User research with children

Usability | September 2018

girl helping boy try vr technologyFive key takeaways from our User research with kids event

Lesley Fosh, Senior UX Consultant, selects key learning points on conducting user research with children.

Our UX research with kids event, co-hosted with The Research Thing, brought together members of the UX community to share experiences and viewpoints. Over the course of 3 talks, the speakers covered the following topics:

  1. Discovery workshops with primary school pupils (by Lesley Fosh of System Concepts and Ghazaleh Cousin of Discovery Education UK.
  2. Approaches to co-creating with and for kids (by Rachel Liu and Florencia Döuek of Pearson Education.
  3. How to conduct research with a global generation of kids, (by Joanna Brassett of Studio INTO).

We’ve pulled together some of the key insights and challenges, with recommendations for how to overcome them.


Takeaway 1: Access to participants

One of the first challenges is gaining access to younger research participants, as this is not always possible through traditional recruitment methods. A good option is to approach a school to partner with, running the research as an activity for pupils to take part in, so that they can also benefit and learn from it.

The downside to recruiting through a school is the limited diversity in the sample, so it’s important to repeat research sessions in different schools. A good approach is to visit at least one school in a rural area, one in a semi-urban area and one in a city.

Takeaway 2: Engaging kids in a research session

The usual research methods we use to understand user needs and behaviours don’t always work so well with kids, who might be less able to explain and articulate their needs. Giving children practical activities to do can be a great way to stimulate conversation.

young boy in classroomIn my presentation with Ghazaleh Cousin of Discovery Education UK, we demonstrated how we employed an activity called ‘Frankenstein designs’ to gather requirements for an educational product. This involved letting children design their own educational websites by choosing their favourite parts of other websites they were familiar with. While doing this they were able to explain why the different parts of the websites were important to them, for example being able to log in and keep track of their progress.

When conducting user research with children it’s a good idea to have a range of activities to maintain the pace of the session – this helps to make sure children don’t get bored or go off topic. Rachel and Florencia also talked about having different areas of the room to move between as their participants completed different exercises, which can also help to structure sessions.

Takeaway 3: Managing participants

Even with a well-planned structure of creative activities, it can be challenging to manage younger participants in a research session. It might sound counter-intuitive, but having children take part in small groups can be more productive than engaging with children one-on-one. Children can feel more at ease when they’re with their peers and they can use each other as inspiration when creating and discussing their designs.

Ghazaleh and I found that it works best when children know each other – but not too well – such as if they are in the same school year group but not in the same class. This ensures they are comfortable, but also allows their individuality to show through (in 1 of our workshops, 2 children from the same class produced very similar designs).

Takeaway 4: Researching in the right context

When putting together a research plan, it’s important to consider the context and how it might affect the outcome. When conducting user research with children in the lab, it’s a good idea to make the space feel fun and safe. For instance, you can help participants feel at ease by replicating the classroom environment with lots of soft furnishings, bright colours and pictures.

For user research with children to be successful, you need to ensure that they feel comfortable and relaxed enough to communicate their needs, while keeping them focused on the research activities. When Ghazaleh and I conducted research in a school, a teacher was present in the room at all times, but wasn’t involved in the research or discussions. This helped the children feel safe, secure and comfortable.

Takeaway 5: Crossing the generational gap

young girls using a tablet deviceA final challenge when researching with children is grounding the research in an understanding of the social and cultural context of their technology use. Children don’t use products and services in a vacuum, but are influenced by the culture of their generation – which can be hard to grasp from an adult’s perspective (and can be even more challenging when researching internationally).

Joanna Brassett of Studio INTO overcame this by getting a child’s perspective of a research activity. She had one child observe another child doing an activity and used the first child’s observations as a way of getting an ‘insider’ view of what was happening. Combining this with her ‘outsider’ or adult perspective allowed her to gain a rich understanding on two levels.


If you’re involved in user research with children, we’d love to hear from you

Are you working on a research project with children? We’d love to hear about it, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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