Adults are not good proxies for understanding the needs and experiences of children. And yet, I see the “proxy” approach surprisingly frequently in studies of home and family, health informatics, education and other HCI domains. I’ve recently written a case study on this topic for a new edition of an HCI textbook (Baxter, K., Courage, C. & Caine, K. 2015. Understanding Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research. Methods, Tools and Techniques. Morgan Kaufmann) and I want to share some of the ideas here.
When seeking to understand families and children, it is critically important to include children in the research activity. While it may be tempting to use parents as proxies for gauging the family’s needs, this is insufficient for understanding the complexities of the family dynamic. In my own work, I’ve seen many examples of non-consensus and many instances where parents’ perceptions of their child’s experience diverged from the child’s. I provide several examples in the case study, but here I instead want to focus on six specific strategies to help researchers include children in user studies:
- Working with children requires special considerations while preparing the protocol and assent documents. Children are not able to give informed consent, which will have to be obtained through their parents, but the assent procedure gives them the opportunity to understand their rights and what will happen in the study. It is important to emphasize to the child that they can withdraw from the study, decline to answer any question, or take a break at any time. In designing both the assent document and interview protocol, keep specific developmental milestones in mind. In my experience, I have been able to interview children as young as 6, however I always check the comprehension level of the protocol by piloting with friendly participants in the target age group.
- To encourage children to be open and honest, the researcher should actively work to equalize power between the child and the researcher. Children spend their lives in situations where adults expect the “right” answer from them. To encourage the child to share honest opinions and stories, the researcher needs to break through this power differential. There are a number of details to consider here: choose an interview setting where the child has power (e.g., playroom), dress like an older sibling rather than as a teacher, encourage use of first names, and let the child play with any technology that will be used (e.g., audio recorder) before starting. Above all, emphasize that you are asking these questions because you do not yet know the answers, that the child is “the best at being a kid,” and that there is no wrong way to answer any of the questions.
- Parents make the decisions in a study that concerns their children, which introduces a unique constraint. As a researcher, you will have to respect the parents’ decisions: you may not be able to interview the child separately and you cannot promise the child that anything will be kept private from the parents. However, you can explain to the parents why it is important for the child to have a chance to state their perspective in private. In my experience, most parents are willing to provide that private space, especially when the study is being conducted in their home where they worry less about the child’s comfort.
- Children may struggle with abstraction, so ask for stories about specific situations. For example, instead of asking, “how do you and your dad talk on the phone when he’s traveling?” ask, “what did you tell your dad last time he called you?” It may take more questions to get as all the aspects you want to discuss, but it is much easier for children to discuss things they recently did rather than provide an overall reflection. This is most important with younger children, but is a good place to start with any participant.
- Additional effort may be necessary to engage a shy child and one way to do so is to encourage the child to show-and-tell. For example, “Show me where you usually are when you think about your mom?” or “Show me some apps that you use with your dad on your phone?” Use the places and objects shared as stepping-stones to ask more nuanced questions about feelings, strategies, and preferences.
Lastly, incorporating drawing and design activities may help the child get into the “open-ended” nature of the study, be willing to be a little silly, and reveal what may be most important to them. For example, I asked children, “What might future kids have to help them stay in touch with their parents?” These drawing are not meant to produce actionable designs, but will reveal important issues through their presentation. Listen for key words (e.g., “secret” = importance of privacy), look for underlying concepts (e.g., “trampoline” or “swimming pool” = importance of physical activity), and attend to common themes such as who would be interacting with their future device, where, and how often.
I hope that these six strategies demystify some of the processes of including children in a study. Please, let me know if you have any additional advice or any experiences in working with kids that you’re willing to share.