What to know before bringing children’s views into the design process

Published by: Jonathan Synnott | 6 min read

User research is an essential part of the design process. It is crucial to understand who we are designing for, what their needs are, and to try to put ourselves in their shoes to achieve the best results. 

As the Lead Design Researcher at Big Motive, I take immense pride in having the opportunity to meet with individuals from all backgrounds, hear their stories and understand their experiences, motivations, needs, and limitations. The insights gathered from these research sessions allow me to advocate on behalf of users, ensuring that their voices are heard and prioritised as we design. 

Children and young people are a significant portion of service users and are becoming increasingly important to designers. As with all audiences, they are best served if they are thoroughly researched. However, user research with children is not that straightforward. 

Our Experience

At Big Motive, we work with a wide range of clients who build products and services to be used by people at all stages of life – from children to adolescents, adults both young and old, and technology enthusiasts to technophobes. We have expertise in designing for and researching with children in several of our recent client projects. Some examples include the Children’s code design guidance, the COVIDCert NI app, and Our Place in Space.  

It is important that children are given the opportunity for their voices to be heard throughout the development of products and services which may have an impact on their lives. 

This article aims to share some of the expertise we have gained over the years, with the hope it will inspire more organisations to involve children in their research and design activities.

The Challenges 

Organisations without previous experience researching with children may perceive it as a challenging activity. Firstly, the participant recruitment services used by organisations do not usually include children. Researchers may also be unfamiliar with conducting activities which are suitable for the variety of maturity levels of children at different ages. There may also be uncertainties surrounding the various ethical considerations and legal constraints.

Despite these challenges, it is important that user researchers see the benefits of involving children in research and take the time to address any areas of uncertainty. 

Recruitment

Diversity in participant recruitment is important in any study, ensuring that a range of backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, views and abilities are represented in your research. 

Regardless of the avenue used, we recommend that all communication regarding recruitment is performed through a parent, guardian, or other relevant professional, to avoid ethical or safeguarding concerns. The adult can then decide if the opportunity is appropriate and pass the necessary information onto the child for consideration. 

We have had success with the following approaches:

  • Online participant recruitment platforms – Platforms such as Respondent.io do not have children on their rosters. However, they have proven to be a good option to promote research opportunities to parents or guardians, who can then pass the information onto the child.

  • Schools – Building a relationship with a local school can be a great way to hear from children. Local schools often see the educational benefit of involving their classes in research sessions. We recommend reaching out to a local teacher or headteacher and explaining the purpose of the study, the activities the children will be asked to perform and placing an emphasis on the skills the children can gain by participating. We also recommend planning for flexibility around the date of the research activity and initiating contact with schools well in advance.

  • Youth organisations and charities – Youth organisations and many charities offer activities, services, and support to people under the age of 18. These organisations can be a fantastic avenue to reach out to children with specific backgrounds and interests relevant to your product or service.
     

Ethics & Consent

As with all research studies, an invitation letter, participant information sheet, and consent form are essential to provide to potential participants. These documents give participants the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether they would like to take part in the study. 

When writing these documents for children, it is important that age-appropriate language is used. You may wish to segment potential participants into several age brackets and provide documentation that has been written specifically for each age group. It is important that the ethics implications have been fully considered, documented, and mitigated where possible.

It is often mistakenly assumed that children do not have the capacity to consent, and that parents or guardians must make a decision on their behalf, This is not the case, as highlighted by UK Research and Innovation’s Economic and Social Research Council, who recommend considering factors such as  age, socio-economic circumstances, vulnerability, differential power relationships, and a child’s understanding of the purpose and expectations of the research. The Council recommends providing children with ample time and opportunity to consider involvement with a trusted adult, and to secure permission from a responsible adult in addition to the child’s consent. 

Safeguarding

Safeguarding of the participants and researchers should be your number one priority. It is important to identify and adhere to local legal requirements with regard to contact with children. This may involve undergoing an AccessNI check in Northern Ireland, a basic disclosure in Scotland, or a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check in England and Wales. 

We also recommend performing research activities with children in the presence of a parent, guardian or relevant professional. When performing research activities, particularly with organised groups, or with children in care, it is recommended to consult with the staff member involved to understand if there are any activities or discussion topics that should be avoided.

One additional safeguarding consideration when performing research with children, is the appropriate handling of disclosure events. A disclosure event is an occasion in which a child tells you or a colleague that they have experienced some form of abuse. The British Council provides a set of steps that should be followed should this occur. 

What Next?

We hope this article has helped to shed light on the importance of involving children in user research and that our guidance has encouraged you to get started. 

Once you have set out the groundwork and considered all the steps above, you may be wondering what to do next? If you feel ready to start researching with children, head to part 2 where we discuss the process in detail.