5 Things to Remember When Conducting UX Research with Children

By Catalina Naranjo-Bock

Published: July 22, 2013

“It is important to adapt and create research methods that accord with participants’ cognitive, language, and motor skills, as well as to have a general understanding of children’s different age groups….”

This column was inspired by a question that I constantly get asked: “What would you say are the most important things to keep in mind when doing user research with kids?” In the following paragraphs, I’ll provide a summary of some basic things that you’ll need to take into account when conducting user research with children between the ages of 3 to 15 years.

1. Choosing and Transforming User Research Methods Based on Age Group

As on any UX research project, the research methods that you use may vary, depending on the kinds of research questions you are trying to answer. When you’re working specifically with children, an additional factor that you must consider is their age. It is important to adapt and create research methods that accord with participants’ cognitive, language, and motor skills, as well as to have a general understanding of children’s different age groups before embarking on a research project.

There is a myriad of literature about conducting research with children—in both academic and industrial settings—that illustrates different research methods, when and how to use them, and their challenges and advantages. Some examples include my own past columns on UXmatters:

2. Selecting the Right Participants

“Finding and recruiting the right children to participate in studies can be challenging—especially when doing research for new products or for companies that kids and their parents do not recognize as being relevant to them.”

Finding and recruiting the right children to participate in studies can be challenging—especially when doing research for new products or for companies that kids and their parents do not recognize as being relevant to them. However, intercepting parents and kids in public spaces like parks or museums or posting general ads on social networks can work well for projects that lack complexity, where the objective is to do iterative product evaluations and gain exposure among young users. Traditional friends-and-family recruiting can also work well when you don’t need a large pool of participants.

If you’re doing research for a global product from an already established company, chances are that you’ll be able to recruit kids in more traditional ways, using recruitment screeners or a database of children that have previously signed up for research with the company. Reaching out to schools, day-care centers, or kids museums to expand your pool of participants is always a possibility.

Although it’s not always possible, talking with the kids or their parents before choosing them to participate in a study can help you to prepare better and make sure that you select the participants that can give you the most valuable data. You can discern how expressive they are, what special accommodations you may need to make for them, and whether they really match the recruitment criteria you have set for your study.

3. Selecting the Right Time and Place for Your Research Sessions

“The research sessions should take place in a location where the children will feel at ease, but won’t be easily distracted.”

The research sessions should take place in a location where the children will feel at ease, but won’t be easily distracted. This generally means visiting children in their homes or at school and making the necessary preparations to ensure that the space is well suited for your research needs.

However, if you work for a company that the kids would recognize and they are familiar with your products, having them visit your company headquarters and meet the design team there can be an exciting adventure for them. Taking advantage of the company’s facilities—from multipurpose rooms to play-testing labs—can simplify the preparation of the space that you need for your research.

Research sessions normally last for an hour. It is important to schedule the sessions around the children’s family and school schedules and to avoid times when they are tired after a long day of activities. This often means conducting research on weekends.

4. Determining the Role of Parents or Caregivers in Your Research Project

“During the user research sessions, the role of the parents varies, depending on the ages of the children who are participating in the research and what you want to get out of the research sessions.”

Looking at your research from a legal perspective, in most countries, you need parental permission to conduct research with children below 18 years of age. This is especially important when you plan to record a session or share the data that you’ve obtained with internal and external stakeholders. Therefore, at the very least, you must explain clearly to the children’s parents what the research requires from their kids and what support you’ll need from them during the research project.

During the user research sessions, the role of the parents varies, depending on the ages of the children who are participating in the research and what you want to get out of the research sessions. For example, if you’re interested in understanding how children below 6 years of age would play with something or how they interact with each other, it’s advisable to conduct observational research that does not include the parents, so you can get a completely unbiased child’s perspective. In addition to doing observational research with children in this age group, it can be beneficial to schedule some sessions with only the parents and others with both the parents and their children, so you can contrast their different points of view and see the impact of situational changes.

On the other hand, if your sessions are more involved—for example, if you’ll be asking children to explain something by drawing or choosing different pictures, the sessions can benefit from the parents’ presence. They can help you to understand what the children are trying to say, help you to build rapport with the children, or provide additional context for what the children are telling you based on their experiences or habits that you’d have no way of knowing about.

In either case, you should be clear on your expectations of the parents whose children are participating in your research projects. When designing a research project, ask yourself the following question: Do I need the parents to be actively involved in the research activities, or do I need them to be there, without influencing the behavior of their child, just in case something the child says is not clear?

With kids above 7 years of age, things can be a bit more flexible. These children can express themselves more clearly and provide you with any context that you need. In this case, the role of the parents depends completely on the research questions you are trying to answer and the research methods you are planning to employ.

You can conduct research with the kids on their own, then schedule separate interview sessions with the parents, so they can give you a more holistic view of the child’s life. When you’re conducting research activities at a child’s home, you might need the parents’ help with logistics, data collection, or setting up any necessary technologies—for example, mobile technologies or software.

In summary, when you’re planning to do user research with kids, you always need to take into account the parent’s role. Even if you decide not to involve the parents in your research, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that parents do have a huge influence on their children’s lives, so the decisions they make as parents might have a direct influence on the decisions you make for your product as well. This is also true of any other adults—such as schoolteachers or nannies—who spend a great deal of time with the children in different settings.

5. Having the Right Attitude When Embarking on a Research Project with Children

“You must take a very flexible, open-minded approach when working with kids.”

One point that may seem obvious, but is always important to keep in mind is the fact that, as a  UX researcher, you must take a very flexible, open-minded approach when working with kids.

As UX researchers, we thoroughly plan our projects and try to cover every possible detail beforehand. But the fact is that—no matter how much we plan, pilot test, and rehearse—it is very hard to predict how a research session will go when you’re working with kids. You might find out that what you had in mind isn’t actually giving you the results that you’d hoped to get, so you’ll need to adjust your approach as you go.

During a research session, lots of unexpected things can happen. It might be challenging to keep the kids engaged or difficult to build rapport with them. Or the activities or tasks that you’d planned may prove to be too hard or too easy for the age group you’re working with. Or you might not yet have figured out how to involve the parents in a way that gives you meaningful results, but doesn’t affect the way the kids behave during a research activity.

Also, depending on the complexity of a research activity, you might need to prepare other activities such as games, workbooks, or drawing sheets to serve as stimuli during your research sessions and keep the kids engaged. These activities can take time to plan and set up, and they might not work out as expected when you actually use them with the kids.

Conclusion

In this column, I’ve outlined five of the basic things that I always keep in mind when conducting user research with children. There are many more tips that we could add to this list. Please help to expand this list through your comments!

1 Comment

It is best to research alone with the child and the video camera—without the child’s knowledge. Then analyze the video, paying attention to what the child says and to gestures. In this step, if necessary, only the parents may be present. They are going to explain what the child says or does and means by that word or that gesture.

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.