Conducting research with kids? Considerations for running studies with adolescent participants

May 31, 2023

Imagine: You’re interviewing a 9-year-old to get feedback on a new level of a popular children’s game. During the warmup part of the session, she was chatty and smiling and made a lot of eye contact, but now something has changed. She’s nervous and is struggling to navigate the app. She looks to you often for confirmation that she’s doing the right thing. When you ask a question, she responds with eyes down and “dunno” or a shrug. What would you do?

Conducting user experience (UX) research with children presents unique challenges. Learning to proactively identify and mitigate these challenges will ensure a better experience for your participant and better data for you, your team, and your client. Through years of experience designing studies and working with unique populations, we’ve learned that preparing for successful research with children requires:

  • Tailoring study parameters and materials to be age appropriate to increase participation and comprehension.
  • Creating an environment in which kids stay engaged and feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

What’s the best way to ensure that you’re addressing these needs? Let’s look at how to apply these approaches to study design, recruitment strategy, and session management.

Designing the study

  • Consider the attention span when you set session length and activities. Kids tend to lose focus or feel fatigued from long sessions or extended periods spent discussing the same topic or task. Breaks allow participants to reset and refocus. Short tasks also keep the session pace flowing, as opposed to a few longer tasks.
  • Consider dyads or triads. In some cases, participating in a group of siblings or friends puts kids at ease. However, the helpfulness of dyads or triads depends on your methodology. A usability test is likely not an opportunity for dyads, as this may promote groupthink. In the case of a study aiming to understand how kids interact in a given situation, using dyads or triads may be a good option.
  • Write study materials in plain, age-appropriate language. Keep wording short and simple. This includes language in the minor’s consent form, the “intro” at the beginning of sessions, the moderator’s guide questions, and task wording.
  • Prepare multiple ways to word questions and tasks. This allows the moderator to easily adjust for comprehension. When the moderator is unsure if a participant understands, they can confirm by asking, “What does XYZ mean to you?”
  • Follow laws and guidelines for interacting with minors. Ensure you are aware of any laws related to conducting research with minors. Additionally, check your company’s policies for any regulations or best practices for how researchers (or vendors) communicate with minors.

    Recruiting participants

    • Create the session schedule to accommodate school hours. Consider running research sessions in late afternoons, evenings, or on weekends. For nationwide remote studies, take advantage of time zones to keep the schedule feasible for both the research team and participants.
    • Expect that parents may “volunteer” kids to participate. Minors are typically recruited by contacting and screening the parent or guardian of the child. Occasionally, this can lead to situations where a parent “signs up” a child who may not be interested in participating. When possible, gauge a child’s interest through a pre-session interaction like a tech check.
    • Use pre-session interactions to re-evaluate kids’ engagement and build rapport. At Bold Insight, we conduct tech checks ahead of remote sessions to ensure all technology is working. Use this time to assess if the minor is interested and a good fit for the study. We’ve experienced that kids tend to feel nervous about talking with a researcher, so interacting ahead of the session goes a long way in helping them feel comfortable and prepared.

    Managing the session

    • Start (and end) with questions that are easy to answer. Asking “easy” questions up front sets the tone that this research is not difficult or scary (e.g., can you see my screen? Do you see my mouse moving?).
    • Focus on building rapport early. Kids often feel uncertain about talking and being comfortable with a stranger.
      • Be friendly and approachable but remain unbiased and professional. To help put kids at ease, emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers and that they will not hurt your feelings with their opinions.
      • Spend time on warm-up questions to get them comfortable talking (e.g., what they like to do in their free time, sports, games, etc.).
    • Be prepared for a parent or sibling to join the session. Know who can participate and be captured in the session given the consent form. We generally welcome parents to sit in but are ready to guide the discussion back to the participant if parents jump in to answer questions or help their kids say the “right” answers. We recommend creating phrases ahead of time to smoothly steer the conversation back to the participant.
    • Give kids space to talk and ask questions. To express their thoughts, kids need to feel heard and be given time. Avoid packing too much into a session or sounding rushed.
    • Be ready for kids to ask for reassurance. Some kids will ask for help or ask if they are doing something correctly. Reinforce to them that understanding how they would approach this task/question on their own is helpful and that there are no right or wrong answers.

    Tailoring the study to match the abilities of your participants as well as creating age-appropriate materials and a comfortable environment sets your sessions up for success. Ultimately, developing best practices for conducting research with children will enable you to capture meaningful insights and ensure that they feel comfortable sharing their experiences.