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How to Conduct Playful UX Research with Kids

Stepping into the world of play with kids during research

Toy vehicles set up over a child’s drawings of roads.
Photo by Markus Spiske

Kids are not just tiny adults — they have their own culture, world, and way of thinking that requires adjusting the way we conduct user research. Participatory Design with children involves entering their world in a way that allows you to truly collaborate with them.

Canva recently embarked on a journey of setting up a junior UXR research practice and learned firsthand what does and doesn’t translate well when researching with children. There are a stack of lessons in our bank from our first few research projects, and from consulting with experts in play design and UXR from Google, IDEO Play Lab, Khan Academy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Toca Boca.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when conducting research with kids:

🏆 Be a big kid

You’re about to enter a whole new world. Some of it may feel familiar (we were all kids once, right?) But it’s probably been a while — and in the eyes of a kid, you’re just a big grown-up.

“Early on in the research you want to try to ‘break’ this image of you as ‘the adult’ and become ‘the friend.’” -Mila Kuznetsova, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH)

One way to break this image of being just another adult, is to become a kids’ pop culture expert. Spend time with some kids and ask what they’re interested in. Go to a toy store, read a picture book, or surf cartoon network. (I recommend Summer Camp Island.)

Tap into your inner kid-self. But remember: being a big kid doesn’t mean acting like a kid in a way that doesn’t feel authentic to you. Kids can sniff out fakeness.

“My colleague always manages to come up with a fart joke, and it always works. If fart jokes aren’t authentic to you, then it wouldn’t work.” -Vlasta Komorous-King, Senior Design Director, IDEO Play Lab

After you’ve done your pop culture research, connect with the kids over what you authentically know and love. Whether it’s arts and crafts or playing Minecraft, kids will appreciate you sharing.

👾 Design games, not questionnaires

Two pieces of paper. One piece of paper looks like a questionnaire and has a cross sign next to it. The other piece of paper has two little monster characters and looks like a game and has a tick next to it.

Children are still developing metacognitive skills and will quickly tire and bore of question/answer tasks. In this world, play becomes the best way to probe.

Re-design questions that you would normally deliver via an interview, as craft activities — with worksheets and spaces for children to write, doodle, and draw; this gives kids the opportunity to respond in different ways, making the interview more accessible.

“Bring lots of materials to touch, hold, and focus on; to keep the conversation going.” -Helene Löfman, Toca Boca

Some inspiration:

  • Put on a puppet show, and ask 5–7 year-olds to point to a puppet that’s most like them — like these two puppets, Buffy & Fluffy.
  • Design a monster game, an interactive questionnaire where two opposing monsters make statements, and kids place stickers on the monster they agree with most.
  • Use a visual spectrum of emotions, faces, and characters that children can point to to indicate how they’re feeling.

Your materials don’t have to stop at you either! Spending time in schools is challenging to organise, but think of teachers as research facilitators as well. A strategy from Manfred Ng at Google is to give teachers a weekly pulse question — a question teachers write on the board that they can collect reflections on.

🙋 Ask for consent, and provide reimbursements

Research with minors involves multiple parties: guardians, teachers, principals, and the kids themselves.

Children are people who have not yet reached legal age for consent. When children are involved in research, consent becomes a combined process involving parent’s permission and the child’s assent.

“For pediatric ethics, informed consent is more properly understood as a combination of informed parental permission and (when appropriate) the assent of the child” (Kodish, 2003b, p. 90).

Assent means explaining the research exercise to kids in a way they can understand, and giving them the opportunity to decide if they want to take part or to decline. To help children make informed responses, ‘lite’ consent forms are available that are appropriate to a child’s reading and comprehension level.

As for your team members, make sure they have the appropriate legal checks and certificates in their states that allow them to work with children. (In NSW, Australia this is a valid “working with children’s” check).

In addition to asking for consent and assent, providing reimbursements for time is important. A typical reimbursement approach is to give the grown-up monetary reimbursement, and the kid something that is meaningful to them, like a gift card to a store they like or a toy they choose from a range you brought with you.

🍪 Start with snack time (and a toilet break)

(Remember to keep snacks peanut free.)

👀 Build in snack time at the start of your session

“Each of the 36 co-design sessions began with snack time (~15 minutes), in which children and adults ate and interacted with each other (e.g., drawing, playing games).” -Laughing is Scary, but Farting is Cute: A Conceptual Model of Children’s Perspectives of Creepy Technologies

Starting with snack time gives you time to build rapport and learn more about their interests. In research, you can…

“Use what they’re interested in to ask questions about the product.” -Helene Löfman Toca Boca

If you feel intimidated by an open snack time, you could use materials like a card sort with 50+ images with images from ducklings to computer games (include lots of diversity). Flip through the cards picking out favourites and learning about their interests.

😎 Make kids the experts

We display this on the board during sessions.

Even when conducting research with adults, you want participants to feel empowered and like their perspective matters. For kids, this is something that needs careful nurturing.

Children and young people don’t have as much power as adults. They can’t vote, and they don’t have as much money. But Article 12 says they still have the human right to have opinions and for these opinions to be heard and taken seriously. United Nations

From the outset, frame the child as the expert by saying, “You’re an expert in being 10 years old.”

“You are the expert — I can’t wait to learn from you. What are you into? What do you listen to? What do you like to do one the weekend? I’m going to ask LOTS of questions and there are no right or wrong answers. We can skip any of them if you want to.” Vlasta, Senior Design Director, IDEO Play Lab

Then, empower them to think like a designer. The introduction slide we display to classes before running observations or co-design sessions helps with this. We tell kids to put their problem solving hats on because we need their expert help! The “heeeeeeeelp” image gets a little giggle, and the 3 problem solving steps are kept on screen during the session to manage large groups.

⛹️ Remember: it’s a playdate, not a test

Kids are eager to please. If you start a session with an evaluation like “your shirt is cool,” it’ll set a precedence for continuing to please you and reinforce the power imbalance.

“The initial greeting to the child should remind them that they are not being evaluated, quizzed, or tested — that the purpose is to generate ideas for future developments, and that in the session there are no right or wrong answers, no stupid questions, and no judgment.” -Angela Watson, Truth for Teachers

Move away from “assess-y” language and assure them that it isn’t a test of their abilities. Instead of, “That’s great!” try these statements:

  • “Oh, tell me more!”
  • “I’d love to hear more about that!”
  • “Thanks for teaching me that!”
  • “That’s really interesting!”
  • “You’re being really helpful!”

And if your participant is losing interest, don’t push them to finish the test.

“When kids get bored let them walk away- that’s not a failed interview that’s information too”. -Mila Kuznetsova HMH

Kids will often be hyperaware of your feelings, so another way to open up space to critique is to frame prototypes as a broken toy and that you didn’t personally make it. Try a framing like:

“Someone has made a thing, and they’ve asked me to show it to kids, so they can show us what to improve. I’m going to show you something that can be really boring, it might be really bad. Or it might be really fun, we have no idea. It’s not me who designed this, so you can’t hurt my feelings.” Helene Löfman Toca Boca

🎂 Ask about birthdays and siblings

I’m sure we’ve all heard, or used a question like this in research before:

“Imagine you have a magical wand. It can do absolutely anything — big and small! If you could use this wand to make your classroom anything what would it be?”

Magical questions are fun but they’re also difficult (even for adults). Retain the fun and make the creative questions more accessible by focusing on something that has meaning in their world, like birthdays, friends and siblings.

“All birthday things are very important. AskIf you got to have the most exciting birthday party, what would you do?’ vs. ‘What’s most important to you?’ Vlasta, Senior Design Director, IDEO Play Lab

Or you could talk about their siblings to get an indication of what’s babyish or what’s cool.

“‘If you were going to give this toy as a gift, who would you give it to?’ If she says, ‘oh, my baby sister,’ then you know she thinks this toy is for babies — not older kids like herself.” Vlasta, Senior Design Director, IDEO Play Lab

🌱 Adjust for age-appropriate questions

Kids at different ages can feel like entirely different humans — worlds apart. Whilst it’s likely your research will already focus on a specific developmental age stage (like pre-primary: 2–4, primary: 5–8, tween 9–12, teen 13–18), there is still a lot of variation within the same age.

When visiting classrooms or homes, or conducting online sessions, over-prepare a set of activities that are aged up and aged down. This will give you the flexibility to adjust if a task feels too difficult or babyish.

Here are some examples of adjusting your language:

  • Categorise over rank. Kids find it hard to pick a “favourite.” They have to imagine the object, compare it, and then rank it. Instead, ask them to drag pictures or representations onto a spectrum of how much they like it — from a smiley face to a garbage can.
  • Question the behaviour, not the intention. What participants do is more important than what they say. (The same goes for adults.) Kids of certain ages may not have that level of introspection, and the ability to describe why they do things a certain way or like certain things. Instead of asking them why they like something, ask them about the behaviour. i.e. “Why did you click that?” vs “Why do you like that button?”

✨ Certificates, stickers and badges. Oh my!

A teacher once told us “Everybody loves certificates,” and it’s certainly true that people like to feel recognised and part of something.

We personalise our certificates with a special thank you to the child for sharing their ideas with us and solving tricky problems. One school was the first class in the WORLD to try whiteboards. We made sure they (and their families) knew that they were giving truly innovative input.

With these top tips, you can make sure your junior participants feel empowered during the research process, and your insights are grounded in their world. Most importantly, you’ll have an incredible amount of fun.

💖 A special thanks to Mila Kuznetsova, Vlasta Komorous-King, Manfred Ng, Helene Löfman and Todd Diemer who shared their insights and tips on conducting remote research with Kids; your input shaped the lessons captured in this article and made our first foray into post-pandemic Edu research at Canva smooth sailing!

About the Author

👋 Annabel Blake (they/them) is an award-winning children’s author and education researcher at Canva. They help people find and solve problems through research, design, and play.

Follow Annabel on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.

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Annabel Blake

Annabel Blake

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Design research @canva Prev; Google Creative Lab and Aus freeski team. Children's author (read my book about space!) https://bit.ly/2XBy4Xf