Any kind of research is subject to ethical standards that promote respect for all human subjects and protect their health and rights. The World Medical Association (WMA) has developed the Declaration of Helsinki as a statement of ethical principles for (medical) research involving human subjects. According to this declaration, it is the responsibility of any researcher to protect human life, health, dignity, integrity, right to self-determination, privacy, and confidentiality of personal information of research subjects.
When conducting user research with kids, there are a couple of things you should do to get honest, reliable results, but also to keep your research ethical. Children are a very vulnerable group that needs both special attention and special protection. Children easily feel insecure or intimidated by strangers or in unfamiliar situations. They might not be familiar with the concept of user testing. And they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they actually think.
It is very important that you are familiar with your target age group in order to cater to their needs. Here is a list of 10 things you should consider when user testing children:
1. Ask for parental consent
The Declaration of Helsinki states that “in case of legal incompetence, informed consent should [not must] be obtained from the legal guardian in accordance with national legislation.”
Although many people think that parental consent is obligatory when conducting user research with minors, this is not always true. That is when you are 100 percent sure that your research involves no risks for the children whatsoever. Meaning, you can be certain that parents or other legal guardians will not object to your research later on and attempt to sue you. In that case it is certainly advantageous to have their written consent.
Make sure your are familiar with the regulations in your country and just to be on the safe side, try to always get the consent of the legally authorized representative. Especially, when children are not yet able to fully understand the scope of your research, it’s a good thing to have the parents on your side.
2. Ask the child, too
Even though you should ask for parental consent, you must never push or even force a child in participating in your research. The Declaration of Helsinki states that “whenever the minor child is in fact able to give a consent, the minor’s consent must [not should] be obtained in addition to the consent of the minor’s legal guardian.”
A child that does not participate voluntarily will (1) not feel respected and might suffer from physiological consequences and (2) will not feel comfortable and empowered. Both of this leads to unreliable results that will at the most falsify your research. Make sure you ask children if they really want to participate – for their own sake, and for the sake of your research results.
3. Choose a familiar location
When user testing with adults, usually remote or field research offer much more reliable results. That is because people feel most comfortable and at ease in their familiar environment. The clinical and unnatural sphere of a laboratory setting causes research participants to act differently than they would when using a product in the real context. Basically, this is one of the worst things that can happen.
Children are even less rational than adults. Make sure you observe and test them in an environment they are familiar with. This can be their home, school, sports club, etc. Only if they feel as snug as a bug in a rug, they will act normal – giving your honest and reliable results.
4. Have someone introduce you
Besides choosing a familiar location for your research, it is important to have someone introduce you. For kids it is important to have a trusted person around. Being a stranger to them means that it might take awhile before they trust you. However, if another trusted person, such as a parent or teacher introduces you, children become more confident.
Only when kids trust you, they will feel at ease during the research. They will want to help you and they will do their best to answer your questions accurately.
5. Take your time
After you have been introduced to the child or group of children, make sure you take the time to also introduce yourself. Explain who you are and why you are there and make sure you encourage the kids to ask questions. It is important that you get to know each other and that the children can get used to you as a person before you start to interrogate them.
6. Explain the purpose of the research
“In any research on human beings, each potential subject must be adequately informed of the aims, methods, anticipated benefits and potential hazards of the study, and the discomfort it may entail.” (Declaration of Helsinki)
Before getting started with your research, it is essential that you inform the children about why you are there. Remember that it’s their own choice whether they want to participate or not. However, before they can make that choice, they need to have a pretty clear idea what they are saying yes or no to.
Keep in mind that children might need a more practical explanation and that they might not be familiar with the concepts and words you would normally use to describe your research.
7. Make kids feel in charge
Don’t forget that you conduct the research for a reason. You want something from your participants, not the other way around. It is important to make that clear and explain that you are testing a product or interface, not the participant.
When user testing kids, this part is crucial. Empowering the children will make them feel taken seriously and they will be excited to help you.
In the Declaration of Helsinki it sais: “He or she should be informed that he or she is at liberty to abstain from participation in the study, and that he or she is free to withdraw his or her consent to participation at any time.” Make clear that the kids can ask for a bathroom break at any point, or stop the session if they no longer want to participate.
8. Allow for questions
Before, during, and after the study, it is important that children feel comfortable to ask questions. They might not ask for a bathroom break, or mention that they are not feeling well, because they don’t want to let you down. Be observant and watch out for both verbal and behavioural signs that indicate when a child does not want to continue.
Behavioural indicators include:
- lack of cooperation
- crying or puckering
- constant looks towards the door
- lack of eye-contact with the researcher
- signs of boredom such as multiple yawns
Verbal indicators include:
- “I want to go to the toilet”
- “I’m tired”
- ‘When will I be done”
- Responding repeatedly to direct and age-appropriate questions with “I don’t know”
9. Choose an ethical incentive
In general, it’s not necessary to give children an incentive for participating in your research. Chances are that they enjoy it so much that being allowed to participate is incentive enough.
However, you might want to give an incentive anyways, because you want to show your appreciation, or because you know that kids love presents. In that case, try to think of something other than candy or other foods, such as peanuts. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of things that might cause an allergic reaction and you don’t want that to happen.
For example, I usually give something for the whole class, such as a game or study material.
10. A good debriefing is important
Last but not least, a good debriefing is important. As I mentioned before, if kids like you, they will do their best to help you. Let them know that they did and that you appreciate their effort. You might also want to tell them what you are going to do with the results and how they matched or differed from what you expected.
In any case, it is your responsibility that kids are dismissed with a positive feeling and that they will keep you and your research in good memory. This is also something you can control with your research setup. Make sure you end it with a sense of achievement – no matter if the child accomplished the actual research task or not.