Tips for user testing with children

June 11th, 2016

When designing for children, you can't rely on assumptions. Things such as cognitive development and comprehension skills which we often take for granted in adults varies widely between children who are only a year apart in age. This makes it impossible to accurately predict how younger audiences will interact with our products until we've actually observed them using it.

Given this, if you’re designing for children then it’s vital that you test with them. And while the experience of testing with children can be informative, enlightening and rewarding, it can also pose unique challenges compared to working with adults.

This blog is a summary of some tips and lessons I've learned while user testing with children that I hope you might find helpful for your user testing.

Be aware of developmental differences

Before testing, it’s important to understand some of the specific developmental differences that exist between children as these are highly variable across age groups. Skills such as language comprehension, problem solving, reasoning, and fine motor abilities all develop rapidly and at different stages in younger children, and a couple of years’ difference in age results in distinct behaviours and responses. Older children may also have more prior web experience than younger children and understand common metaphors better.

While a basic appreciation of the developmental capabilities of the age group you're designing for is important, so too is ensuring you're testing with the right segment. If your product is designed for children between the ages of six and twelve, make sure you're testing with a variety of children across those ages. Testing with only twelve year olds will mean issues that younger audiences may encounter do not get discovered, and vice versa.

Test as early as possible

Given these differences in abilities, it's difficult to make assumptions when designing for children. Getting children in to test early is the best way of validating your designs, discovering issues, and making sure you're on the right track.

The good news is that, by and large, children are more forgiving of unfinished designs and are very happy to play along, pretty much regardless of the stage you're at. Children are able to overlook missing assets, developer art, non-functional prototypes and other general ugliness, in order to provide useful feedback to help your design.

Gain parental consent

This might sound like a no-brainer, but it's something that can be easily missed. Working with children has stricter guidelines than working with adults, and rightly so. Because of this, you should read up on the requirements of testing with children such as how you handle their data, and what checks your organisation needs to do first. This will protect children you invite to test, as well as yourself.

Building immediate rapport is crucial

Now that you've got your early prototype and you've been sure to recruit your target audience, you can get children in to test.

Before even sitting down a child to test your website or play your game, it’s important to build a rapport. As children often experience more stress when encountering new people and places, it’s important to reduce any anxiety there could be. Additionally, building a rapport with your tester can help them open up and provide more useful feedback during the session. Building a relationship as quickly as possible will make the whole process easier for both the moderator and the tester.

To start building rapport, it’s a good idea to allow some time before the test to get to know the child better and make them feel more at ease. It gives you a chance to ask them questions to learn more about them – find out about their day, their favourite video games, or their favourite topic at school. Remember to react positively to show your engagement with them. You can also use this time to casually sneak in questions that are useful for your study too!

Working in a studio full of toys, books, and colourful posters, I find giving a quick tour helps break the ice. In addition to acquainting children to the environment, paying attention to the things they look interested in gives you a chance to build the conversation from there.

Don't be afraid to be goofy

A great way of building rapport is by making yourself more similar to the children coming into test. You can use mirroring, a psychological technique of consciously replicating someone else’s body language, gesture and speech patterns. By mirroring a child’s behaviour, you can create the sense of a stronger connection. Simple things such as subtly mimicking their pose or using words and phrases they use are great ways of doing this.

Similarly, dressing more kid-friendly can help build bonds. Wearing colourful and fun t-shirts (kids almost always respond to Minecraft and Adventure Time t-shirts when I wear them) often spark conversations immediately and can increase feelings of similarity and liking.

Image of a boy playing video games

Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal

Being conscious of your tone and maintaining eye contact to show interest may seem like common sense for user testing with participants of any age group. Children are particularly sensitive to these cues however, so special care should be taken. Using a pleasant tone and relaxed posture help make you more approachable, and can make them feel more at ease.

Another great tip is getting down to a child’s eye level. When outside of the testing room, crouching down to talk and meeting their eye level signals that you're equals and helps you not appear as an authority figure. During testing, try and sit lower than the child to further maintain this appearance. Using submissive body language such as sitting on your hands, or keeping them low, can again make the child feel more important during the session.

And don't just pay attention to your own body language. Children tend to have difficulty articulating their thoughts, but are extra expressive in their body language. You can identify telltale signs such as slouched postures, crossed arms, clenched fists but also big grins, and everything in between if you observe closely.

Be supportive

Establishing trust and a judgement-free environment will help make children feel more at ease in general, and also make them more comfortable expressing their opinion. Using this approach means you're more likely to get unfiltered and honest feedback than you would if they were worried about your response.

During testing there may be times where children stray from what you've asked them to do, or they may use a feature you've asked them to avoid, such as the search bar. Rather than saying "don't do that", steer them back on track using positive phrasing - "I'd like you to do this" and so forth as this will be perceived as more supportive.

It's also worth mentioning that, while it something you should be doing in every user testing session, it's extra important to let children know that they are not the ones being tested - the software is. I usually make a joke that it's not like a school exam, and that they can't make any mistakes in order to make them relax.

Think-aloud is difficult for children

More often than not, user testing sessions rely on the think-aloud technique – participants actively narrating their thought process while completing a task – to uncover issues. Children will often experience difficulty following this protocol.

This is largely the result of them either struggling with the concept, or to articulate their thoughts, or simply forgetting about to think aloud without being constantly reminded. While probing and encouragement can help children keep this up, I've found more useful ways of doing this such as friendship pairs (more on that later).

Post-session interviews won't tell you much

Children - like most adults - also have great difficulty recalling emotional states, especially after the fact. This limits the value of post-session interviews as children will often forget most of the session, and only recall the recent most task, especially if they felt negatively about it. Their opinions of this task will often cloud their judgement of the test as a whole - if the last part of a playtest involves a boss battle that is difficult and confusing, this is all most testers can focus on.

Additionally, children are additionally susceptable to the environment they're in, so if they're excited about visiting your offices and getting attention from grown-ups, this will also influence their responses. Being aware of this will help avoid making false assumptions from your data.

Friendship pairs create natural interactions

As mentioned, one of the most effective ways I've found to overcome difficulties with introspection and recall is to use friendship pairs. This involves inviting the tester to bring along a friend or sibling to session. Children will natural tell each other what they're doing, or explain things to each other, which creates a more natural interaction to understand their comprehension and understanding of the task.

A caveat to this is that children (and adults!) will often go along with what each other say, even if they don't necessarily agree. If you're going to use friendship pairs, you should design your study to counteract that - if you're collecting opinion data, ensure that that testers give their responses separately for instance.

Children are awesome

Above all else, children are awesome to test with. While there are challenges associated with testing, and extra care needs to be taken to avoid any unnecessary stress or anxiety, getting children to help will allow you to observe things you never expected in your design, and uncover ways of interacting with it that you never imagined. Most importantly, it will help make sure your product is as accessible as possible to the target audience.

Portrait of Charlie Butler, UX Designer and Researcher

Written by Charlie Butler

User Experience Designer