Usability testing with children: a lesson from Piaget

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Children need to be recognized as their ‘own’ target group with very specific abilities and needs. They have a strong purchase influence on their parents, are starting to recognize their role as consumers and also need websites with a good user experience. That’s why we need to focus on what children want, and include them in our user testing.

In 1929 Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and philosopher, came up with the theory of cognitive development, which describes five stages of cognitive growth. Piaget used this theory to explain how humans acquire, construct, and use knowledge. And I believe that we can learn a lot from his theory. Usability is about bringing people and systems together; understanding what people know and think is an essential aspect of that. While systems change rapidly, evolution luckily happens rather slowly. So, even though almost a hundred years have passed, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development come in handy today when we are confronted with usability testing with children.

In this post I’d like to take a look at usability testing with children. Why is it so important to understand the cognitive abilities of different age groups? And what can a scientist from the beginning of the twentieth century teach us that we don’t already know? Let’s find out.

The Question-Answer Process

When you answer a question, you go through different steps from the first encounter with the question to giving the final answer. The question-answer process describes these steps. Originally, the concept derives from survey research. However, it can be applied to any research that involves questions and answers. Both social and cognitive psychology study the question-answer process as source of response effects that lead to measurement errors. There is a high chance that test results are not reliable if participants do not or cannot fulfill all of the following steps.

  1. understanding the question;
  2. retrieving relevant information from memory and ‘computing an answer’;
  3. formatting the answer;
  4. evaluating the answer;
  5. communicating the final answer.

To make this a little more fun, let’s make a little experiment. Ask a colleague of yours about what he did last weekend and observe his reaction. He will think about it for a moment and then give a brief overview of the major activities he did, probably even in the correct order. Now, the next time you see a child, ask the same question and see what happens. You might be surprised of their different reactions.

The cognitive, communicative, and social skills of children are under constant development which affects the different stages of the question-answer process. Especially when questions are complex or information must be retrieved from memory, children have difficulties giving reliable answers. You see, the question-answer process is very important to consider when doing usability testing with children. You can read more about this topic in Bradburn’s article Understanding the Question-Answer Process (Bradburn, 2006).
Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Growth

Piaget came up with the theory of cognitive growth that describes five stages of cognitive development. These stages offer a nice overview of the cognitive abilities from different age groups. Especially when doing usability research with children, it is important to be aware of their cognitive development. Pay attention to this lesson by Piaget:

1. Sensory-motor intelligence (0-2 years old)

In the stage of sensory-motor intelligence, researchers have limited options to investigate usability issues. Language and thought processes are very limited and coordination between vision and apprehension is only developing. In this stage, none of the five steps of the question-answer process can be fulfilled. The only possible way to research this age group is by observation or by interviewing parents.

2. Preconceptual thought (2-4 years old)

During this stage, children learn how to use and represent objects by images, words, and drawings. Children also learn to form concepts and perform mental reasoning. Furthermore, toddlers learn to speak and interact with others. In this age group, qualitative interviews that include ‘playing’ tasks can be carried-out and small focus groups can be held. However, all five steps of the question-answer process are still difficult at this age and both questions and answers must be evaluated carefully.

3. Intuitive thought (4-7 years old)

Language skills improve but comprehension and verbal memory are still limited. Both of these skills are important for step one (understanding the question) and step two (retrieving information from memory) of the question-answer process. Questions should be very simple and the words used should match the child’s language. Further, this age group is very literal, suggestible, has a short attention span, and does not yet understand depersonalized or indirect questions. Methods that can be used for doing research with children in the intuitive thought stage are; small focus groups and short qualitative interviews.

4. Concrete operations (8-11 years old)

Language develops and reading skills are acquired. However, depersonalized or indirect questions are still critical at this age and a careful research design is important for step 1 and 2 of the question-answer process. Keep it simple and be aware of satisficing. Satisficing means that children use only one heuristic to decide on an answer instead of going through the whole question. Motivation and concentration are also critical issues. For children in this age group it is very important to keep it simple, visual, and most of all fun! Methods you can user are surveys, semi-structured or structured interviews as well as focus groups.

5. Formal thought (11-15 years old)

By this age, children’s cognitive functions, formal thinking, negations, and logic, as well as their social skills are well developed. However, kids are very context sensitive at this age. This means that they might, for example, behave completely different in school than they do at home. Besides, they are easily influenced by their classmates, parents, or siblings. Social desirability plays an important role which especially influences step 4 (evaluation of the answer) and 5 (communicating the final answer) of the question-answer process. For this age group, all common research methods can be adapted but be careful with comprehension problems, ambiguity, flippancy and boredom. Again, keep it simple, and keep it fun.
From age 16 cognitive skills are adult like and age becomes a negligible factor for choosing a research method.

In short

In order to keep up with the ‘new’ and dynamic target group that children incorporate on the web, we need to focus on their specific abilities and needs. Usability testing with children is fun, but keep in mind that it can easily go wrong. For example, children might not understand your question, not know the answer or how to communicate it correctly, or simply lack motivation or concentration.

When testing with children, make sure you are aware of their cognitive, communicative, and social skills. Design your test carefully to match their abilities and ensure that you get reliable data.

Further reading
Borgers, N., De Leeuw, E., & Hox, J. (2000). Children as respondents in survey research: Cognitive development and response quality. Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 66, 60-75.
Greig, A., Taylor, J., & MacKay, T. (2007). Doing research with children. Chapter 9 (Ethics of doing research with children)

Sabina Idler

Sabina Idler is an information designer at Usabilla. Interested in Usability, UX, Remote testing, and everything that makes the www a better place.

6 comments on this article

  1. Wouter on

    Hai Sabina,

    first of all a great post, original approach to use Piaget in combination with a Question/Answer theory. I would like to suggest here also the work by Hennessy and Heary on doing focus groups with children, one of the papers that has been very useful in my work. http://jpepsy.oxfordjournals.org/content/27/1/47.abstract

    Would be great to discuss what other psychological theories are relevant for usability testing or designing with children.

  2. Hi Sabrina.
    Interesting to read these theories and thanks for posting them.
    For some more practical advice, I made a list of 10 tips for moderating usability tests with children here:
    http://www.userexperience.co.nz/?p=496

    Nick

  3. Pingback: 10 tips for usability studies with children | User Experience NZ

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