Which lessons from child-computer interaction should we bring to the rest of UX?

A vector cartoon image of eight children in separate colorful boxes, with the top row of four children in thought with a question mark next to them and the bottom row of four children smiling with lightbulbs next to them.

Child-computer interaction (CCI) focuses on the design, testing, and creation of interactive computer systems for children, as well as the wider impact of technology on children and society.

It’s a somewhat niche field within human-computer interaction, and as such I don’t often see people discussing the implications of its research and developments online. But after going down the rabbit hole and learning all about it myself, I think this is a wasted opportunity.

Because child-computer interaction often involves research and testing with children, there are countless practical, methodological, and ethical considerations that must take place at every step of the process. It is this constant attention to the what, when, how, and why of usability studies that I think we should take inspiration from and bring back to the rest of interaction design and UX.

I want to highlight some of the lessons I’ve taken from my research on the field of child-computer interaction that I believe should be kept in mind by every UX designer during their research process. Here they are, in no particular order.

Okay, so let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Whether it’s a child-centered product or for all-audiences, if kids are going to interact with your deliverable they should have some involvement with the design and evaluation process.

Far too often, UX designers exclude children from their process because of the extra considerations, adaptations, and resultant workload involved. This can end up being a costly mistake, however.

Kids aren’t just “mini adults” who like and can use all the same things that we do. Children have separate preferences, perceptions, styles, likes, and dislikes from adults, which can impact their enjoyment and resultant engagement with digital products. On top of this, they’re still developing motor skills, have limited reach, short attention spans, and separate social protocols apart from adults, which can impact their ability to understand and use certain interfaces.

When children aren’t consulted in the design and evaluation phases of digital product development and their separate preferences and needs aren’t addressed as a result, a large section of that product’s target audience might end up without the motivation or means to engage with it.

A vector image of three people on and around a seesaw weighed to the left, with a large blue circle with a “+” in it on the left side of the seesaw and a large red circle with a “-” in it on the right side of the seesaw

CCI researchers will take into account the age of the children they’re working with, their cognitive process and abilities, the number of child participants, their environment, the current project development stage, the amount of input needed, and the strengths and weaknesses of each possible approach before deciding on what their research process will look like (source).

These are considerations that have to take place in CCI for ethical purposes to ensure that child research participants are there for a good reason and that the research being done can be described in the most understandable way possible to gain informed assent.

It’s also just good practice through, and a practice that I think should be constantly kept in mind by every UX designer and researcher throughout their process.

There are tons of UX research methodologies. Tons. Which I personally was surprised to learn, considering that most UX research method websites and articles only discuss the same handful that includes A/B testing, card sorting, focus groups, surveys, usability testing, and user interviews.

I understand this. These methods are tried and true, industry-standard favorites with some adaptability to them. But there is also a lot of potential benefit to branching out and trying out methods that aren’t as commonly used depending on project needs.

If product sustainability is a primary concern of your team while in the define-design phases of development, the Delphi method could be a great way to attempt to future-proof your product by having experts forecast future industry trends. If your team is trying to determine whether your new UI layout better conveys information than its predecessor, consider combining usability testing with the Communicability Evaluation method.

Using underutilized and novel research methods can result in collecting more specific and applicable data for the task at hand. It can even help your team work better within your afforded time and resources, as some methods like micro-surveys and five-second tests can help your team gain helpful insights in mere moments.

A photo of two smiling children playing with a small domed machine on the ground, with the child on the right tapping a control panel and the child on the left laying on the ground next to the robot.
Two children using the Logo Turtle robot (source).

The practice of inviting children to test products was rare until the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the major turning points in finally including children in this phase of design was catalyzed by the findings of Seymour Papert and his colleagues in their creation of the Logo programming language.

The Logo programming language is best remembered for its inclusion of graphics through the Logo Turtle to better teach children how to program, but this feature would not have existed if not for the inclusion of children in its testing. When the programming language was developed, it was completely text-based.

Only after it became obvious through testing with children that they were less interested in learning syntax than in seeing immediate results did the Logo team introduce the Turtle to respond to feedback and visually represent children’s code through drawing. This, in turn, made learning to code with Logo much more engaging, exciting, and easy.

This process leads to the conclusion that testing with children often results in them finding issues that adults never saw. Kids are curious and prone to clicking around pages, harsh critics of visual design, have highly expressive body language and reactions, and can be very vocal about their thoughts and opinions regarding a product when researchers foster a safe and open environment for sharing.

It is standard practice in UX and product design to involve representative end-users in usability testing, but children are still often overlooked in favor of testing with “child experts” such as parents and teachers. Due to their aforementioned strengths as testers, though, I think they should be involved as often as possible.

For those who are interested in involving children in their product testing process, this article by Tianyu Hu Lange is a quick primer on what considerations should be made while scripting a user testing session with kids.

Research involving children is notoriously unpredictable. Kids will gain or lose interest in what they’re doing with little rhyme or reason, suddenly become hyperactive or lethargic during a session, and ask to take several breaks or stay engaged and diligent for hours at a time. They’re kids, and keeping adults on their toes is exactly what they excel at.

Which is why, in turn, CCI researchers have become some of the most adaptive and flexible agents out there. Researchers will show up at sessions with tens of activities, games, and methods at the ready as contingencies for any issues during a session. They’ll also schedule much more time than is actually needed to allow their participants to play and warm up first, with ample time left for both research and breaks. They’ll bring enough toys, props, and visual aids to prepare for almost every possible situation.

Most importantly, they know when it’s time to move on during a session in order to keep things fresh and maximize engagement. They do this to ensure that they collect their minimum viable research for effective product improvement, assigning any further insight collection as optional and dependent on the children’s ongoing willingness to engage.

Having a toolbox of methods, talking points, things to interact with and look at, and the judgment to know when to move on can result in a better overall experience for your participants and more complete data for your team.

Once again, this is not to say that UX designers as a whole lack this skill. I know many designers who are fantastic at keeping things moving and attentively responding to participant actions during their studies, but it’s just something that I think we should keep in mind and include as part of our research preparation process whenever possible.

The Contingency-Based UX Research section of this article by Marie provides a great framework for identifying areas of risk on planned user research and interactions, tips on determining the potential effects of and monitoring said risks, and developing a minimum viable research plan from that information.

A 4x3 table with a blank square followed by two game images in the first column, “Yes” followed by two check marks in the second column, “Maybe” followed by two blank squares, and “No” followed by two blank squares.
The Again-Again table, which is part of the Fun Toolkit (source).

In the child-computer interaction space, no method remains the same for long. Even legacy research methods like surveys and A/B testing are subject to experimentation, as seen in the creation of the Fun Toolkit and the This or That pairwise comparison tools respectively.

Now, most of this is due to the inherent ineffectiveness of most UX research for use with children due to their creation as tools primarily for use with adults. But even once effective research methods for use with children were established and tested by leading CCI professionals, they continued to invent and iterate.

This point isn’t to say that there is a complete lack of novel methods and method analysis in the greater realm of UX (see this article by Rita Kind-Envy for a deep-dive on the effectiveness of readability tests!), but we can always do better.

As I mentioned before, the UX community seems to be stuck in using the same ~10 methods with little improvements or changes made over the past few years, save for digitizing some methods like card sorting through sites like Optimal Workshop.

This seems strange, though, as our field is one that is constantly shifting. The introduction of AI chatbots as UX design assistants, the digitization of some user research methods that I previously mentioned, and continuously changing prototyping tools of choice mean that year-by-year, the job of a UX designer can look very different.

I’m not asking that we reinvent the wheel each time we run a user research session. But I do wish that more designers consistently reflected on their research process and methods used once a project is completed to determine where data could be made more complete or insights could be more detailed, brainstorming on UX research process improvements using that reflection as inspiration.

Have fun.

I know, I know. Research is serious business, and we need to keep that in mind to produce usable results. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to make the process as enjoyable as possible for both researchers and participants, though.

Child-computer interaction experts make play an essential part of their research sessions. They use play at the beginning of a section to familiarize their participants with interviewers, allow for play breaks throughout, and will often combine user research methods with play to ensure that child participants remain involved for as long as possible and enjoy the research process.

I’d argue that there’s also room for implementing this fun-centric research process in the realm of all-audiences and adult-oriented UX design research. Not only does making the research process enjoyable and fun keep participants engaged and comfortable, but it can also assist in getting better data in other ways.

Introducing games at the beginning of a user research session can aid in loosening up your participants, effectively serving as a warm-up that rapidly establishes the all-important rapport between researchers and participants.

A fun and comfortable atmosphere can also support embodiment for any roleplay-involved research methods used, such as bodystorming and co-design sessions that encourage participants to act as a designer or product owner.

This article by Kate Dames highlights the benefits of introducing play into your personal UX design brainstorming and research preparation process, including increasing empathy with users and using randomness to get out of a creative funk.

UX is, by nature, a pretty fun field. So we should celebrate it, enhancing both our research and design process with play and positive outlooks!

If you’re interested in child-computer interaction studies and want to learn a bit more about putting this point to good use, this article by Annabel Blake provides some great strategies for how to make UX research with kids fun!

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