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5 Tips for Fantabulous Kid Testing

Andy Russell / 07.20.2011 /  8

KidTesting 5 Tips for Fantabulous Kid TestingOne of the trickier parts of designing interfaces for kids is that “expertise” goes out the window every 2-3 years. A 10-year-old today that has grown up navigating the Web via mouse has drastically different expectations from a 4-year-old trained on iPad games, let alone a 30-year-old designer reared on 14.4K modems and dial-up bulletin boards. This makes UI/UX design quite challenging – one has to be able to look beyond their own (broad and outdated) expectations and understand how a digital native might see their interface, all while identifying the visual metaphors and conventions relevant to an audience with very limited experience/memory.

Example: Toontastic is built around the simple idea of recording your stories through play. As such, the early UI designs featured a big red RECORD button and a big green PLAY button, which we (having grown up with Fisher-Price tapedecks and recordable VCRs) took for granted to be universal conventions. WRONG. Through play-testing a wide range of ages, we observed a pattern: kids roughly 9+ had no problems navigating the UI, but younger children had no idea what a “record button” was – the first wave of a generation of kids raised on DVDs, CDs and other non-recordable media. We quickly swapped out the “conventional” buttons for what you see today, giant blinking green/red START/STOP buttons at the top of the page. Crisis averted.

Question: So if there are no real “experts” or “gurus”, then how do I create a great kids product?

Answer: Test it. Relentlessly… and here are 5 tips we’ve learned along the way:

1. Beware Kitchen Research: Partner with a Children’s Museum. Designers should be testing at every turn, but beware the appealing convenience of testing with your kids, your neighbors, or the local school. Repeated exposure breeds familiarity, which in turn leads to false positives (i.e. last week your kid couldn’t figure it out, but it’s ok this week thanks to that change you made… or so you think). Conversely, museums have new visitors every day! Build a symbiotic partnership with a local children’s museum and test there – your “first time user experience” will improve dramatically.

2. Paper Prototypes: Not For Kids. Conventional wisdom has it that designers should burn through as many iterations as they can as quickly as possible, which makes paper prototyping a very helpful tool for User Testing. Young children, however, lack the A) experience/reference and B) cognitive ability to grasp the abstraction of paper prototypes, which can lead to hazardous testing results. A good alternative (still fairly low-fidelity, but far less abstract) is to mockup interactive wireframes on-device using tools like PictureLink and InVision.

3. Dyads = Collaboration = Chatty Kids. The “Talk Aloud Protocol” is an old User Testing standby and a wonderful tool for getting users to explain their actions, expectations, and questions as they navigate through an interface. Asking a kid to do this, of course, is a lot like getting them to tap their head and rub their belly – tricky to say the least. Thankfully, there’s an easy workaround: group kids in pairs to test your software and you’ll find that they work through it collaboratively, chatting it up as they go.

4. Zip it. No, seriously, don’t say a word. There are few things harder for a designer to do than stand back and watch a user stumble through his/her interface. You’ll be tempted to gesture, provide a few hints, maybe even prompt with a question. Don’t. Let ‘em squirm – and take copious notes on every inclination, misstep, and dead-end along the way. As painful as it is, this is BY FAR the most valuable information you’ll get from user testing. Barring miraculous advancements in cloning and/or teleportation technologies, you won’t be there to help the user once your product ships, so it’s better that you’re not there now.

5. Make ‘em cry. Yes, you read that correctly… now let me explain. One of the hardest questions in any development cycle is “when is the product ready to ship?” You could go on forever trimming and tweaking, of course, but the law of diminishing returns (and microeconomics) dictates that you ship your product once you achieve maximum UX through minimal development. How can you tell when you’ve hit your UX goal? It’s actually quite easy: 1) estimate the timeframe for your ideal User Experience (5 minutes? 10 minutes? A half-hour?), 2) cut the user test short just a few minutes shy of that goal. If the kid walks away ambivalent, keep building. If he/she seems upset, you know you’re on to something. If, as sadistic as this may sound, a tear is shed… well, my friend, it’s time to shut ‘er down and SHIP IT!


  • Traci Lawson / July 21, 2011

    Great post! User testing is so important. I especially love your points 3 & 5.

    As for paper prototype testing though, I have to disagree. In fact, I just paper prototype tested for a new iPad game this past weekend, with 3 and 4 year olds! It went really well. I wouldn’t test a whole app experience with paper, but it’s useful to get at whether or not kids in your target age can comprehend specific content, or understand what to do in a certain situation. I didn’t bring my iPad with me at all. Instead, I used a print out of the intended game screen, slipped into the front of a binder for durability, and a handful of simulated moveable pieces. I flipped index cards over the “screen” to simulate graphic prompts.

    Blue’s Clues used to paper test each and every one of their television episodes with preschoolers before animation work began. They made a flip book out of the story, and asked kids questions about the content and story line, to see if they understood.

    Keep making great apps! Toontastic is terrific.

  • Christine Capota / July 21, 2011

    Great tips! I’ve always questioned the “Talk Aloud Protocol” and feel similarly to you: it’s great for certain instances but most of the time, especially when there is audio involved, it’s just plain confusing. Thanks for this post!

  • Andy Russell / July 21, 2011

    Hey Traci – nice creative technique with the paper prototyping! We’ve found that rather than printing out wireframes, we just sync them as photos straight to the device and test onscreen. It contextualizes the experience for the kids and establishes the appropriate expectations for standard UI mechanisms (Scrollviews, Pinch-to-Zoom, etc.) With paper, there was a lot of confusion over click vs. touch – is this a web interface or a touchscreen? A lot of those expectations turned out to be implicitly understood, but not explicitly expressed.

    Thanks for sharing your great techniques, and please keep ‘em coming!

  • Andy Russell / July 21, 2011

    Thanks Christine – glad you enjoyed the post. Have you run into any other good ways to get kids talking aloud?

  • Traci Lawson / July 21, 2011

    I could see the photo mockups on the device working better in certain situations. I’ll have to try that some time!

    As for kids talking aloud… Barbara Chamberlin’s group at New Mexico State U has a usability lab, and she said they have a video confessions closet, similar to the one on MTV’s The Real World, where kids can record themselves talking about what they thought of the games. They found the kids liked that better than filling out questionnaires, and the kids said more when they didn’t have to write it down. If I remember correctly, she spoke about that at Dust or Magic last year, and there’s a video of that presentation here:

  • Andy Russell / July 21, 2011

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing Traci, that should be super helpful.

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