Conducting Interviews with 3-4 Year Old Children

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to interview a wide range of users.  Each group has their own special needs, especially the younger ones. Through trial and error, I came up with a successful strategy:

  • Dress comfortably. If you go to interview a CEO of a large corporation, you might want to dress up. With children, make sure you’re comfortable. If you’re comfortable, they’re more likely to be comfortable. Plus, they will think of this as a “play session,” so make sure you’re dressed appropriately
  • Guardian. Allow a parent/teacher to stay in the room if it will not interfere with your study. This will make them more comfortable. Make sure the guardian has something to keep themselves busy. You do not want them interfering with the session. Classroom teachers are wonderful because they can work with the other kids while you are conducting your interview.
  • Location. I found it best to conduct the preschool interviews in the classroom, in a tucked away area. If we were too far removed from the class, the child felt nervous and would clam up. If we were too close, the other children would try to join in all the time. Having an quiet area that is a “safe” distance from the rest of the class worked well. I still had other children peeking in at times, but it was not a huge disruption to the session. And, it actually made the subject more willing to participate.
  • Time. Make sure the session is short. Remember, these kids have a limited attention span. I planed for 30 min per child. Additionally, I made sure we did a variety of activities in that time to keep their attention.
  • Flexibility. If a child does not want to play a game you’ve shown them, don’t make them. You’ll get better data if he/she is being cooperative. Plan multiple activities. If the child doesn’t want to participate in one activity, go on to the next. You can always go back to the original one later, if time allows.
  • Helpfulness. Sometimes, even with adults, it can be difficult to watch your user struggle with an interface. With young children it is even harder. It seems to be part of our instincts to jump in and help a child. In order to keep me from interfering with the data and to alleviate too much frustration for the child, I chose a very specific helping system, based on the activity:
    1. Do nothing. Offer encouragement.
    2. Ask what they are looking for.  This will help you know if they understand what they are supposed to be doing.
    3. Offer verbal help, e.g. “Does it want you to find the hammer?”
    4. Point at the object on the screen/toy that is needed.
    5. Complete the task for the child.
  • These steps also made it very easy to have a numerical measurement for the ease of use of various tasks I had planned.

  • Verbal abilities. Remember children of this age may not be overly verbal, especially with a stranger. Be prepared to have other methods of gathering data. Rather than asking what you like about the toy/software, ask specific things – Do you like A/B? Sometimes a follow up “Why?” will give you more details. Also, use cues like smiles/laughter/frustration to gauge their likes/dislikes. I was even able to gather useful data from a child the did not speak English well. Pointing can be a very strong tool in a situation like this.
  • Stranger anxiety. If possible, spend some time in the classroom/home/with child before your interviews. Even a few minutes of reading and talking before you go into the activities will help put them at ease.
  • Have fun!

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