Tips for planning user research with children

What to consider when conducting user research with children, from recruiting participants to setting up your room and planning your approach.

Conducting qualitative research with children, or with children and their parents, can be tricky.

It takes a skilled moderator to design and run research to get the most from participants. Get it right however, and you gain valuable insight which will not only inform the product or service being tested, but could lead to new design opportunities - the ones that you never thought existed.

Here are some pointers for planning your research

To yield valid and useful insight from research you need to create a very detailed ‘game’ plan, and yet be prepared for the unexpected. The hero of the story should be the child and you need to create opportunities for the child’s natural curiosity to be fulfilled and the new ideas and limitless imagination to shine through. If the research session is held and moderated correctly, the children will present you with endless ideas and suggestions. Make sure you listen, observe and document the opportunities it presents for the product or service you are testing.

Recruitment is key to creating a balanced group

I recommend a sample size of between 8 and 12 children. When recruiting participants consider the child’s characteristics to ensure you get the most from the study. Talk to the child’s parents or guardian to assess how curious they are - are they: extroverted, chatty, shy, or reserved? In other words look for the child’s character, their personality traits and willingness to explore ideas. 

You have to also consider that every child will play a certain role in the group. This will heavily contribute to its dynamics, so it is important to get a variety of characters to create a well-balanced group.

Plan your approach but be prepared to improvise

Different techniques are appropriate for different aged children, and often need to be adapted as the session progresses based on the child’s ability or level of response.

While older children may be able - and eager - to verbalise their experiences, views or perspectives, younger children may struggle to do so. With younger children, observation or asking them to draw or play out their responses, thoughts or experiences can provide more useful insights.

Gamifying the process through the use of pictures e.g. smiley/sad faces, crosses and ticks or gold stars, or asking the child to give marks out of 10 can often help children express their feelings towards elements of an app or website, product or brand.

It’s helpful to have more than one approach prepared. This enables you to adapt to changing situations on the move and to use improvisation to get the most from the session.

Allow enough time for tangents

You will likely need more time with children than adults so make sure you allow for the unexpected in your timings. Allowing children to explore the subject in their own way can yield rewarding results. Be prepared however to be able to bring it back on task if they stray too far from the theme.

It’s your job to make sure children do not see the research as a test

It is important to recognise that a greater power differential usually exists between the adult researcher and the child participant compared to adult research. As a result, children may be more likely to interpret the research session as a test, or to try and please the researcher by over exaggerating reactions or opinions or by giving false information. It is essential that the moderator appears neutral in their opinion of the subject under research and is mindful of their own body language or question phrasing so as not to lead or influence the child participant.

This is particularly where observation can come in useful. Think about bringing another researcher in to take notes and observe as it allows the child to act more naturally with minimal input from the researcher. Softer and more open questioning is also essential to elicit fuller responses rather than a simple yes or no response. Use a variety of cues, both verbal and non-verbal for feedback.

Plan the layout of the room

Children take longer to feel comfortable in new environments so consider the layout of your room. Make sure it is welcoming, warm and colourful. You could use child friendly tables, chairs, cups etc. Try to conduct research in a child’s home or school whenever possible; this allows you to observe their natural behaviour and will help put them at ease.

If you need to use a lab it’s important to recognise that it is likely to take the child longer to acclimatise to the setting. Having a fun warm-up exercise which involves both parent and child is beneficial. This could be as simple as asking them to tell you about, or draw which TV or film characters they particularly like or what TV shows they most like watching. Use technology and equipment they are familiar with (if not testing in home or school). Allow them to make this research space theirs.

Keep the children engaged

Limit sessions to 60 minutes or less and consider building in breaks with snacks. This can be useful when building rapport and can also help keep the children engaged. Make sure the room is friendly, but there are no major distractions for them - this will help the group to focus on the task.

Involve the parents and don’t overestimate their importance in this process

When researching younger children it needs to be recognised that we are often asking the child to use something for the first time. It is therefore beneficial to have the parent staying close by and allow the child to ask their parent for help if they cannot understand or do something. This is more valid the younger the children are.

While the child is encouraged to see if they can get through the issue themselves, asking mum or dad does replicate more naturalistic behaviour and also allows the researcher to observe where the child would become stuck. Children can often be too shy to ask the researcher for help or may feel they have failed if they become stuck so having a parent close by can offer reassurance.

Having the parent close by allows the researcher to ask for points of clarification if the child is having difficulty explaining something; or to provide a reality check if the researcher feels the child is over exaggerating their enthusiasm or opinions. However, asking the parent to take part first or too often is likely to encourage curious children to interrupt the parent and break the flow of the session.

In summary:

Related articles