Category Archives: Usability

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.

Apology, or invitation. What’s your message?

Are you being served?

If this were a checkout operator speaking to you, which would you think was most friendly and helpful?

Two signs; Same context, audience and purpose. More design effort has gone into one, but it is the choice of words here which has the most impact on the message they convey.

So when it comes to fine tuning a digital user interface, why is there such a focus on graphic interaction design elements, often tweaked to the nearest pixel with less importance given to copy and messaging?

Refreshingly, a recent website usability project came from the opposite angle. My client had accepted they were deeply immersed in the technical nature of their product and their way of communicating it was out-of-whack with terms their target market would relate to.

The team realised that regardless how perfectly their visual design and site architecture presented their product, it was the words they used to communicate their product which would make it fly…. Or not.

Working with a technical copywriter we were able to identify phrases which really resonated with people, which to avoid and critically, what copy should be ‘front and centre’ to engage and convert potential customers.

During the flow of research participants, we made copy changes on the fly, gaining immediate reaction to provide a rapid cycle of improvement.

As well as taking us down the path of making sense and talking people’s language, it was a strong lesson to get rid of that ‘lorem ipsum’ placeholder text as early as possible when getting feedback from customers.

Banking on Usability?


This ad from Kiwibank shows a customer turning to rage while checking his balance online   …presumably on a competitor bank’s website.

Banks were one of the first industries to take their services online in New Zealand, so after more than a decade to fine tune their customers’ online experience…

…should user-friendliness really be a point of difference?

Making the most of Optimal Treejack

If you want to find out how well your website navigation structure works for your customers, Treejack is a great tool for the job.
If you want to know why certain parts performed poorly, and what to do about it, you’ll need to get inside the head of your customer. The tools for this are your eyes and ears.

Treejack, was developed in New Zealand by Optimal Workshop so has been built with a user-centered approach in mind.

It’s a tool to test the navigation structure of your website. Treejack will pinpoint the most difficult areas or items to find, based on click-trails as survey participants navigate through a prototype of your website’s structure. (the prototype is a simple ‘tree’ of text links generated from a spreadsheet you paste  in… couldn’t be easier)

Treejack is a great tool, saving time and headspace, but it is no silver bullet.

You’ll get summarised and detailed outputs showing where each participant went, how directly and quickly they found set items during the survey. … but it won’t tell you how much sense it made to them, or why the tricky areas were confusing.

To design a website that’s intuitive to navigate it’s essential to understand how your customers will interact with it. There is simply no substitute for observation when it comes to gathering these insights.

Teaming Treejack up with qualitative one-on-one research makes a killer double-act bringing you the best of both worlds.

Some tips for integrating Treejack into user research sessions:

  • Run a warm up exercise on a generic ‘tree’ … Clicking through a bare-bones navigation is quite abstract so this helps participants get used to the interaction style.
  • Encourage participants to ‘think aloud’ while using the prototype. When you notice them pause, they’ll be thinking. Having them vocalise their experience is the closest you’ll get to knowing what’s behind their thoughts and any indecision.
  • Save your questions till after each task. Interrupting the participant mid-flow can make them change their behaviour, skewing the Treejack report. Let them click through naturally then discuss it afterwards. You’ll need to rely on your note taking here.
  • Have a duplicate Treejack survey open in another tab. This way you can ask participants to re-trace their steps without affecting the Treejack results.
  • Ask the participants to ‘rate’ each task for how much sense it made to them etc. Treejack tells where and how they found the item, but doesn’t tell you whether this made sense to them.
  • More participants, fewer tasks. As people develop a familiarity with the ‘tree’ they will start memorising where things are, making your findings less useful.
  • Use your eyes. The old adage, “it’s what they do, not say” is as relevant as ever here.

I’d be interested to hear anyone elses experiences …
Go check it out at

An augmented reality-check

Classic lack of end user understanding here from Weet Bix.
A marketing campaign using augmented reality aimed at early teenagers fell at the first hurdle owing to the myopic vision of those who designed the campaign.

Young All Black fans were supposed to hold a card from their cereal packet up to their webcam to experience their favourite player on screen in 3D.  .. all good in theory,
…in practice the promotion involved a lengthy signup, third party app. download and installation plus a browser restart, etc. etc.

Hardly the recipe for a campaign designed to spread by word of mouth.

Trent from Optimal sums it up nicely when he poses the question “did they ever sit down with a 10 year-old and get them to use it?”

Ben Gracewood runs through the ‘experience’ through the eyes of a 10 year old on his blog

… so, why couldn’t the marketing team see it this way?

Design teams make assumptions about their audience, project their own goals and needs onto the project and become too close to their products, losing sight of the big picture.

Usability testing with the target market at an early stage would have identified signup and installation barriers and very likely forced the team to rethink the way the campaign was rolled out. … before it was rolled out. Products are significantly cheaper to correct at prototype stage than post-launch with egg on your face.

Something tells me here that the campaign was pushed through despite its clunky user experience simply because the marketing team were so in love with the concept of augmented reality.

A shame their target market don’t share the love.

Back in Black

Since being back in New Zealand I’ve heard people reckoning we are a few years behind Europe and the States in terms of the acceptance of UX.

I’m back in London for a few weeks, consulting for Flow Interactive, … so if it’s true we kiwis are behind, I’m in an industry crystal ball here.

It’s great to be back in the saddle at Flow, the place where I first heard some of the many acronyms that have proliferated as the industry evolves. (UCD, UX, UE, IA, IXD, CHI, HCI… where do you want to get off?)

All these labels and sometimes glorified job titles aside, in the last few years in London, the biggest change I’ve noticed in the industry is the shift from usability to user experience.

Usability studies are often the first encounter clients have with a User Centred Design process, but these are notoriously carried out too late in the process to be of use. (telltale sign: more ‘oh shit’ than ‘a-ha’ moments)

Switched-on clients have adopted UX as an early strategic tool to gain insight, minimise risk and build competitive advantage.

As clients are exposed to user centred approaches and the results they bring, they aim to integrate UX across their entire product lifecycle. You know they see the true value of UX when they involve UCD in the earliest stages of a project

…Meanwhile ‘user testing’ (another horrific and misleading term) has become somewhat commoditised, seen by some as a ‘tick-box’ exercise routinely built into the development cycle particularly of websites. Usability is no less important, but less mysterious and more self contained.

If this is what NZ has to look forward to, then it looks like we have to push our clients over the usability hump, to see the full value of a User Centred approach
…And stop baffling them with acronyms.