UX Research With Children: Age-appropriate Language

Woman talking to kids -Artem Podrez - Pixels

“Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.” ~ Yoda


I love talking to children. It’s fascinating. The way they think about things, the way they see the world, and the way they approach problems is, oftentimes, so different than the way adults do. As Yoda says, “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.” When conducting UX research with children, part of my job is meeting children where they are so I can effectively access all of the wonderful information their minds have to offer. 


When conducting research with children, it’s vital to consider how information is being presented. Using age-appropriate language can help ensure each child understands what’s being asked and will save everyone unnecessary frustration throughout the session. Below, I discuss the importance of using age-appropriate language and offer some practical tips along the way. 


Setting the stage for research

Researchers know that the first few minutes of data collection are some of the most critical. This is the time when you build rapport with your participant, allow them to get comfortable, and provide details and instructions about how the session will work. When your participant is a child, this initial meeting becomes even more impactful because if you don’t build a strong rapport or a child does not feel comfortable; the session will not be as productive as it could be. 


It is important first to recognize that each child will need you to approach them differently. Some may be more responsive to high energy, and others may be more responsive to calmer energy. Some may respond more to silly, while others may prefer serious. As a researcher, it’s imperative to quickly identify the approach that an individual child is most comfortable with and then adapt your language, tone, and inflection to provide that approach. This is a skill that takes time and experience to develop, so if you’re new to research with children, just know that language that feels friendly and warm is a great place to start.


Tip: Add extra time to your study plan. You’ll need to build rapport and allow children to get comfortable.


Additionally, it’s helpful to know that children are going to need more detailed instructions than you would provide adults. Still, those directions should be broken down into smaller, more digestible pieces. For example, if you’re running a moderated usability study, you might present directions to an adult: "I’m going to have you share your screen and go to this website, and once you’re there, you’ll need to enter this password.” For a child, those 3 steps of instructions need to be given one at a time, and, depending on their age, you may even need to break it down further. For example, you may need to provide step-by-step instructions for how they share their screen or how to open a new tab. Keep in mind that their cognitive abilities are still developing, and “holding” two additional steps while actively completing the first step is simply too much to ask.


Tip: In remote research settings, have children share their screen as the very first step so that you can use visual markers to help deliver the rest of the instructions.

Interview questions

Now that you’ve ensured you’re setting the stage using age-appropriate language, it’s time to begin the session. At least part of your study likely involves getting some feedback, so you must also consider how you present your questions. When considering how to tailor your questions to use age-appropriate language, remember that adults who don’t regularly interact with children often overestimate children’s language and vocabulary abilities. This means you’re going to have to adjust the phrasing you would normally use to ensure your language does not exceed their working vocabulary. Sounds easy enough, right? Here’s where it can get tricky: When working with younger children, open-ended questions usually elicit one-word answers. As with your instructions, any questions need to be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces. That may involve some closed questions. As researchers, we know the importance of asking open-ended questions to avoid leading and mitigate the framing effect. The potential for the framing effect to impact user responses doesn’t disappear just because you’re working with children, so it’s important to create a balance. You may need to ask closed questions and immediately follow up with additional probes. Below I provide an example of a question I might ask an adult user, and then I demonstrate how I might adapt the vocabulary and structure for a child.


Tip: Start with a question you would ask an adult, then break it up into smaller pieces.


Adult User

Are there other scenarios where you might imagine using this? How helpful or unhelpful would this be under those circumstances?


Adapted for Child:

Are there other ways you can use this? 

Tell me one of those ways.

Would that help you?

Can you tell me how?

How would it not help you?

Which is more important - the way it helps or the way it does not help?

Can you tell me why the way it helps/doesn’t help is more important?


For more information on age-appropriate questions for older children, check out our previous blog post on the topic.


Reacting to answers

Finally, now that you’ve adapted the instructions you’ll give and the questions you’ll ask, it’s time to think about your responses when a child answers your questions. When conducting user research, the way in which you react to participant feedback is just as important as the questions you ask. We avoid leading questions but aim to maintain a neutral reaction to participant responses to mitigate potential biases. However, a neutral response may not be the best approach when your research is with children. When considering how to incorporate age-appropriate language, it’s important to be aware of interpretation bias.


For children, especially those who may lean toward the shier or more anxious end of the personality spectrum, interpretation bias is the tendency to interpret neutral reactions as negative. If a child interprets your reaction to an answer they’ve given as negative, they may be less inclined to provide honest feedback when answering the rest of your questions. When working with children who may be more prone to interpretation bias, providing more praise than you otherwise would can be an effective strategy. However, the positive reaction you offer should be directed at the action of the answer, not the answer itself. For example, a reaction of, “You’re so awesome for letting me know!” is praising a child for answering your question, not praising the answer they gave. This type of positive reinforcement can help encourage a child to continue answering. 


Tip: Remember that extra time in your study plan for building rapport? Pay attention to each child you’re working with as you get to know each other. Do they seem a bit shy? Do they seem a little worried about what you’ll be doing? Do they seem nervous about getting things right? If so, make a mental note to tailor your reactions to be a bit more positive.

When conducting research with children, remember that rapport-building and age-appropriate language are key to being able to access all of the wonderful, rich information their minds have to offer.


At Key Lime Interactive, we recognize the importance of meeting participants where they are to provide insights that drive business decisions. Contact us to explore how we can help with your next research project.

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Blair Youmans, Ph.D.

Blair is a UX Researcher with 10 years of experience conducting research with children and adults. In her academic research, Blair examined whether products designed for children are user-friendly given children’s developing motor and cognitive skills. In her UX research with KLI, Blair has experience conducting usability testing and in-depth interviews with children and adults. Blair holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Developmental Psychology and a B.A. in Psychology. When she’s not working, Blair enjoys cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs, playing tennis, and spending time with her dogs and husband.


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