Usability Design for Kids: Things Federal Workers Should Know

Children participate in usability test

I used to teach 8th grade science in inner city Denver in the 1990s. After that, I supported special education students and their teachers in North Carolina. Around that time (mid-late 1990s), the Internet wasn’t really designed for kids –most of the electronic materials I came across for the classroom were on CDs and such.

After learning more about design, Information Architecture, and now user experience, I began to realize that while digital services for kids looked really good on the outside, on the inside they were awful. Scope/feature creep is very, very likely since there is always the temptation to “just add THIS function.”

I wanted to add my take to some of the good material out there about usability testing with kids in the government sphere, including these articles by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Here we go:

1. Who are you REALLY designing for?

While it may be convenient to group things as “K-12,” think about the differences in maturity levels for a second. What is “cool” to one group is going to be “really lame little kid stuff” to another. If you are designing a site like a library, it can be tough: look at this kids’ library site vs. this gov site vs. this educational site.

So, remember, WHO are you designing for? Think about the content and message you are trying to put out there, who you are trying to reach, and what you want them to do with it when they find it. Remember: kids are different. Well, duh, right? Well, I mean really different. Depending on what you are designing, it will be seen by many unique points of view. “Know thy user,” right? Well, who are you designing for? Students? Parents? Teachers?

The first major project I was involved with was really enlightening (and I should have seen this coming, in retrospect): the content was more or less dictated to the users by college professors (!), which is fine if you are in grad school, but not if you are in middle school.

Teen participant at the usability test

2. Use their language, not yours

As I’m sure any parent or teacher can tell you, the best way to make a kid tune you out, is to “not speak kid.” Don’t bore or impress them with “adult speak.” Run things through a kid filter, and test your test with other kids first. They’ll give you honest feedback (they always do).

3. Co-create your test

Testing government content with children might be a challenge because we are the government, which is not really “sought after information” if you are a kid. Which comes to point #3: enlist professionals to help you.

The best way to set up design and evaluation opportunities is to involve the people who are involved, right? So, Parent Teacher Organizations and school listservs are a good place to start to ask for help. Important: ask permission to post first.

And of course –actively involve educators in the process. They will give you their impressions, and may help you get access and testers (kids). They will also be able to validate your task list and usability evaluation metrics.

As far as compensation, books,movie vouchers, and iStore gift cards may work. Just make sure it’s not “lame.” Again, ask the teachers what the kids are interested in – they will probably know better than the parents.

Adults help chidlren at usability test

4. Get pros to help

Getting a good mediator is really crucial. Having someone who “speaks kid” is really, REALLY important here. You obviously want to build a feeling of rapport with the person doing the evaluation. While I know it’s easy to talk down to kids, this will often backfire. Badly. Again, my experience is mostly with middle school kids, but no kid wants to be treated like a little kid (unless they ARE a little kid), but they may not be able to handle being spoken to like they are in college either. Ask an educator. Ask many. Ask often.

5. Think accessibility

The issue with content only gets trickier when you involve cognitive issues – difficulties some kids have in processing information. There is Section 504, for example. So when you’re thinking usability testing, think accessibility testing as well.

6. Give even more time for Paperwork Reduction Act

The most crucial thing is to get your Paperwork Reduction Act request in order ASAP. These groups usually take a really long time, but they take even longer when minors are involved. Be warned.

Justin Dopke is an IT Specialist with the Social Security Administration.