Children all over the country spend hours glued to their screens ploughing fields, killing aliens, looking for penguins … and maybe even doing the bit of homework. If your website is targeted at children, then we believe the best way of ensuring success is to test it on real children.
Usability testing lets adult designers see their product from a child’s perspective and helps them understand how to make it successful, engaging and interesting. But testing with children while often entertaining, can be challenging, and unpredictable; requiring a flexible approach and contingency planning to ensure that it runs smoothly and produces valuable insights.
How is usability testing with children different?
In our experience, a standard approach to usability testing with children is not usually feasible. To start with, the standard usability lab is not particularly child friendly. Before we test with children we try to look around and see the environment through a child’s eyes. Depending on the age group we might need to provide more appropriate furniture or remove distractions.
It is important that young children have a parent or familiar adult around. Whether or not the adult participates in the session depends on what we are trying to achieve and what sort of feedback we need. If a parent would normally help their child use a website, then it can be helpful to observe when they step in to help. They can also help with answering questions and comment on how they usually work at home.
We use different approaches to testing depending on the age groups. For example:
- Pre-school children will not be able to carry out formalised tasks, and a more open, exploratory, self-paced approach is needed. The most effective approach we have found is to allow the child and parent explore the product or website as they would do at home, interjecting with prompts and hints where necessary to guide the child to the areas of the site we are particularly interested in (for example interjecting with “try something else now” if the child becomes engrossed in a certain game or activity).
- After some formal schooling, children are more able to follow a task-based approach; however, these tasks should be very simple and broken down into small steps so that the child is not required to remember complex instructions (we are not testing their memory!) Children in this group may need some practice/ warm-up tasks to get used to the computer set-up.
- By secondary school, most children enjoy task-based activities and challenges, and a traditional approach can usually be used. However, ensure that the task order is counterbalanced, as children/ teenagers are likely to put in a reduced effort later on in the session when they are tired. Furthermore, it will ensure that all tasks are sufficiently attempted with at least a few participants if time runs out/ the child gets too fed up to continue.
The most important thing for the facilitator is to adopt a flexible approach during the session and to use appropriate means of communicating. Very young children (under 6) are often not able to express themselves verbally, so behavioural observations can be as important as verbal feedback (e.g. smiling, fidgeting, sighing, groaning). Older children may find it easier to describe what they like and dislike, however it is still important that non-verbal feedback is carefully noted. We also use pictures and a prepared list of hints which offer varying levels of support to the child in completing different aspects of the website, and to record when each is used.
We always try to make the sessions as fun as possible, to maintain the attention of our participants. For example, we may include different activities, games and a drink break.
How else can we gather feedback from children?
We have recently conducted a number of interactive focus groups with children aged 12 – 16. As with user testing, these need careful planning to ensure that they are fun and engaging. We make sure that the groups are kept fairly small and only include children of the same gender and similar age. We also visit children and their parents at home, and interview friendship pairs, to see how children behave and use products in their normal environment.
Just like any user research with adults, we analyse all the data and identify common themes or patterns. Providing the sessions with children are planned well and facilitated in a flexible manner, the output from these sessions can be as insightful as any adult user research – and fun too!
To find out how we can help improve your website please contact us.