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.