When you think of respondents, you probably imagine people taking online surveys and participating in focus groups. You probably also imagine those respondents being adults.
But, for many brands, it’s the wants and needs of children that are driving their parents’ purchase decisions. A kid’s favorite TV show becomes their favorite backpack, lunch box, and pair of pajamas. Their favorite color becomes their bedroom décor. Their favorite theme park becomes the family’s annual trip. The list goes on. Kids can be highly opinionated and selective consumers, and, depending on your industry, it can be critical to understand their attitudes, habits, and behaviors. And, while you can always gather information through a proxy, such as a child’s caregiver, hearing directly from the child is much more impactful.
But children are not just tiny adults. They operate differently, which can make researching them tricky. Depending on their age, they don’t quite understand the question-and-answer process the way adults do. They are, depending on their age, both more candid and more easily influenced by their peers, parents, or an in-person interviewer. They are also continuously growing, learning, and developing new skills, which means they quickly age out of (and into) products and media.
It’s also worth noting that, before the age of 4, we don’t recommend interviewing children because their language and thought processes are still extremely limited. Instead, an observational approach is more effective. And, parental consent is required before collecting a child’s personal information for all children 12 years old and younger in the United States; other jurisdictions have similar restrictions but parental consent might be required even for children over age 12.
So how can you interview children effectively? Here are some tips on interviewing children at various ages, rooted in Piaget’s well-respected theory of cognitive growth.
Conducting market research with kids age 4-7? Be direct
Within this age range, children grow by leaps and bounds. They learn to read and write. They start understanding the moral concept of right and wrong. They learn to concentrate for long periods of time. They also still have a lot to learn about the world outside of their immediate bubble, so it’s important for interviewers to create an environment where children can understand and interpret the information that’s being presented to them.
How do you do this? Here are some tips:
- Within this range, levels of language development and comprehension differ greatly. Thus, question-wording is critical, and researchers should understand the types of words the children themselves are using.
- Researchers should implement game-like exercises and focus groups with a small circle of children. Questions and “rules” must be very straightforward and simple to understand.
- Scaled questions should be avoided as scale-points could be inconsistently interpreted. Researchers should note that children are very suggestible at this stage and may give answers that they think you want to keep playing along.
- Also, children within this stage are very literal. Questions should be worded in ways that will get you the exact answers you are looking for (e.g., “which Disney princess is your favorite?” vs. “which princess is your favorite?”).
- Lastly, children amongst this group still have very short attention spans, meaning if things are taking too long, children become less interested and data quality will suffer.
Conducting market research with kids age 8–11? Use visual stimuli
At this point, language and reading skills are developed enough so that individual interviews or even self-administered tests are appropriate. Children also begin to distinguish different points-of-view (self vs. others) and develop a sense of identity. This opens up opportunities for researchers to ask more nuanced questions, but you still have to craft those questions carefully and create a favorable interviewing environment.
Here are some things to consider:
- Though comprehension is much more developed at this stage, it is still particularly important to ensure questions and instructions are written in a simplified and unambiguous manner when working with children in this age range.
- Children at this stage have a tough time distinguishing between what is said and what is meant. We don’t recommend to present questions that use negations (e.g., Tell me about a time you did not feel…”).
- Visual stimuli, such as response cards, are a good option as children at this stage are still susceptible to forgetting even a limited set of options. Additional stimuli, such as video or audio, is also helpful as it will keep the child’s attention and encourage the interaction.
Conducting market research with kids and teens, age 11-15? Give context
By the time a kid reaches their pre-teen years, language development, reading and comprehension, logic, and formal thinking are well developed. Standardized questionnaires and data collection methods similar to those for adults can be used as, by this age, self-administered tests in a classroom setting are a normal occurrence.
The main issue to be wary of for this group is context sensitivity. When you’re asking questions in an interview setting, answers can vary depending on the nearness of friends, peers, siblings, or even parents. One way to prevent this is by employing self-administered surveys. Although these children are older and more understanding of nuance, researchers should avoid ambiguity in questions and should ensure surveys are engaging enough to keep the child motivated.
Conducting market research with teens age 16+? Account for trends
Young adults can, by and large, be treated as adults in research. Cognitively, they have a keen sense of identity and can differentiate the self from others. They are also equal to adults in their ability to understand ambiguities and negation. They can articulate their ideas clearly and can be counted on to complete a full-length survey.
The only potential issue researchers should keep in mind is specific group norms or social norms. Adults ― yes, even the famously trendy Millennials ― are getting older every day and are often out of touch with what’s trending among teenagers and what teens value. Researchers should conduct a careful analysis of the qualifying respondents during questionnaire development to account for any specific norms. Social context should also remain a factor as some sensitive topics may be influenced by the interview situation.
Kids are kids. How do we ensure data quality?
Finally, given that children can be more difficult to recruit, as a rule, it is always a good idea to pre-test questionnaires and survey designs. Low-quality data due to poorly written and designed surveys cannot easily be compensated for. All-in-all, while individual research studies should always practice meta-analytic techniques that check for potential biases or other impacts (e.g., school age, gender), the stages of cognitive development are a reasonable and reliable source to follow when researching younger audiences.
To learn more about the stages of cognitive development, or for help translating adult surveys to age-appropriate approaches with kids, please contact our experts in Material’s Behavioral Science Institute.