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UX&D: tips and tricks for design research with children

Jane Murison

Head of UX&D, Children's, BBC Knowledge & Learning

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Illustrations by Tina Connelly

At the BBC online we’ve been carrying out design research with children for over 15 years. As well as TV and Radio programmes, we make loads of digital content for children, ranging from apps and games to revision guides and news articles. We carry out research in a formal lab setting (chaperoned participants with a researcher in one room, whilst observed via camera or two-way mirror from another room), as well as in schools and participants’ homes.

Design research can feel intimidating for any participant, but when it’s a child, it might be intimidating for the researcher as well!

These are a few of things we’ve learnt over the years.


1. Checks, chaperones and consent

First things first - anyone working with children will need a DBS check.


Anyone under 16 should be accompanied by an adult, who can give consent on behalf of the child. Depending on their age and confidence, they might be more chatty with the adult there, or the adult in the next room (when we test in a lab they can sit in the observation room, for example).


 2. This is NOT a test

Design research can make a child feel they’re being tested. They’re not. You’re testing the design and interaction. It’s very easy for children to treat you like another kind of adult they see a lot of - a teacher.  They’ll seek your approval and want to get it right.

Parents can also fall into this trap. They might start worrying that their children are 'failing' and transfer that worry onto their children: 'C'mon Jimmy! You do this all the time at home'. You can put children (and their parents) at ease by congratulating them for getting stuck, and for the very young, play-acting at 'messing up' yourself.


 3. Are they sitting comfortably?

Imagine walking into research lab when you’re 3ft tall. You climb into a chair, your feet are dangling, and you can’t reach the iPad on the desk. A giant is towering over you ordering you around. Scary!

Get the child a cushion, invest in a child’s chair, or sit on the floor with them.

4. Make it playtime

How structured do you need the tasks to be? It’s easy to end up with a big list of stuff to ask them to do.  Try to have prototypes you can just leave the child to play with. In fact, in a lab you can physically leave the room and let them play with it in the company of their parent or friend while you observe remotely.

We sometimes test with individual children, but sometimes in pairs – either friends or siblings.  This can make a huge difference to how relaxed and talkative they are. Keep experimenting, because different designs and age groups can respond in different ways.


5. Bad language

Young children can take words very literally, have a short attention span and don’t understand depersonalised or indirect questions. When you explain a task, choose your words carefully.

Try not to direct the child by using exactly the same terminology as the design -

 NO - ‘Search for Sarah & Duck under the Shows button in the navigation’

 Also, are you talking like a corporate robot?

 NO - ‘Please could you find the discovery mechanism in our interface to load Sarah and Duck content?’

Questions need to be single, and the words used should match the child’s language.

YES - ‘Where can you find all the Sarah and Duck games?

Avoid technical terminology and don’t lead them to the answer.


6. Good questions to ask

Keep them simple and open -

  •  ‘Why?’
  • ‘Can you tell me about the last time you…’
  • ‘How?’
  • ‘What do you think will happen when you…’
  • ‘Can you show me how to…’
  • ‘That’s interesting. Can you tell me more about that?’


7. Good, bad, or in the middle?

Children don’t always have the confidence or eloquence to explain how they feel. Help them with a simple rating system. ‘Did you think it was good, bad, or in the middle?’. Follow up ‘bad’ and ‘in the middle’ with ‘that’s interesting. How could it be better?’


8. Silence is golden

Nothing’s worse than watching someone struggle with something. The instinct to step in and help can be even stronger when it’s with child participants. Let them squirm! It’s so valuable to learn where the design is failing its users, and this is how you find it out.

If they ask you for help directly, turn it round and ask them how they think it works.


9. Body language

Children might not tell you what they think because they feel shy, they don’t want to be ‘wrong’ or they want to please you. They might not be telling you with words, but look at their behaviour and take note of that too. Are they smiling, fidgeting, groaning or sighing?


10. Mix it up

If you keep asking the same children, their familiarity with your designs will improve their chances of completing tasks.

If you test the design in the same order each time, you might find later tasks in the script have a higher success rate because the participants have learnt how the overall design works.


11. Keeping track

We test in pairs - the facilitator focuses on building rapport and asking questions, while the note taker collects evidence.  In a lab you can record sessions, but the note taker can save you significant analysis time by spotting recurring themes early on.

Create a sheet in advance with tasks as section headings, and maybe some columns for ‘what works’, ‘what doesn’t work’ and ‘quotes/recommendations’.


12. Keeping going

Getting good at design research takes regular practice, and some children, even with your best efforts, just won’t be up for joining in on the day. We all have days like that.

Even when it feels like you’re pulling teeth, there is valuable insight you can collect. And this is the other part of ‘keeping going’: make sure what you found out works its way into the thing you’re making, not just filed away in a report nobody reads!

Our best launches have incorporated qualitative design research, such as the CBeebies Playtime and Storytime Apps, the CBBC Go app, and our newly responsive websites for CBeebies and CBBC.

This is far from a complete list of tips. Please tell me about your experiences with design research with children in the Comments below – are we missing any good ideas for making the experience of research better?

This post is adapted from an internal document we’ve been using for the last couple of years. The original authors were Amanda Johnson and Genine Keogh, with new contributions from Gemma Newell, Amelia Still and countless other BBC UX designers and researchers past and present.

Jane Murison is Head of UX&D for Children's, Knowledge & Learning, UX Architecture and Design Research, in UX&D, BBC Future Media.

Tina Connelly is a User Experience Designer working on Children’s projects, in UX&D, BBC Future Media.

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