these recommendations are good practices for user research in general, but tweaked for children.


1. Speak “kid.”

When you talk to kids, don’t dumb down what you’re saying (because no one likes being talked down to), but remember it’s unlikely that they’re familiar with UI/UX research vocabulary. For me, the right balance is a conversational tone; any jargon or unfamiliar words should given enough context so that it’s clear what the word means. If you’re not sure if you’re speaking “kid” well, you can always ask the child some questions to check for understanding once you’ve given them an overview of the session.  A few common checks for understanding include:

  • Tell me what you’ll be doing today.
  • What should you do if you want to end the session?
  • What should you do if you need a break?

If you’re used to talking to experts and have trouble switching to kid-speak, write out exactly what you’d like to say. This will also ensure that other facilitators are explaining things in a similar way.


2. Designate a parent waiting area, but also have an observation area for parents.

Sometimes parents can be nervous when their child is doing user testing for the first time. Most parents will want to hang out near the coffee, but some do not want their kids to leave their sight. The best solution I found was to let parents choose: Wait in the kitchen (With magazines! And coffee! And quiet!) or sit quietly in the back of the lab space where they could see their child (but their child couldn’t see them without turning around).

I’ve encountered only one parent who wanted to watch the user testing session, and she did not distract her child at all (in fact, she left after 10 minutes). If a parent insists on being with their child and the child becomes distracted or behaves differently because of the parent’s presence, then I wouldn’t ask them to participate again.


3. Let the kids know that they’re evaluating you, not the other way around.

Let kids know that they are there to test your work. Make it clear that they themselves are NOT being tested, and if something about the product makes them feel frustrated, bored, or sad, then that means that the product team has more work to do.


4. Let kids know how their input helps and how important it is.

There aren’t a lot of times that kids get to feel like experts around adults, but in this environment, they are the ones who really know what works and what doesn’t. Also, kids like to feel helpful and that they’re having an impact. You can do something as simple as let them know that their feedback will help your team make your product better for other children.


5. Consider embedding your questions in the study rather than saving them all for the end.

Kids can be forgetful and may be overwhelmed by being in a new place with new people. If there are any questions that can be answered earlier in the study, they should be so that kids don’t get tired by the time it’s time to reflect on the overall experience.

For example, if the child is testing products A and B, ask questions about product A right after they use it and then do the same for product B. Then, the interview at the end (if applicable) will only need to include questions about both products. This breaks up the session into several shorter tasks rather than a longer block of product testing followed by a longer interview.


6. Record kids using the product if you have their parents’ consent.

Kids have very honest reactions when something frustrates, surprises, or delights them.  Recording kids using your product can help you pinpoint when they have a certain reaction that may not be apparent to the facilitator or that they may forget to share later in the session. Although you can use a physical camera, Camtasia plus a built-in webcam offer an easier and less noticeable alternative and will allow you to simultaneously record the user’s face and the screen. 

Be sure to explain that you’ll be recording in your consent form so that parents understand what will be recorded, who will have access to the recordings, and how long you’ll keep them.


7. Set clear expectations for behavior.

Sometimes you’re going to meet kids who have no clue how to behave in an office (or anywhere else). It’s crucial to give clear directions and calm and firm reminders when necessary.

If a child begins to misbehave and simple redirection doesn’t help, ask if he or she still wants to participate in the session. Tell the child what he or she needs to do in order to continue. For example; “You can either end the session and go back to your mom/dad now or you can come sit back down with me and play the game.”  By staying calm and giving kids a choice, they feel free to try again instead of feeling as though they’re in trouble or having a standoff with you.  


8. Don’t make them cry.

This seems obvious, right? When you design your study, be absolutely sure that the task you’re asking kids to complete is appropriate for the age, education level, and past technology exposure or else you may be on the fast track to a meltdown. If in doubt, ask a parent, teacher, or someone who works with kids to weigh in on the study task before you run it with users.


9. If they do cry, be firm about it being your mistake and not theirs.

Thankfully, I’ve had this happen only once. The child was playing a game and the speed settings were incorrectly set. He burst into tears the third time he didn’t win. I reminded him that he wasn’t being tested and that my team had made a broken game, which meant we had more work to do. I also let him know that he helped us make it better for other kids because we wouldn’t have known to fix it without his help. The child and I got some water while another facilitator set up a different game. Then we came back and finished the session when he was ready.

If a child you’re working with starts to cry or looks ready to, ask if he’d like to take a break, get some water, or end the session.  If the child wants to continue, change the task if possible or have a facilitator provide additional support to complete the task.    


10. Let them know how much they helped you.

Even though you already told them why their feedback is important and how it helps you, you should still say it again when you’re done. This helps kids feel important and needed and lets them know that their feedback is valued. If they user test again, they’ll feel comfortable speaking frankly.  Also, you want to be sure that they leave the session on a positive note, especially if they felt frustrated during the session.


11. Money is fine, but give them prizes too.

Obviously, you should pay kids as you would other participants, but be sure to keep kid-friendly items on hand for children under 8 as well.  Lots of young children don’t understand money and, in some cases, their parents put it away so the child doesn’t lose it, so they miss out on the feeling that they’ve been rewarded. It’s a good idea to have stickers, pencils, small toys, or books (any physical object that kids are already familiar with) because they excite kids more than money typically does and are things that their parents are more likely to trust them with.

Can you correctly identify the adult in these photos?


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