Andrew Therkelsen, director at Discovery Research, explains how you can get the most out of using primary school children in surveys and focus groups.
We’ve been researching with children for years and believe they are the most rewarding market research respondents by far. But what makes them so rewarding – their openness to new ideas and lack of inhibitions – also makes them a challenge. Here are some of the tools and techniques we employ at Discovery to prevent us becoming lambs surrounded by lions.
What makes children good respondents can conversely make them potential nightmare respondents. Their responses are lawless. Their decision-making is a constantly shifting and often mysterious process. And their imaginations are difficult to capture and hold on to. Research that isn’t well planned, or takes too long, leads to frayed attentions and unsatisfying results or data being produced.
Avoid direct or closed questions
While it is essential to plan your research, where children are concerned, you also need to keep things as unstructured as possible. Children need to feel that a decision or idea is theirs. Any piece of research aimed at children needs to be set up with this in mind. Providing them with choices is more likely to capture their interest. If they are not engaged with what’s being asked of them, they are more likely to return a bland response. An open approach, however, can take time. So don’t fret if they don’t get to the point really quickly. Allow them the time to talk through and think about things and you’ll be rewarded.
Create the right environment
Children have fewer preconceptions of their role within the research process than adults, so you can afford to provide them with a more relaxed, fun and stimulating environment. This will help you to capture their interest and involve them in the research process. And it will allow them to feel comfortable enough to express what they really think and not what they believe they ought to say.
Go online if this is where they are most comfortable
Today’s children are so at ease with engaging online that this can be the best way to reach them. Going where they feel most comfortable is all part of picking the best approach and creating the right environment. You must, however, seek the appropriate permissions, and be aware of privacy and data protection issues, before you start out.
Play lots of games
Some of the most effective insight arises when we let children do what they do best, which is play and exercise their imaginations. If you want to produce interesting results, you need to choose an approach that plays to the strengths of your audience. You can’t simply adapt for children the same methodologies used with adults. What you will need when researching with children are lots of different types of stimulus to keep them interested, stop their energy levels from flagging, and encourage them to express their ideas.
Using friendship pairs and groups can help children to feel more comfortable and able to share their ideas. Similarly, encouraging peer group discussion prior to research can lead to greater participation during research. We often use our online qualitative tool, The Thinking Shed, to set pre-tasks to start discussions between friends and ignite the thought processes of participants.
Don’t over stimulate them if you want to keep on track
Research with children is a definite balancing act. Not only do you need to walk a tightrope between keeping discipline and allowing them the freedom to express themselves, you also need to stimulate their interest without over stimulating them. Anyone who has done qualitative research with children will know how tricky this can be. The effectiveness of the research will, however, depend on you getting this right. So make sure you regulate their E-number intake. And don’t beat yourself up about the under-stimulated group that looks at you with puppy dog eyes in silence. Sometimes no amount of confectionary, bean bags or coaxing will produce a response.
Do involve parents
Research with children is not only a specialist skill but an entire process that is built on trust. I’ve outlined some of the ways you can earn the confidence of children, but it’s also vital that you have the buy-in of the parents too. One of the ways in which we do this is to invite them to take part in the process on a separate level. We also show them that we adhere to stringent industry regulations when researching children. Because researching children’s opinions and ideas is about listening to what they have to say, parents find the research experience is rewarding for their children.