Interviewing Kids

I recently had the opportunity to return to a place I hadn’t been for quite some time–the principal’s office. My last project included interviewing 11-17 year olds about their homework habits, and I needed a hall pass from the secretary. In preparing for the interviews, it occured to me that I hadn’t spoken to many ‘tweens since I was one myself. Would they call me Mister? Ask to trade Bakugan? And the high school kids–would they be too cool to talk to me, answering every question with nothing but a yes, no, or dismissive smirk?

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As it turns out, interviewing school-aged children isn’t too different from interviewing adults. But as I learned, there are a few do’s and don’ts you might do well to keep in mind.

Have an adult introduce you to the child
Allow a parent, teacher, or guardian to make initial introductions. This establishes your credibility to the child and communicates the adult’s consent for conducting the interview.

Treat kids like regular people (that is, like adults)
Kids can tell if you’re being patronizing and will adjust their own behavior accordingly. Treat them as you would any interviewee, thanking them for their time and explaining what they should expect from the session.

Interact with them at eye level, but don’t get too close
Minimize physical power dynamics by sitting in a chair or kneeling alongside kids when you conduct the interview. At the same time, be aware of their personal space and don’t give them a chance to feel vulnerable or uncomfortable with your presence.

Be specific with your questions
Kids tend to be quite literal in adult conversations, so be direct with the questions you ask and the responses you give. Don’t be surprised when you point to a toolbar and say “what do you think these do?” and the response is “save saves, print prints, open opens, and delete deletes.”

Avoid technical and professional lingo
You’ve picked up a career’s worth of acronyms and jargon that your interviewee will not be familiar with. Also, look for the words kids use to describe things, and use those both in your interviews and when designing for your young audience.

Don’t ever take pictures or video without parental permission
There are many legal and ethical issues around photographing and videoing minors, and if you don’t have a clear need for it, don’t bother. If you do ask, be prepared to take no for an answer without any further discussion. Put parents/guardians at ease with things like “we only use these internally for reference” and “don’t worry, this won’t end up online or on TV.” When appropriate, set up your video to capture the session without recording the child’s face, for example by training the camera on the screen when discussing software.

Don’t crack jokes or be sarcastic
Kids won’t be prepared for casual joking, for as much as you work to set up a peer relationship they are still talking to an unknown adult. Jokes will often be misinterpreted as serious comments. As an example, I was running a feedback session with a powerpoint deck that ended with a blank screen. When one child clicked past the last prototype slide and into the blank screen, I remarked “OH! You broke it!” then spent the rest of the interview making him feel better that he hadn’t just busted our computer.

Recognize when an interview isn’t going well and finish it quickly
This happens with adults too, but sometimes you’ll get a kid who just isn’t able to converse with you. Spend a minute or so looking for an opening, and if you can’t break through, let them out of their misery and end the interview quickly. Don’t abort it or say it’s not working, just ask a few easy, obvious questions, thank them for their participation, and move on.

What else?
I’d love to hear more about other people’s experiences interviewing children and involving them in user feedback sessions. What advice do you have?

Tim McCoy

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