As user researchers and designers, we spend a lot of time talking to people. In most projects, we talk to adults: clients, colleagues, and users who buy the kinds of products and services we’re designing. Some projects are a little different, and require talking to younger users who require a different set of rules. Namely: teenagers. How can you make your research session as productive and comfortable as possible for yourself and for your teenage participant?

I'm a consultant at Webcredible, and we’ve been working as a user experience and design partner with UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). As part of the user research for a redesign project, we conducted guerrilla research with students between the ages of 16 and 18 at a couple of UCAS conventions. What did we learn after spending two full days guerrilla testing with motivated, hormone-charged teenagers bursting with hopes, fears, and dreams?

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Approach Them

As user researchers, most of us are used to with talking to adults and we’re very comfortable with that. But it’s not often that we’re tasked with talking to teenagers and children. Turns out they don’t bite (most of them, at least). Don’t be afraid to approach them and stop them in their paths. Just be honest about what you’re after.

2. Talk to the Lost and Confused First

If you’re nervous about stopping someone for the first time, here’s a tip to help you get started: look for teenagers who are walking around looking lost and confused. Most likely they are lost, confused, or feeling too shy to talk to anyone. By making that first move and breaking the ice, you can put them at ease and make them more willing to speak to you. Also, if you’re the one who’s feeling shy (which can happen), it’s much easier to start off by talking to other people who are feeling the same way.

3. Treat Them Like Adults

Nothing turns off teenagers more than someone speaking to them condescendingly. Remember the old adage of user research: you’re the apprentice, they’re the master. The same rule applies with teenagers and children. Show the same respect you show to adults and show them that you value their opinions in the same way.

4. Encourage Everyone in a Group to Speak

Interviewing a group of people at the same time is always tricky. It’s easy for one person to direct the flow of conversation and for others not utter a word. We found that the teenagers felt more comfortable speaking to us when they were with their group of friends.

Remember the old adage of user research: you’re the apprentice, they’re the master

Don’t turn willing participants away just because they’re in a group, just be aware of the group dynamics. Encourage everyone in the group to contribute individually. Ask each person for their opinion, but don’t force them to come up with a response. Some teenagers prefer to keep quiet.

5. Try Not to Interview Parents and Teenagers Together

Every time we interviewed teenagers around their parents, the kids just went dead silent or seemed uninterested in the conversation. Even questions directed at the teenagers were met with quick "Yes" or "No" answers. Don’t avoid talking with parents, but consider interviewing them separately and comparing the data later.

6. Sweets are Good Incentives

User research doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if you’re interviewing teenagers. Most of them are happy to speak to you for a packet of sweets. However, we found some teenagers grabbed some sweets and walked away while we were busy talking to someone else. In the end we had to place a sign over the bowl of sweets with the disclaimer: “FREE SWEETS if you answer our questions!”

7. Be Prepared for Mid-Session Drop-Outs

Factors like the stress of university applications, impending school exams, and peer pressure often led to shorter attention spans during sessions. A few of our participants cut the session short or were pulled away by their friends. Teenagers (and anyone else you talk to in guerrilla research) have more important things to worry about than talking to you. Respect their time and ask the most important questions first, just in case you have to cut the interview short. Don’t be offended if the participant runs off mid-sentence!

Conclusion

Researching with teenagers is a lot of fun but can be stressful for new researchers. But these tips should hopefully reduce that stress so you can focus on their problems rather than your own. What was your experience researching with children and teenagers like? Do you have any other tips you want to add to the list? Add your comments below!

 

Image of teenagers using tablets courtest Shutterstock.

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