Usability Testing with young audiences

In the first of a series of three articles on usability testing in special situations, we share some of our experience testing with children and teens. Future articles will address usability research with older users and testing in different languages.

Baby trying to use a keyboardAccessing the internet is a routine activity for most youngsters these days and the age of those going online to access information, entertainment, games and social networking is decreasing.

Many websites now are designed with the teenage (and younger) market in mind and the market for online children’s sites is increasing. The requirements of these younger users, the way in which they access and navigate sites and their understanding of the dangers /problems that can be experienced online can vary greatly from an adult audience.

Therefore designing such sites with the younger audience in mind presents the designer with some novel challenges; in particular usability testing of such sites with these audiences needs some care and attention to obtain valid and valuable information from the test sessions.

User Vision has led projects involving testing with children and teenagers for sites as varied as government health campaigns to teen fashion magazines, and some of our tips for successful usability testing with this audience are below.

Ensure the children are comfortable

Usability testing is most effective when the respondents being tested are comfortable and therefore happy to think and discuss what they are interacting with. If children are not at ease, they are unlikely to respond in a natural manner and less likely to give their attention to the tasks at hand.

In order to facilitate this, a longer period of introduction, to set the scene, and allow the children to become familiar with the experiment, surroundings and the subsequent tasks at hand is needed.

This can have an effect on the overall testing time, however is essential for obtaining useful results. Additionally, depending on the age of the children, running sessions in pairs can help them to relax and talk more comfortably.

The experiment should be welcoming and not intimidating

All usability testing can potentially feel like a test that the user can pass or fail. To avoid this, the moderator needs to be comforting and reassuring to the respondent to ensure they do not feel as if they themselves are being tested.

This should be done by avoiding the use of words like ‘test’, when discussing the following procedure.

By making the usability experience sounds fun and something that the respondent may enjoy.

To facilitate the comfort and ease of the children taking part, (particularly the younger audiences) consider that the child’s parents may need to be allowed to be present during testing. However care should be taken that the parents are not distracting to the child or influencing the responses.

The Market Research Society has created guidelines for testing with young children that cover seeking consent from the parents if children are to be interviewed alone.

Teenager using a PCIt’s not a test

As already mentioned, usability tasks can often feel like a test. Adults can often handle the way such test are delivered if they understand that the site is being tested and not the user themselves. However children are likely to be less understanding of this.

Making the children comfortable is important, and as much as possible their questions should be answered (without of course providing information that essentially tells them how to do the task of course).

Care must be taken not to put the children in a position where they feel they are being tested. Making this clear to the child at the start is essential, but during testing children are highly likely to ask questions or look for reassurance.

When this happens the moderator must be skilled at redirecting the children’s direct questions, by returning the question to the children ‘what would you do now?’, ‘what do you think?’ in a friendly manner. This will often be a chance to gain insight from the participant, however the moderator should also determine the correct time to move on so as not to place unnecessary pressure on the respondents.

Interpreting responses

Children are often less vocal, or less able to verbalise their opinions about issues they experience. An uncomfortable child may be too shy or uneasy in giving responses if they feel they are being tested and are concerned that they may say the wrong thing.

Whereas adults will express their feelings vocally, children are more likely to offer clues non-verbally, by fidgeting, smiling and their body language etc. The experimenter should be aware of these cues and note these in conjunction with potential problems experienced with the site. Look for the child’s lack of engagement with the site.

Yawning and fidgeting can be clear signs that the site is no longer capturing the child’s attention.

Remove the pressure

Another method for facilitating accurate responses for children is to offer them a selection of responses. This is often particularly effective at the start of testing, to help put the children at ease. For example, asking them to pick from a short list of answers since in general it is easier for children to recognise and relate to response options than to verbalise the answer in their own words.

Once they provide a response the appropriate discussion can be used to explore this further and discover if there are other synonyms to get a more rounded picture. This will help to get the child talking and often once they are more comfortable verbalising this approach is not needed.

Make it fun

On a recent test for a teen magazine we included a collaging exercise in which children were given a copy of the magazine as well a copies of two competitor magazines. They were then asked to cut out pictures and headlines and create a collage of the content that was most important to them and that they would like to see on the magazine’s website.

The aim of this exercise was to engage the participants, put them at ease and provide a starting point for discussion before moving on to look at the online variant of the magazine.

Collaging is a needs-elicitation technique that uses metaphorical images selected by users as vehicles for them to articulate what they would ideally like. This technique is particularly effective with younger people. This method can be made even more effective by conducting this testing in pairs. When tested in pairs, participants were often more comfortable and more forthcoming with valuable feedback.

In summary, testing with younger audiences presents the usability researcher with some novel challenges. Challenges that if they cannot be overcome can damage the validity and value of the responses obtained.

Keys to success in testing with children are:

  • making the usability test environment comfortable and non-intimidating
  • making it a fun discussion with the moderator, not a test of the participant
  • making the moderator friendly and approachable and the tasks enjoyable as possible and not like a test that can be failed
  • the moderator should be aware of the child’s non-verbal behaviour and seek signs of frustration as well as positive signs such as laughter and smiling.

Through this the children are more likely to be engaged and responsive and not feel under pressure. The moderator needs to be highly flexible and prepared to move on through the testing to maintain the child’s attention and engagement.

With these elements in mind, testing with younger audiences can be a highly fruitful and enjoyable experience for both the moderator and young respondent.

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