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Usability Testing With Children: A Lesson From Piaget

Children are becoming an increasingly important target group on the web. Good usability and high user experience are crucial aspects for a successful website. Early and repetitive user testing is the way to go. If we address children on our website, we need to focus on what they want. We need to include children as a target group in our user testing.

In this post I’d like to take a look at usability testing with different age groups. First, let’s have a look at the question-answer process to understand the importance of cognitive abilities. I will then briefly introduce Piaget’s theory of cognitive growth and explain how it can be useful for usability testing with children. What can we learn from a widely recognized scientist from the beginning of the twentieth century?

The Question-Answer Process

The question-answer process describes five important steps from the first encounter with a question to giving a final answer. Especially in research this process is important: there is a high chance that test results are not reliable if participants do not or cannot fulfill all steps. The question-answer process consists of:

  1. understanding the question
  2. retrieving relevant information from memory and ‘computing an answer’
  3. formatting the answer
  4. evaluating the answer
  5. communicating the final answer

As, the cognitive, communicative, and social skills of children are under constant development this affects the different stages of the question-answer process. Especially when questions are complex or information must be retrieved from memory, children have difficulties giving reliable answers. You can read more about this topic in Bradburn’s article Understanding the Question-Answer Process (Bradburn, 2006).

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Growth

In 1929, Piaget came up with the theory of cognitive growth that describes five stages of cognitive development:

1. Sensory-motor intelligence (0-2 years old)

Language and thought processes are very limited and the only possible way to do research is by observation or by interviewing parents.

2. Preconceptual thought (2-4 years old)

Toddlers learn to speak and interact with others. In this age group, qualitative interviews that include ‘playing’ tasks can be carried-out and small focus groups can be held. However, all five steps of the question-answer process are still difficult at this age and both questions and answers must be evaluated carefully.

3. Intuitive thought (4-7 years old)

Language skills improve but comprehension and verbal memory are still limited. Both of  these skills are important for step one (understanding the question) and step two (retrieving information from memory) of the question-answer process. Questions should be very simple and the words used should match the child’s language. Further, this age group is very literal, suggestible, has a short attention span, and does not yet understand depersonalized or indirect questions. Methods that can be used for doing research with children in the intuitive thought stage are; small focus groups and short qualitative interviews.

4. Concrete operations (8-11 years old)

Language develops and reading skills are acquired. However, depersonalized or indirect questions are still critical at this age and a careful research design is important for step 1 and 2 of the question-answer process. Keep it simple and be aware of Satisficing. Satisficing means that children use only one heuristic to decide on an answer instead of going through the whole question. Motivation and concentration are also critical issues. For children in this age group it is very important to keep it simple, visual, and most of all fun! Methods you can user are surveys, semi-structured or structured interviews as well as focus groups.

5. Formal thought (11-15 years old)

By this age, children’s cognitive functions  -formal thinking, negations, and logic- as well as their social skills are well developed. However, kids are very context sensitive at this age. This means that they might, for example, behave completely different in school than they do at home. Besides, they are easily influenced by their classmates, parents, or siblings. Social desirability plays an important role which especially influences step 4 (evaluation of the answer) and 5 (communicating the final answer) of the question-answer process. For this age group, all common research methods can be adapted but be careful with comprehension problems, ambiguity, flippancy and boredom. Again, keep it simple, and keep it fun!

From age 16 cognitive skills are adult like and age becomes a negligible factor for choosing a research method.

Why Usabilla is handy for research with children

Above, I discussed the different stages of Piaget’s theory of cognitive growth. Before the age of eight years, children lack cognitive, communicative, and social skills to adequately fulfill all steps of the question-answer process. Only around age eight (stage of concrete operations), children become able to go through the question-answer process themselves and for example participate in a Usabilla test.

There are even some great advantages to usability testing with children over eight years old if you use Usabilla. First of all, a test can be set up very carefully and test questions can easily be pretested to make sure they match the children’s cognitive skills.
Secondly, Usabilla offers a very visual, simple and fun way to collect feedback. This is a great way to keep kids motivated and focused. Besides, testing on a computer is more appealing to children compared to a paper survey.

Last but not least, especially children in the stage of formal thought (11-15) can easily participate from home and if they wish on their own. This way they can stay in a familiar environment where they feel comfortable and are more likely to answer test questions truthfully.

It can be time consuming to collect parental consent for a typical usability test or survey, but using Usabilla you can do this in a snap. You can include a form before the test asking parents to confirm that their child is allowed to participate. Depending on whether or not parental consent is given, children can be redirected to the actual test. Keep in mind that parental consent is a very important legal issue when doing research with children.

In short

Usability testing with children is fun, but it can also go terribly wrong. For example, children might not understand your question, they might not communicate their answer correctly, or lack motivation or concentration.

When testing with children, make sure you are aware of their age and, thus their cognitive, communicative, and social skills. Design your test carefully to match their abilities and ensure that you get reliable data. By 8 age old, children have the cognitive skills to participate in a Usabilla test. More even, Usabilla offers several advantages for the age groups between eight and fifteen years, such as a visual and fun test experience, an attractive test setup via the Internet, and a familiar test environment at home.

Source featured image.

Further reading

Borgers, N., De Leeuw, E., & Hox, J. (2000). Children as respondents in survey research: Cognitive development and response quality. Bulletin de Méthodologie
Sociologique, 66, 60-75.

Greig, A., Taylor, J., & MacKay, T. (2007). Doing research with children. Chapter 9
(Ethics of doing research with children)