Approaches to User Research When Designing for Children
Published: March 7, 2011
I am writing this first installment of my column Designing for Children as I observe my three-year-old son playing a game for preschoolers on a touchscreen mobile device. It is incredibly interesting to see how easy and natural it is for him to interact with technology, and at the same time, remember the many challenges I had to face when I started using computers—and technology in general.
Children’s exposure to computing devices depends on a great variety of factors—including cultural traditions, economic power, and family values. But there is no doubt that, in general, children’s access to technological devices and interactive products has increased dramatically in recent years. We are now seeing even higher adoption of technology among children—thanks to the unpredictably intuitive interaction of youngsters with touchscreen technologies and mobile devices that they can carry everywhere and use at any time.
As a result, it is important that we, as designers of interactive products, understand what is different in the development of digital applications that we’re targeting specifically for children. What are the implications for the UX design and user research methods we have traditionally followed?
I’ll dedicate my column Designing for Children to the examination of UX design and user research topics within the context of designing for young audiences—up to 15 years of age. The topics I’ll cover will range from the definition of design requirements, to UX design, user interface design, and visual design, to user research methods. The focus of this first installment of my column is primarily on user research with children.
Conducting User Research with Children
One of the biggest challenges of designing interactive experiences for children is creating age-appropriate experiences—in terms of content, functionality, interactions, and visual design. It is often difficult for UX designers to step out of their adult point of view and really immerse themselves in a child’s world, while avoiding being either condescending or too tough.
Similar to any other design project that follows a user-centered approach, UX design projects for children also require a thorough knowledge of your audience. Conducting user research is a vital part of the product development process and enables designers to discover how to provide meaningful interactive experiences for kids in a specific age range.
To illustrate the differences that can emerge when conducting user research with children—in comparison to research methods we traditionally use with adults—here is an overview of some of the many methods of conducting user research with children that are currently in use in both industry and academia.
Co-creating with Children
Although their results are harder to analyze, participatory research methods with kids often provide great insights when designers are present during the sessions and able to directly interact with the children.
For example, LEGO has a history of collaboration between designers and users during the early stages of projects—when designers and users co-create and validate each other’s ideas. For products like Mindstorms, LEGO chooses lead users to aid the designers through brainstorming sessions. Mutual feedback helps designers avoid potential misconceptions before they become crucial mistakes. 
In the academic sector, Dr. Allison Druin, of the University of Maryland, has conducted extensive research on designing interactive experiences for children, working with children. Her work provides great inspiration for ways of involving children in the product development process. 
Some general guidelines to consider when co-creating with children include the following:
- Define clear objectives. Have a clear idea of what you need to achieve during each research session, and select user types accordingly. Do you need expert users to help you design a new level for a well-established game? Or do you need children who are completely new to the type of product you are designing?
- Promote a casual and fun atmosphere. Always keep in mind that you are collaborating with children as design partners. Therefore, it is important to promote a casual atmosphere in which every child feels confident in sharing his or her story. Do not talk down to kids. Try to ask open-ended questions, and suggest that they elaborate on their ideas. Most important, make the children feel part of the process and keep an open mind. For example, if children are expert users, allow them to take the lead in the conversation at some points, and listen carefully so you can learn from them.
- Bring plenty of materials. No matter what the age of the children you are working with, always have a variety of materials on hand that can help children to better express themselves. These might include colored pencils, paper, sticky notes, Play-Doh, clay, paper images, and scissors. Allowing children to draw or express themselves through means other than just talking helps you to understand their ideas. This is especially important when working with children below seven years of age. If you already have some ideas that need validation, it is best to show the children drawings that you’ve printed on paper or hand-drawn sketches, because these give them the feeling that what they’re seeing is still a work in progress. Let the children draw or write on these sketches. Even though a project is still in its early stages, coded prototypes look more finished, so it’s not as easy for children to critique them or imagine how they could be different.
- Do group activities. When working with children above eleven years of age, co-creation activities benefit greatly from discussion—between both researchers and the children and children and their peers. Sessions with groups of up to six children are manageable. When children are older, are experienced users, and are fans of the product you are working on, co-creation sessions can be very engaging and last for as long as two hours. However, to ensure the children do not lose their focus on the activity, you should plan for most sessions to last just one hour. On the other hand, when working with younger children, it is important to reduce the size of the group. An optimal number would be three kids per researcher. This allows children to have discussions with their peers, if they are inclined to do so, but also lets the researchers keep all of the participants engaged and maintain better control over the session.
- Invite parents or teachers to participate, as necessary. Involving parents or teachers is especially important if you are working with young children or are doing research for interactive products that kids use with supervision or the help of their adult caregivers. Inviting adults with whom the children are familiar can also help you to establish communication with children below six years of age. It is important for researchers to understand what expectations and thoughts parents and teachers have about a product, as well as to take advantage of their knowledge about a particular child’s development.
Using Online Research Panels with Children
Research companies like Touchstone Research—which specializes in marketing research with children and teens —often make use of forums and message boards for online communities to create online research panels for children or adults. These online platforms let designers and marketers get in contact with children, no matter where in the world they are, and involve them in user research or usability testing.
When using online research panels with either children or adults, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
- Online research panels are generally most effective when you use them for large-scale projects that target users of various ages throughout the world, during the brainstorming phase of your projects.
- You can take advantage of these online panels to gather insights in many different ways—from posting a survey comprising closed questions to get statistical results; to letting children submit ideas on a specific topic, then rate or discuss them with other kids. This helps designers understand what is important to a product’s core users and what ideas resonate more for a group of participants as a whole.
- Online panels can be either open or closed to the public, depending on the amount of data you need to gather and the specific types of users you are targeting. For example, if you are working specifically with children between six and eight years old, who live in Australia, you should allow access only to those users who meet these criteria. Provide participants with user names and passwords they can use to access your panel.
- If you have asked children for their feedback on some ideas, be prepared to communicate with them often. Children get excited about collaborating with you and giving their opinions, and they expect you to keep the conversation going and to comment on their feedback and ideas as well.
Doing Focus Groups with Children
Companies generally use focus groups to test products that are already on the market, but focus groups can also be useful for interactive design projects. You can do focus groups to discover what children perceive and feel about current digital experiences—and what you should improve or keep the same. For example, children might discuss their feelings about social networks; massive, multiplayer online games; texting, or chatting.
Here are some guidelines to follow when conducting focus groups with children:
- Use a screener to recruit children who are very familiar with the experience or product you would like to discuss. In general, focus groups are a great tool to use with pre-teens and teens.
- Encourage children not only to discuss their feelings, but also to create mind maps to help them understand the relationships between the ideas that come up as they discuss a product. Do this with the aid of materials like printed images and words and sticky notes.
- In addition, Professor Thomas M. Archer , of The Ohio State University, recommends that you do the following:
- Define age-appropriate questions that use casual language.
- If possible, recruit participants who know each other.
- Keep sessions’ duration under one hour.
- Gather children in groups of five or six, in the same age range—preferably older than six years of age.
Interviewing Children in Friendship Pairs
In general, traditional interviewing methods can be hard to use with children. When you want to ask children questions or hear their opinions, a good alternative method of interviewing can be friendship pairs, in which you gather pairs of children who know each other well and share an interest that relates to the experience you are designing.
For example, this approach is especially useful when testing multiplayer computer games or high-fidelity prototypes. Children can sit side by side and comment between themselves about an experience they are sharing. It is one method Jakob Nielsen and his team used when testing how kids between the ages of three and twelve use children’s Web sites. 
Some guidelines to keep in mind when conducting interviews with children in friendship pairs include the following:
- Be an active listener, and encourage kids to talk to each other throughout each session.
- If children are not very expressive when talking about certain topics between themselves, try asking them questions to promote discussion.
- If one child is confused or scared to comment, ask the other child to explain the topic of discussion in his or her own words. This can help you gain a better understanding of the children’s mental models and how best to support their interactive experience.
Reading a variety of child-development publications can be helpful when you’re starting a user research project with children. Refer to the following references for information about how child development relates to design for children:
- Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media: An Overview of Influential Theories of Child Development, Applied to Practice, by Ellen Wolock, Ann Orr, and Warren Buckleitner 
- “The Whole Child Development Guide,” by Edith Ackermann 
- “Interaction Design and Children,” by Juan Pablo Hourcade 
- Designing for Children: Marketing Design That Speaks to Kids, by Catharine Fishel 
When reviewing this literature, keep in mind the age of the children for whom you’re designing a product, and look for information about three key aspects of child development that influence the development of interactive experiences for children:
- motor and physical development
- How do children manipulate a mouse or keyboard at certain ages?
- Can children easily interact with the small keyboards and limited screen real estate of most mobile devices?
- Can they easily grab objects, point, and draw?
- How do they perceive objects visually?
- What physical and motor activities do children enjoy doing at a given age?
- social skills
- Do children enjoy and are they capable of playing with their peers?
- At what age do children enjoy discussing topics in a group?
- At what age are they interested in forming virtual friendships?
- cognitive skills
- How and when do children recognize colors, shapes, symbols, sounds, and conventional icons in user interfaces?
- At what age do children recognize letters, words, and numbers?
- How long is a child’s typical attention span at a given age?
- What seems challenging or easy for children to do?
- How have companies developed other products for the same age range?
- To what kinds of questions are children able to respond—open or closed?
- What are children’s language skills?
- How can you better support children’s mental models?
Other Research Methods
There are a number of other user research methods that researchers have used with children who are older than about 12 years of age. For the most part, the same guidelines apply to these methods as when conducting user research with adults. A few of these methods are card sorting, user scenarios, personas, storytelling experience journals, cultural analyses, behavioral observation, surveys, questionnaires, and ethnographic studies.
Some Final Thoughts
The primary focus of this first column has been on presenting some research methods that are useful when conducting user research with children—in both industry and academic settings—and guidelines on how to use them. I have not endeavored to provide a comprehensive list of research methods, but instead, have discussed some of the differences that you must take into account when conducting user research with children—in contrast to more traditional user research with adults.
I hope that the information I have provided here can serve as a basis for your careful evaluation of what research methods would be more suitable for you to use and how best to use them, when you are faced with the challenge of taking a user-centered approach to designing interactive experiences for children.
 Bell, John. “3 Ways LEGO Leads Co-creation.” The Digital Influence Mapping Project, September 9, 2006. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Druin, Allison. “Allison Druin: Selected Papers.” University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Touchstone Research. “Child Research.” Touchstone Research. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Archer, Thomas. “Focus Groups for Kids.” Journal of Extension, Spring 1993, �Vol. 31, No. 1. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Nielsen, Jakob. “Children’s Websites: Usability Issues in Designing for Kids.” Alertbox, September 13, 2010. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Wolock, Ellen, Ann Orr, and Warren Buckleitner. Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media: An Overview of Influential Theories of Child Development, Applied to Practice. Revised edition. Flemington, NJ: Active Learning Associates, 2010.
� Ackermann, Edith. “The Whole Child Development Guide.” LEGO Learning Institute, December 2004. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Hourcade, Juan Pablo. “Interaction Design and Children.” Foundations and Trends in Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
 Fishel, Catharine. Designing for Children: Marketing Design That Speaks to Kids. Minneapolis, MN: Rockport Publishers, 2001.
Hains, Rebecca. “Conducting Qualitative Research with Children:�Interdisciplinary and Feminist Perspectives for Media Scholars.” International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, May 5, 2009. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
Ooi, Yeevon. “Designing Interactive Products for Children: How Is It Different?” Webcredible, December 2010. Retrieved January 8, 2011.