Usability testing with children, part 2


I helped with another usability session this week, and here are my notes on things I've learnt from this one.

Year 6 (9 students aged 10)

This session was in a dedicated computer suite. The machines ran Windows XP and IE8.

8 students had internet access at home. One had their own computer. 6 had their own mobile phone, three of which were smart phones. 8 had a games console and 8 had a portable device such as an iPod touch or Nintendo DS.

It's interesting that in this session, more children had their own mobile device than their own computer.

Students were less familiar with Moshi Monsters than the last group, but Mathletics was one of the sites they liked. They also liked Blackberry Messenger and playing games that had a social aspect.

Their favourite activity seemed to be talking to each other online, even when they were in the same room. I've experienced this a lot in code workshops in secondary schools, where the students work out they can use the collaborative coding tool as a way to talk to each other. The workshop often falls apart at this point!

Some observations and things I learnt from the session


For the first 5 minutes at the computer, the children whispered everything. If I asked a question, they'd whisper to each other, then one of them would give an answer. I was worried about this because it felt like maybe they were scared. I asked what their names were and asked them questions individually which really helped, and they were all very vocal by the end of the session.

Also, a mistake I made when doing my first workshop last year was that I mentioned the teacher by her first name to the students. It probably wasn't a big deal, but I did feel a bit embarrassed when I realised. (It also felt strange being called "Miss" by the students.)

Getting into groups

So far in all the sessions, the children have been very good at putting themselves into groups of whatever number we ask. I've noticed the girls and boys seem to prefer to work separately at this age.

In this session I became aware that one of the quieter girls hadn't been able to join the group she wanted (remember how much that sucked?) and was in a group entirely made up of boys. She looked very unhappy. I tried not to make a big fuss about it and asked her quietly if she was ok or if she wanted to join a different group. It meant we had uneven numbers, but that's better than having someone who feels uncomfortable or like they can't contribute. After all, you don't know what's happened to them that day or if they've had a big falling out with friends.

Make accessing the prototype easy before the session

When planning a session, take into account how long it takes to log students into machines, expecially if the prototype is behind a username and password. Make it as quick as possible to get to the starting screen. Use URL shorteners if necessary so they don't have to type in a long address, and make any logins easy to spell.

Check the design on a low quality screen

The site might look great on a bright, high resolution Mac screen but make sure you test it on more common lower quality screens. The contrast has seemed very low on every computer we've looked at in schools, and this was problematic in some places. This is especially apparent on projectors. It's worth having a cheap Dell monitor to test on while you're designing.

Make feedback really obvious

In one place, there wasn't obvious feedback when something had been clicked, and the child kept clicking. I think we'd find this in older users as well, but having a really big visual clue when something has been clicked can make the site feel more fun and game-like. This should go in a designer's brief.

Vertical space was at a premium

There were multiple horizontal toolbars installed on the browser the children were using in this session. Also, not every terminal had the same resolution, although most were 1024x768.


They really loved typing. On one page, they were typing a very long message in a textbox that was just there for demonstration and didn't actually do anything, and I told them it went nowhere and that I felt bad they were doing it all for nothing. They insisted they still wanted to finish typing their message though, and didn't care that it effectively went into a black hole when it was submitted. It reminded me a bit of painting in primary school. I loved brushing paint on paper and how it felt smearing a big blog of yellow around the page, but I didn't really care as much about what I was painting.

Some children set their fonts bigger or smaller, although in most cases this had been because they'd accidently hit the wrong keys.

Keyboard mistakes happen a lot when children are sharing machines. They all want to be the one typing, even if it means everyone is typing on the keyboard at the same time!