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child with laptopChildren represent a huge market for digital products yet most are designed by and for adults.  Even those which are targeted at children often get it embarrassingly wrong – like dads trying to be ‘cool’.  But all is not lost.  We have found that user research and testing with children opens up a whole new perspective, helping adult designers to see the world through the eyes of a child.

Our user research with children has ranged from social networking and mobile phones to online games and websites targeted at everyone from toddlers to teens. 

Here we share some of the lessons we have learnt in adapting our usability research and testing methods for children...

The Testing Environment

Have a close look at the environment you are using for the testing. Is it friendly and welcoming to children or is it a bit cold and clinical with lots of distractions?  Removing distractions and adding a bit of comfort and colour can make a big difference to results.

When testing with younger children it is important to have a parent or familiar adult around to provide reassurance. The adult may or may not participate directly in the session depending 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 the children usually work at home.

To get a true understanding of childrens' behaviour we also find it very valuable to interview children and their parents at home, and to observe them at school.  This allows us to see how they behave in their normal environment, without the distractions and unfamiliarity of a testing lab.

The Tasks

Remember that children have a short concentration span and can get bored and distracted easily. Make sure the length of the session and the difficulty of task is appropriate to the children’s age and development. Pre-school children will need more open, exploratory tasks than those of school age, and younger children will need shorter, less complex tasks than teenagers.

The faciiatator has to keep a close watch for boredom, fatigue or children becoming too engrossed in one task and have a range of options ready to move the session on to more productive areas.

We always try to aim for sessions which are fun and tasks which are engaging with lots of different activities, games and breaks for snacks and drinks.

One of our clients recently reported back to us:

Not only did the children enjoy their time with the team, one child said they were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave!

We find colourful probe packs are very helpful for children to use to prepare for creative sessions.  Ours often include cameras, diaries and 'about me' prompt cards.


It is important to recognise that children communicate in different ways, many of them non-verbal. Facilitators need to be flexible and use appropriate communication techniques.  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).

While older children may find it easier to describe what they like and dislike, non-verbal feedback is still very important. We provide lots of different ways for children to indicate their likes, dislikes and preferences including picture scales, and simple, child-friendly rating descriptions.

And finally ...

If you are well prepared with plenty of alternatives available, a flexible approach and a good sense of humour, research with children is fun, rewarding and full of valuable insights into the next generation of digital users.

Tom Stewart

Published 11 March, 2010 by Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart is Executive Chairman at System Concepts, and a guest blogger at Econsultancy. System Concepts can be followed on Twitter here, and Tom is also on Google+.

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