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10 tips for usability studies with children

Usability-with-kids

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.

Are we headed this way?

The direction of User Experience in New Zealand ?

With UX still taking shape in New Zealand I think we can learn a lot from what’s happening in other centres. Having just returned home to New Zealand from User Experience research contracts in London, I thought I’d share a few observations:

Everyone’s hiring, especially UX recruiters
There are now several recruitment companies who cover or are dedicated to filling UX roles. They seem to be overflowing with work, but there’s still a skills/experience shortage …anyone who’s good is booked.

Boom time for freelancers
UX Agencies are facing stiff competition from lone consultants, especially for Usability and UX research projects, where the short engagements really suit the freelance ‘gun for hire’. Clients are winning as they get all the insights without paying agency rates. My friend Harry elaborates.

Specialisation
Generalists are recognizing their strengths and doing what they do best. Most noticeable here is a split between designers and researchers, with ‘full service’ UX agencies having a pool of each, complementing each other on a typical project.

Some UX people or agencies specialise by content or industry (Social, Retail, Banking etc.) …some by environment (Mobile, Gaming, etc.) As an example, I met with a small team of consultants who run usability studies for IPTV and in-flight entertainment interfaces. … that’s getting really niche!

Financial sector is poaching top UX talent
Some of the strongest consultants have been pulled across into the world of finance and investment banking, specifically working on trading system interfaces where the smallest improvements in efficiency can result in big gains (or losses, depends which way you look at it).

Informed clients
Clients who are veterans of the User Centered approach now have a mature understanding of UX processes, when to use them, how to commission them, what to expect, and how much to pay.  The standard ‘5 user’ usability testing study has become relatively commoditised as a result.

UX stops at the screen
Multi-channel customer experience projects are (still) thin on the ground. I put this down to siloed teams client-side and that User Experience is still (arrogantly) ‘owned’ by digital, even within organisations. This has to change, and it might be the emerging Service Design agencies who pull it off.

Skype takes the hassle out of remote usability

Remote research brings cultural relevance to usability findings, providing the kinds of insights which can only be gained by being there…virtually at least.

I recently ran some remote website usability sessions for a Kiwi startup whose main customer is in the U.S.A. … sure, ‘isolation breeds innovation’ and all that, but when your customers are on the other side of the world, it’s vital that your product connects with them.

A fun project, but choosing which software to run during the sessions was a headache… There’s a boggling number of services to choose from (25 on this link) and there’s no clear winner.

After some experimenting, I went with Skype and it did the job nicely.
Here are some benefits over paid and more sophisticated software I’ve used previously:

  • It’s easy to recruit participants who already use Skype
  • Familiarity means no learning curve for you or participants
  • No install means no wasting valuable session time setting-up
  • Sending links and files is instant with built-in messaging
  • It’s possible to make contact with participants prior to the session
  • It’s free, so that’s hard to argue with

During the sessions, I was able to video chat with the participant for a while, then fire up Skype’s screen-sharing tool, so I could observe their movements on the website while  hearing their thoughts and reactions etc.

Skype’s screen-sharing only works between two computers so if you have clients observing, this will have to be through an external monitor (Make sure they are sitting out of view of your webcam and preferably out of earshot).

The project generated rich insights and shaped the design process moving forward.
I’d definitely use Skype for this again, but would love to hear from anyone who’s used anything else with success.

I also had Adobe Connect recommended …anyone tried that?

The tip of the User Experience iceberg

Some websites provide more of an experience than others, but the number of web agencies and even individuals who offer User Experience in their list of ‘services’ indicates there’s a chunk of lip-service being paid to what has become an almost industry-specific buzzword.

Although many techniques and approaches to UX have been honed and made popular during online projects, if New Zealand businesses associate User Experience only with making a well considered website, the power of taking a user-centred approach will be diluted and practitioners risk limited uptake from business in the design/research/strategy of their other channels and customer touch-points.

There’s so much more ground to cover and value to offer away from the web and I hope I’m not alone in my ideal that businesses and organisations should involve customers in the planning and design of all facets they interact with, on and offline, physical and virtual.

Tell me I’m not alone…