by Silica Larkin
What works for adults will not necessarily work for children, so HCI research must develop usability guidelines that are appropriate for children.
Kori Inkpen 1996
The above statement seems obvious, but how many of us have put it into practice? In November 2000 almost 20% of all digital media users were children (Children on the Internet, Dina Demner). Despite this fact, most of the people designing and creating the user experience today still have not designed for children as a user group. Hopefully, this practical guide will appeal to those who want to use children as participants, but are unsure about how to proceed.
The following list of ten tips is compiled from both research and personal experience.
- Be extra careful about participant recruitment, consent forms, and incentives. Check with your legal department when developing these materials and protocols. Compensating children for their participation can easily run afoul of child labor laws.
- Use age-appropriate terms in your testing materials. Be sure that your format tests the product more than it tests participants’ vocabularies. (See McGraw-Hill’s Fry Readability Graph at http://school.discovery.com/schrockguide/fry/fry.html or this great site about web design for children.
- Consider options for user feedback. Younger children, especially, may appreciate the option of dictating their comments to you. Also, offer to act as typist for participants if typing skills are not part of what is being tested to reduce test variables.
- Make sure the timeframe is age-appropriate. Young children have short attention spans for formal tasks (as short as 8-15 minutes for children under five), but may happily spend hours in unstructured play.
- Think about what children might not know. This may seem obvious, but eleven-year-olds might perform differently on a Web site for car sales than on a structurally identical Web site for a grocery store. Again, make sure you are testing what you want to test (instead of social exposure, familiarity with subject matter taxonomy, or other extraneous data).
- Think just as carefully about what children might know. Children are immersed in a highly specific learning environment. Just as adults pick up arcane knowledge about their particular area of work, groups of children of may well have specialized knowledge in certain areas. This is especially true for those related to the subjects they study or hear about in school (e.g. pedagogical terms, educational software familiarity, etc.) and popular or entertainment topics specific to children (e.g. Harry Potter trivia, rules for dodgeball, etc.).
- Take care to explain the purpose of the testing thoroughly. There is an automatic, unspoken power structure between an adult moderator and a child participant. Unless the child is used to having frank discussions with (possibly strange) adults, you may need to go the extra mile to put your participant at ease. Assure them that, today, there are no right or wrong answers—they are the evaluators and experts. Consider whether you will allow parents to be in the room with the children. For very young children, this may be helpful in establishing a naturalistic environment; for teenagers, it could have the opposite effect.
- Children tend suggest what they really would like, regardless of feasibility. This fact can work to your advantage or leave you with results you cannot implement. Think about what you plan on doing with the results of your test as you plan your testing methodology. Will your approach give you the kind of data you need? Will it be too vague or too specific?
- Young children tend to be literal. If you give children under eight a card-sorting activity, they may group similarly-named or similarly-colored items together, regardless of meaning. This may be just the information you are looking for, or it might prevent you from getting at some other data. Also beware of the effects of using symbols and other abstractions.
- Children understand usability. Despite what many people think, most school-aged children can understand the difference between fun and usefulness, and can judge them accordingly. Children are just as interested in achieving their goals as adults and dislike “attractive nuisances.” However, kids can also find ingenious ways to add fun to a product without destroying usability.
Although some of the above tips may seem contradictory at first, the fact is that every child—like every adult—will be different: keeping all these things in mind will help you deal with a fuller range of possibilities. Also, some tips are interdependent: in order for tip number eight to be relevant, you must first have assured tip number seven. Testing with kids is a highly rewarding experience. With this checklist in hand, you’ll be on your way to taking on this challenge with confidence.