Children become an increasingly important target group for digital media. Reason number one, they have a strong purchase influence on their parents. Reason number two, they start to recognize their role as active media consumer.
Children are confronted with digital media everywhere. It is no longer limited to a means of entertainment. Rather, digital media has become part of our educational vision. That’s why it is important – now more than ever – to acknowledge the specific abilities and needs of children when designing media for them.
The idea of user centered design is to include the user in the development process of a new product from the very beginning to the very end. It is essential to conduct user research in order to make sure we build the right kind of products in the right way – no matter how old our target group is.
Let’s take a look at usability testing with different age groups and why it is a challenge for any researcher.
The Question-Answer Process
The Question-answer process describes five important steps from the first encounter with a question to giving a final answer. Especially in research this process is very important and there is a high chance that test results are not reliable if participants do not or cannot fulfill all steps. The Question-answer process consists of the following steps:
- Understanding the question
- Retrieving relevant information from memory and ‘computing an answer’
- Formatting the answer
- Evaluating the answer
- Communicating the final answer
The cognitive, communicative, and social skills of children are still developing which affects different stages of the question-answer process. Especially when questions are complex or if information must be retrieved from memory, children have difficulties to give reliable answers.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive growth
In 1929, Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and philosopher, came up with the theory of cognitive growth which describes five stages of cognitive development; (1) Sensory-motor intelligence, (2) Preconceptual thought (3) Intuitive thought, (4) Concrete operations, and (5) Formal operations. These stages should not be seen as sharply distinct categories, since children’s abilities also depend on other factors such as heredity, learning, experience, and their social environment. Still, I think, they offer a nice framework for orientation when doing research with children.
1. Sensory-motor intelligence (0-2 years)
This is the first stage when babies are not yet two years of age. During this time language and thought processes are very limited and the only possible research is observation or interviewing parents.
2. Preconceptual thought (2-4 years)
Between two and four years of age, toddlers learn to speak and interact with others. In this age group, qualitative interviews that include ‘playing’ tasks can be done and small focus groups can be held. However, all five steps of the question-answer process are still difficult at this age and both questions and answers must be evaluated carefully.
3. Intuitive thought (4-7 years)
During this stage, language skills improve but comprehension and verbal memory are still limited. Both those skills are important for step one (understanding the question) and step two (retrieving information from memory) of the question-answer process. Questions should be very simple and the words used should match the child’s language.
Further, this age group is very literal, suggestible, has a short attention span, and does not yet understand depersonalized or indirect questions. Methods that can be used for doing research with children in the intuitive thought stage are; small focus groups and short qualitative interviews.
4. Concrete operations (8-11 years)
During the stage of concrete operations, language develops and reading skills are acquired. However, depersonalized or indirect questions are still critical at this age and a careful research design is important for step 1 and 2 of the question-answer process. Keep it simple.
Besides, be aware of satisficing in this age group and. Satisficing means that children use only one heuristic to decide on an answer instead of going through the whole question. Motivation and concentration are also critical issues. For children in this age group it is very important to keep it brief, visual, and most of all fun. Suitable methods are surveys, semi-structured or structured interviews as well as focus groups.
5. Formal thought (11-15 years)
Between eleven and fifteen years of age, children are in the stage of formal thought. Their cognitive functions, so their formal thinking, negations, and logic as well as their social skills are well developed. They are, however, very context sensitive at this age. This means that they might for example behave completely different in school than they do at home.
Besides, they are easily influenced by their classmates, parents, or siblings. Social desirability plays an important role which especially influences step 4 (evaluation of the answer) and 5 (communicating the final answer) of the question-answer process. For this age group, all common research methods can be adapted but be careful with comprehension problems, ambiguity, flippancy and boredom. Again, keep it simple, keep it fun.
From age 16 cognitive skills are adult like and age becomes a negligible factor for choosing a research method.
Usability testing with children is fun, but keep in mind that it can easily go wrong. For example, children might not understand your question, not know the answer or how to communicate it correctly, or simply lack motivation or concentration.
When testing with children, make sure you are aware of their age and, thus their cognitive, communicative, and social skills. According to Piaget, only children that are eight years of age or older are able to go through the entire question-answer process without help. Make sure you design your research carefully to match the abilities and motivation of your target age group. Only then you can be sure to get reliable data.