Real-life Advice on Picking Kids’ Brains

by Steve Kling
Research pro shares strategies for conducting consumer research with children and teens.
“I need to do some consumer research, but my target is kids!” “Aren’t they just like adults?” “What do I have to do differently when working with them?” “Kids can’t brainstorm, can they?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these and other questions from my clients, and I can almost see the fear in their faces as they ask me. I hope this article will alleviate some of the fear that goes along with kid research. Believe me, it’s not as difficult as it seems at first.
There are many who believe that kids are fickle when it comes to consumer research. Researchers and product development teams become frustrated by the seemingly inconsistent information that kids provide. It’s really that we as adults often don’t understand kid drivers, and we try to use scientific methods that are designed more for adults. Let me describe some of the research that I’ve used successfully with children. Most of this applies to kids who are in their teens or as young as third grade. With children younger than that you are often relegated to product testing that is a “yum or yuck” decision at best, at least for foods anyway, due to the limits in how articulate younger kids are.
Group by grade
It’s best to keep kids grouped by grade, not age. Even if your target is six- to 12-year-olds, it’s not a good idea to combine kids of different ages; there are too many cognitive differences in that much of an age span. Even combining eight and nine-year-olds is not wise because they are often in different grades, and even one grade level at that age can make all the difference in the world. If elementary school-aged kids know each other (using a classroom setting, for example) you can combine boys and girls. Otherwise, it’s best to separate them, and it is wise to do so all of the time with teens.
Plan on having specific tasks for the kids to complete. Let them give responses by drawing, story- writing or role-playing. If you make it interesting enough, the time will fly by and you will have rich information to mull over later. Try not to overload them. A kid’s attention span is less than an adult’s, and there is only so much that kids can taste if you are working with food. Typically, that’s only four to six product samples.
I’ve had clients who wanted to begin their development process by finding out the latest trends with kids and others who simply wished to generate new product ideas for them.
Brainstorming pros
Can kids brainstorm? You bet. Children are taught how to brainstorm in school as early as first grade, as part of learning how to do problem-solving. Many advanced placement classes employ those techniques regularly. In fact, kids probably can do it better because they aren’t as conditioned to reject new ideas as adults are.
Schools are the perfect place to do your brainstorming because teachers can help you identify the best candidates, and schools often allow you to use their facilities to run the sessions. I encourage the project teams to participate in these sessions; that way they can ask pertinent questions as the need arises. Besides, the more time your clients can spend with kids in their own environment, the better they will be able to interpret the information. It is often pointed out that to make a successful kid product, one has to think like a kid. Observing and listening to kids in a creative brainstorming environment is an excellent way to tap into their mindset.
Establish rapport
I still believe that good old qualitative research is one of the best techniques to use with children. Even though we tell a child that filling out a questionnaire is not a test, they still treat it as such. That’s why a discussion format works better. Perhaps the most important thing you can do in focus groups, one-on-one interviews, triads or less conventional testing, is to establish rapport with kids so they feel free to talk without fear of being judged. Avoid asking a direct “why” question, as it can be interpreted as somewhat threatening. It’s better to ask them to clarify what they are saying. Have kids write down their responses before you ask for their opinions. You can avoid having kids change their opinions at the last minute to follow a “leader” in the group.
There are times when a new product is sought and development teams don’t have a clear focus on where to begin. Multiple elements of the product are important, such as the concept, packaging, and product itself. It is important to see the product through their eyes and find out what their criteria are for success.
Research stations
I’ve done a lot of work setting up a “total product offering” process, where kids are given specific tasks that cover a myriad of different product elements. I’ve set up multiple “stations” for the kids to react to stimulus of all of the attributes a product has — a product concept station, a product tasting station, a product naming station, a packaging station, etc.
Protocepts or prototypes are explored at each station. Each person on your project team can get involved by managing these stations, and it is a perfect opportunity for them to ask questions and delve a little deeper on answers that kids give. At the end, I hold a debriefing session with the project team to share the children’s reactions to this newly created total product offering. You begin to see the bigger picture emerge as the information is shared. What’s more, the process is incredibly fun for the kids, and it keeps their attention. I try to keep them at any one station for no more than 20 minutes, but the total time you can spend with them can be upwards of two hours.
I would caution anyone looking to find out what the next kid trend is by using such a technique; kids can tell you what’s hot today, but they are no better than the rest of us at spotting trends. You may have to try to get at Lead Users, consumers at the leading edge of trends that can better put into words product requirements, for that. Many research suppliers can provide you with that kind of participant.
Advisory boards
Another excellent way to get feedback on prototypes is to establish a Kid Advisory Board. This technique involves selecting a panel of kids, preferably highly articulate, who meet once or twice a week to evaluate prototypes. While they no longer are naive consumers, you gain a trade-off in building a panel of “experts” that can get on task quickly and stay on task, and use previous information and memory to compare products they may have seen in previous sessions.
Quantitative route
There are times when quantitative research with elementary-school aged kids is in order, when a formal evaluation is warranted. I use a “star scale,” where kids assign a number of stars that corresponds to their liking of a product, where one star means they like a particular product very little, and five stars means they like it a lot.
For more information on quantitative techniques, see the ASTM Standard Guide for Sensory Evaluation of Products by Children, E-2299-03.
The bottom line is this: try not to be intimidated by doing consumer research with kids. Relax and enjoy working with them. Be honest with them. And if you are really stuck on how to talk their language, consider meeting with a teacher at your local elementary school for some advice. And remember, we all used to be kids, so try to tap into those old playground memories and design your research to meet them at their level.
Steve Kling has a M.S. in psychology and specializes in exploratory consumer research, which he has been doing professionally since 1985. He has worked for several major consumer products companies that have had kid and adult brands. He now owns his own consulting company, Inklings, Inc., based in the Minneapolis, Minn., area. He can be reached at