The Kids Are All Right (Subjects for Usability Testing)

Effective user research with children begins with understanding.

What was your favorite toy when you were little? What video game did your parents put time limits on so you would do your homework? What did you want so desperately for that one birthday that you promised to do both your chores and your sibling’s?

Chances are, you can easily recall at least one product that answers the above questions. The things we interact with as children carry the potential to affect us deeply for years — and when we become the ones creating those products, we take on a big responsibility to make them the best they can be. And, as anyone who has ever so much as dabbled in user research knows: the best way to make your product amazing is to test it with your users.

However: “Yikes!” you might say. “Surely testing with children presents a number of unique challenges that I, a human adult, cannot predict!”

Don’t worry, friend. I’ve got you.

One of the most important goals in all user research is to achieve empathy with and understanding of one’s users. But when you’re designing for a child, someone whose brain may function in a way vastly different from yours, you’re going to have to put in some extra effort. Our brains are very simple and mushy when we’re born, and it takes years of psychological development to get you to the point where you can read this post and understand what I’m saying. And here’s a good rule of thumb: kids will always surprise you. They’re both oblivious in ways you couldn’t have predicted, and smarter than most adults give them credit for.

Your Brain on Cognitive Development

Piaget’s stages of psychological development

In Design for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning, Debra Levin Gelman does a fantastic job explicating the attitudes, emotions, and limitations of childhood developmental phases, along with best practices recommendations for each. She refers often to the stages of psychological development set forth by Jean Piaget, the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development in children.

In an upcoming article, we’ll dive deeper into the most effective types of testing for each group; for now, here’s a quick overview.

The Sensorimotor Stage: Birth to Age 2

  • Separate selves: the process by which infants learn that they are separate from their environment and other people (which in turn can lead to separation anxiety as they realize their parents are not attached and can go away)
  • Object permanence: the understanding that just because something isn’t currently visible doesn’t mean it’s gone forever (AKA, the salve for separation anxiety, and also what makes peek-a-boo funny)
  • Early representational thought: the ability to interpret items around us without sticking them in our mouths

The Preoperational Stage: Ages 2– 6

  • Egocentrism: the ability to see from anyone’s perspective other than their own doesn’t yet exist (thus the difficulties with sharing)
  • Communication: exponentially increased use of language to communicate; however, still not necessarily able to fully articulate their thoughts and feelings
  • Imagination and memory: start playing pretend through imitative and symbolic play; also gain the ability to pull mental images from their past experiences

The Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7– 11

  • Inductive logic: can now draw inferences from concrete objects or events in order to make a generalization (but can’t yet do this with abstract concepts, nor use generalization to predict an outcome)
  • Reversibility: the ability to reverse mental categorization (understanding, for example, that if a poodle is a dog and a dog is an animal, a poodle is an animal)

The Formal Operations Stage: Ages 12– Adult

This phase is when logic, abstract thought, problem solving fully develops — and also when this post becomes significantly less relevant. Let’s move on!

A good rule of thumb: kids will always surprise you.

Now, a caveat: there are many (seriously, so many) different cognitive development theories. Piaget himself even acknowledged that his theory is an approximation at best; other critiques include lack of context regarding different domains of knowledge and exclusion of sociocultural influences. Neo-Piagetian theorists attempt to rectify these weaknesses, building upon and expanding Piaget’s work to encompass advancements in cognitive psychology and differential psychology…

…Yeah, yeah, I can see your eyes glazing over. No worries. Just make sure you understand at least the cognitive development stages of your target users, and you’ll have a great starting point for your research.

Welcome to Generation Z

Were you born before 1997? Drop all that nostalgia for your 20th century youth and say hello to Generation Z!

New York Times

Wait, you sent your hello over email? They haven’t checked their Gmail in a week. Maybe try sending it via Snapchat instead. (This reference will probably be outdated within the next few months.)

There’s a lot to say about this complex group, but for the sake of brevity, these are some particularly notable characteristics to keep in mind:

  • Practical. These kids don’t remember a world before 9/11, and they grew up during the Great Recession. They’ve heard countless horror stories of jobless and debt-ridden millennials. You’ll find far less idealism and sense of entitlement than in previous generations. They know they may have to either fight their way to the top, or even forge a different path altogether to make their own success. There’s an instinct towards productive play early on: handmade jewelry ends up on Etsy and amateur comedians find followings on YouTube.
  • Eager for a challenge. The majority of this generation will grow up as gamers, thanks to mobile gaming. They understand the value of having to stretch to overcome hurdles. Avoid trophies for participation, as they see loss as just an opportunity to do better next time.
  • Global, diverse and accepting. Here’s a neat statistic: Gen Z is the last American generation with a white majority, and they’re significantly more optimistic about the country’s increasing racial diversity. Diverse presidents are the standard, and gay marriage isn’t anything to get up in arms about, it’s just normal.
  • Digital natives. This goes way beyond millennials growing up with a computer in the house. With this group, technology isn’t an obsession, it’s an expectation. Gen Zers may have received their first iPhone at age 7, or lied about their age to get a Twitter account when they were 10. Tech is a tool that works for them; they’re going to have zero patience for an app that has poor usability, no matter how innovative it is.

Respect Their Personhood

Never forget: even your youngest users are still people. They have likes and dislikes, personalities and biases and hobbies. And just because you’re a grown-up, you don’t necessarily know what’s best for them.

A few suggestions for getting to know your target age range better, even before you actually start testing:

  • Spend some time with your own kids (I mean, hopefully you’re doing this anyway) or those of friends and relatives.
  • Find volunteer opportunities at a local Boys & Girls Club or through sites like VolunteerMatch and Idealist.org.
  • Go to Toys’R’Us on a weekend. You can check out featured products, chat with employees, and try not to be creepy as you eavesdrop on children with their parents.

Up Next

Now that you know how important understanding is in this process, it’s time to move on to the actual testing!

The upcoming sequel to this article will feature such useful things as moderator script templates, including how to introduce yourself without being intimidating or condescending. There’ll be tips and guidelines for usability testing and interview design for different age ranges. And what do you do if a kid insists that your product is perfect because they don’t want to hurt your feelings? Fret not, dear reader. Part 2 will have all that and more.

Further Reading