10 tips for usability studies with children


Children are some of the most demanding and discerning users of interactive products, making them difficult to design for and challenging to moderate in a usability or UX research situation.

Whilst they can’t always articulate their thoughts and you can’t rely on what they say, with a careful approach you can generate incredibly useful design feedback by watching them use a product.

Before kicking off a recent project with with 7-14 year olds, I spoke to teachers, parents and others who have worked with this age group. I’ve added to their collective advice:

1. Have a guardian introduce you

Kids will trust you if their parents do, so meet them first, then have the parent introduce you, they’ll also do a better job than you can.

2. Avoid letting the guardian sit in
Kids behave differently when they know their parent is watching.

3. Explain everything
Kids have an amazing bullshit detector. Be transparent about the purposes of the research and why they are  involved.
The usual upfront introduction to the purpose of the research cannot seem like a formality with kids, tell them why they are involved, let them ask questions at the beginning, or they may ‘sit’ on a question waiting for a time to ask it.
Explain any recording equipment. Kids will be distracted by their curiosity so get all the waving to camera etc. out of the way at the start.

4. Use pairs of friends
Pairs feel more comfortable with a stranger (safety in numbers) and are less likely to get stage fright.
Have them take turns interacting, leaving the other free to talk. This can be difficult to manage at times but creates a great dynamic generating rich feedback.

5. Start easy
Kids, (esp. boys) don’t like to be wrong. Make sure they feel confident and reassured by asking super easy icebreaker questions like; “what are your favourite …” etc.

6. Free range
Thinking aloud while using a product can be very distracting for kids and results in unnatural behaviour, so aim for free-range activities with absolute minimum instruction. Slip into the background as much as possible while they are interacting with the product.

7. Together, then one at a time
Start off directing questions at both kids together before addressing them individually, this saves you putting one of them on the spot and will also help you work out and manage the dynamic when one kid dominates.

8. Choose your words carefully
Try to match your language with the kids (particularly nouns). This might mean you refer or point to ‘things’ until they fill the gaps, then gradually adopt their descriptive terms.

9. Leave the room
Choose your timing and make an excuse to exit the room (assuming you have observation facility). This is the best possible way to observe natural behaviour. Don’t blow your cover though, if you say you’re going to get them a drink, bring one back.

10. Don’t load them up on e-numbers
Their concentration levels can quickly evaporate once sugary or coloured foods kick in leaving you short-changed of feedback. …and their parents will curse you on the ride home.

Anyone want to make it a top 11 or 12 ?

UPDATE: I stumbled across a more theoretical article about usability testing with children. It’s coming from a more academic and psychological angle.

5 thoughts on “10 tips for usability studies with children

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  2. Zarah Juul

    Kids like to do good/right especially girls, for them it can be difficult if they just have to “click around”. I find that it can be a good idea to give these kids a specific task and let them know that there is no wrong or right. If they get stuck it’s good, because it shows us where to be better. It’s about “us” / the “game” not the kids.

  3. Nick

    Thanks for your comment Zarah. I find that ‘clicking around’ gives us a realistic view of where their curiosity takes them, what appeals etc. so I often try to let participants of any age exhaust their curiosity in a product (this can be a few seconds or not at all if the product is super engaging) before I give them tasks.

  4. Pingback: Usability Testing, Why? | XenoAbe Design

  5. Chrissie Denniston

    Don’t ask them if a task how hard a task was.

    I’ve consistently seen young children will say a task was easy even if they bombed the task. Many young children associate finding something “hard” with them being “not smart at it” and they wont want to appear this way, especially in front of stranger. So results from this question are meaningless.

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