Usability testing for kids: What’s different?

For years, Alley has conducted one-on-one, moderated usability tests of our websites— but always with adults. Recently, we conducted a series of testing sessions with children ages 7—12. To get the best possible answers and responses, we approached our work differently and more creatively. Here, we’ll share tips should you have a project with kids.

To start, it’s important to remember that there is an imbalance of power between you, the adult, and the child. This may lead them to feel shy. Begin the session by giving them agency. Ask how they like to be called — do they have a nickname? Do they identify as a “kid” or a “child?” (This is useful when you say things like “As a kid, do you…”)

As you would with an adult, explain the goal of the research and how their responses will be used. For example, you might say, “We are designing a new website for kids. You are going to get to see it and tell us what you like and what you think could be better. We’ll share that with the people making the website so that it’s something kids will really like.”

To ease any discomfort in talking with you, a stranger, ask some warm-up questions. Start with specific questions before open-ended ones. For example:

Don’t Ask:

  • How was school?

Do Ask: 

  • Did you go to school today?
  • What was the best part?

As you get into the research, you’ll find that, like adults, kids’ personalities are clearly visible during a research session. Some are shy or uncertain, others eager to please, and still others outgoing and talkative. Some exhibit several of these characteristics in one sitting. Note where each kid falls along these characteristics and adjust your approach accordingly.

For shy or uncertain children, it’s especially important to build confidence through praise, reminding them that there are no “right” or “wrong” choices. If they discover a prototype bug, make sure they know it’s nothing they did wrong.

Don’t Say

  • You clicked on a button that doesn’t work.

Do Say:

  • Oh my gosh! You found a button that doesn’t work! Thank you! I will tell the people who built this so they can fix it. 

Be patient. These kids might require more quiet time to think before they answer. Get comfortable with moments of silence. 

Probing kids for more information should be more guided than with adults. Give kids a couple of answer options plus an “other.”

Ask an adult:

  • So you wouldn’t use this feature because….(trail off to let them “fill in the blank”).

Ask Kids:

  • Would you not use this because it doesn’t look fun, it’s hard to tell what it is, or something else?

An uncertain child might seek guidance and ask you questions such as, “What would happen if I clicked on this?” Instead of answering, gently ask back, “Well, what do you think it might do?”

Many children are eager to please when they participate in usability testing, and this is especially true if their parents or guardians are present. Due to Covid, our testing sessions were remote, and parents were often in the room or within earshot of their kids.  

It’s important to communicate with parents and guardians before the session and to ask them not to help their kids in their responses. Ask them not to sit immediately next to their child during the session. When a child is struggling with a task, it’s natural for them to look to their grown-up and for that adult to instinctually jump in to help. Of course, this prevents you from collecting the data that you need. Offer to talk with parents before or after the session so they feel comfortable with the research’s purpose and methodology.

As with adults, some children can be quite verbose. They can also fidget, be easily distracted, or follow numerous non-sequiturs. Usability testing with kids requires patience, as younger children will change the subject a lot. Instead of responding as if the child is interrupting, allow them to speak freely, which sometimes surfaces important information about general preferences. Just as you have to flex your discussion guides with adults who are especially talkative or who fixate on something, be prepared to flex with kids.

When it comes to asking kids to perform tasks, accessible language, succinct questions, and visual cues are important. Keep in mind that some children may not be able to read. Use kid-friendly language when describing what they are looking for.

Don’t say:

  • A wireframe is like an architectural blueprint.

Do say: 

  • Do you know LEGO? Well, this website is like a LEGO house that is still being built! We want your ideas on how to finish it!

When it comes to gathering feedback from kids, some will have trouble expressing their reactions through words. Look to visual aids to help kids express themselves, like the smiley-o-meter rating scale, sorting tools, picture drawing, and diaries.

The smiley-o-meter helps kids rate features without relying on a lot of words.

Our research reminded us what a big difference there is between 7 and 12-year-olds. Adjust your strategies accordingly. A smiley-o-meter will feel juvenile to most 12-year-olds but not to most 7-year-olds.

As always, develop your discussion guide and test your test with one or two kids. Through that best practice, you’ll see where you need to make adjustments before you conduct all of your interviews.

Let us know if you have any questions or if you have additional tips on conducting usability testing among kids.

For more on our approach to user research and how best to approach it yourself, check out How to Avoid Writing Bad Survey Questions by Digital Strategist Rebecca Viser!