So you’ve decided to involve kids in the design process. Not because you can’t come up with any ideas yourself – but you know that only your target age group can give you valid feedback on your concept. They can even help you overcome doubts, inspire you with new thoughts and help you broaden your horizon.
Unlike adults, kids don’t care about technical limitations, budgets, or any other corporate political decisions. Rather, they are extremely honest and straightforward and they burst from creativity. At the same time, kids have a very clear idea of what they like or dislike, what’s hip and what isn’t, and what gets them excited and motivated.
Those are all invaluable insights for adult designers, who can at the most take a good guess, but never know for sure. We already discussed why kids need special user research, but how do you go about interviewing children? What’s the big difference and why is it such a challenge to gain reliable insights from kids?
The answer is: Kids lack the cognitive, communicative, and social skills required to answer your questions. Let’s take a look at what that means and which effect this has on conducting user research with different age groups.
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:
1. Understanding the question. Kids have difficulties to determine the intended meaning behind a question. For example, this happens if (1) they don’t yet understand all of the words used in the question, (2) the question is too long, or combines two questions in one, (3) is phrased in a negative way, or (4) is too abstract.
2. Retrieving relevant information from memory. Kids have a limited attention and memory span. If their answer requires them to retrieve information from memory, this information can easily be false, or strongly influenced by personal preferences. Kids memorize information much better and much more prominently if it’s something they consider worth remembering.
3. Formatting the answer. In this step, kids have to choose the right response category, or verbalize their answer. Due to limited language skills, this can be challenging. Even though kids might know the right answer, chances are they say something different. Especially with negatively phrased questions, kids easily get confused.
4. Evaluating the answer. Once kids know their answer, some age groups will actively choose to say something different due to social desirability or other contextual influences. For example, some age groups are very concerned with their peers and matching their answers to their own desired identity.
5. Communicating the final answer. Even the last step of the question-answer process can be tricky. For example, some age groups will say anything just to please the interviewer. Others assume that adults already know everything and there is no need to say the whole answer. Yet others lack the attention to report the whole answer, or they are afraid to embarrass themselves by giving the wrong 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, they offer a nice framework for orientation when doing research with children.
Let’s take a look at each stage of cognitive development and the implications for the different steps of the question-answer process:
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, short qualitative interviews as well as short user testing sessions.
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 guided surveys, small focus groups, user testing sessions, and qualitative interview.
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, communicative, and social skills are adult like and age becomes a negligible factor for choosing a research method.
Here is an overview that I put together of all skills and suitable UX research methods per age group.