Usability Testing with Children

Today, coloring books are replaced with iPads, board games are replaced with apps and video games are replete with virtual reality systems and 3-D computer graphics. Children are getting iPhones as early as the age of 7 and young adults of 11 or 12 are creating social media accounts on Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Children are spending an increasing amount of time interacting with digital products and interfaces. Quite frankly, technology has become so integrated in their everyday lives.

Designing digital products and interfaces for children who are digital natives does not come without its challenges. As Gen Zers, they do not know of a world without technology, and thus, they have learned to expect technology to work for them. Even though, children do not fully understand the concept of usability, they do know the differences between digital products that are easy to follow and produce positive experiences and ones that just work poorly.

Using Piaget’s Cognitive Development Stages as a Framework

Usability testing with children can be challenging because they have an internal set of logic that often varies wildly from an adult’s. Their responses can be quite difficult to predict and are at times incoherent. Even so, questions about time or quantities can be problematic as their sense of time has not been well-developed or their perception of “a lot” can be vastly different from yours. Therefore, taking into account varying levels of maturity and cognitive development of different age groups can help prepare for the study. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development (see Figure 1) in children can be a helpful tool to use when creating tasks aimed for usability tests with kids. You can tailor the tasks you design and the questions you ask depending on the target age group and their respective cognitive or maturity levels. Thus, understanding the cognitive development stages of your target users as well as being sensitive to maturity levels can help produce effective and insightful results when usability testing with kids. 

Figure 1: Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development for children

Using Piaget’s cognitive development stages as a framework can be a good place to start when designing usability tests with children younger than 12 years. For example, testing 7 year olds together with 3 year olds in the same lab setting may be difficult since there is such a huge cognitive gap between the two ages. However, it doesn’t take into account environmental factors that may play a role in the cognitive development of children. Even so, some critics say that the theory underestimates children’s abilities. But, while Piaget’s theory of cognitive development may have some flaws, it is still widely known and used in other fields. For usability testing with children, it is important to understand that Piaget’s theory has its limitations, but it is also a helpful guideline for understanding the cognitive development stages of your target users. 

How can we recruit children for usability testing?

Recruiting children for usability testing involves more care in terms of considering the number and type of participants to recruit and the compensation that they would receive. When usability testing with children, it is especially important to recruit more participants than you need. Because you are testing with minors, there are now two factors that can affect the attendance of the participants: the parent and the child. In an ideal world, all children would be equally sociable and provide useful answers during the study, however that is not the case. Some children can feel uncomfortable talking with an unfamiliar adult in a lab setting. Therefore, recruiting more participants than you need is recommended just in case there are many shy participants. Plus, you can make children more comfortable by having a familiar figure in the room (a parent/guardian) and getting down on their level. Creating a child-friendly environment for the study can go a long way.

For compensation, it is useful to keep in mind that there needs to be an incentive for both the child and the parent/ guardian. Cash or gift cards from popular companies or stores are great incentives. Offering toys or treats to young children would make them feel more eager and excited to complete the study.

Designing tasks for children

Preparing tasks for any usability testing can be difficult. Likewise, there are many factors to consider when designing tasks for children to perform during the study. In general, tasks should be “varied, age-appropriate, and simple, without providing too many hints” (Joyce, 2019). In addition, the tasks also need to be engaging. It is important to prepare many different types of activities because children’s interests vary a lot. Children are prone to get bored easily and therefore, become unengaged, so it is good to prepare for that happening during the test. In addition, tasks must be language- appropriate and easy for children to understand. For example, for elementary school children, visual scales instead of numbers or words work better. 

Oftentimes, adults forget that children, at the very least, can surprise us. Children are intuitive and can be more insightful than we think. Setting up a lab that’s pleasant and child-friendly or even conducting the study in an environment that’s familiar to them (like a school cafeteria/ computer lab or their home) can make kids feel comfortable to share and express their opinions.

There are a plethora of resources and tips on how to conduct usability testing with children. Since we’re dealing with minors, other important things to keep in mind are parental consent forms and consent for recording sessions. Below are some resources that are useful for preparing usability testing with children: