Conducting UX Research with Teens: Designing Your Study, Building Connection, and Uncovering Impactful Insights

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jun 10, 2020

Given the current pandemic and shelter in place orders, it’s a great time to be conducting research with young people while they’re home from school and on summer break. Our team has been conducting research with teens on a variety of topics for years and we’ve developed some best practices and learned some hard lessons on how to reach and connect with this population.

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about Gen Z and their influence on the digital landscape. A lot of research has been conducted on this group, their values, habits, and what they want out of technology. We now know a lot about them. But, how do you actually conduct UX research with this group effectively to get valuable insights?

This generation, widely agreed upon as those born after 1995, now accounts for 40% of global consumers and possesses a tremendous amount of spending power (around $143 billion) not including the household and family member buying power they directly influence.) They value authenticity, transparency, inclusivity, and entrepreneurship. They want brand experiences that are personalized, and their purchases are often driven by ethics and values. They’re fast learners and exceptionally tech-savvy—Gen Z has always had access to technology and digital connections. No matter how you look at it, brands are starting to understand that this generation is going to require a different approach than we’re used to, and it’s ripe with opportunity.

It can be really difficult for adults to have comfortable and engaging conversations with teenagers. We hear concerns about being unable to connect with teens or being unsure of what adjustments should be made to your moderation techniques. 

Some of the most challenging but rewarding work we do at AnswerLab is talking with kids and teens.

For a number of our researchers, it’s their favorite type of research to conduct. Over the years, we’ve developed best practices and tips to get the most out of teen research. By tailoring your approach, you’ll be able to prepare for the next generation of consumers. We hope you find it useful!

Interviewing teens can surface both strategic and tactical UX insights.

Whether or not you should conduct research with teens is entirely dependent on the objectives of your study. If your product is at all focused on or geared towards young people, do research! Without hearing directly from this audience, you may not gain the perspective needed to create products that actually reach and work for them. Here are examples of research questions you can answer by including teens in your research initiatives: 

  • How can we reach more young people?
  • How do teenagers perceive our messaging and brand?
  • Why are teenagers spending less time on our products?
  • What are their perceptions and use of certain types of tools and platforms (social media, educational tools, online shopping experiences, etc.)
  • Are we thinking too narrowly about who our users are? Could our product be of interest to this group?
  • Are teens influencing their parents’ spending decisions in our industry? How can we appeal to them?

Methodologies that promote connection and trust work best.

There are a number of methodologies that work well with teens, but no matter what session type you’re attempting, building trust and rapport is critical. Keep this in mind during session design and preparation. One-on-one interviews typically work well for this. We find that research with multiple stages can help you build trust over time and ultimately, get you richer, deeper insights. Here are a few types of studies we’ve found useful:

One-on-one interviews

Plain and simple—one-on-one in-depth interviews are a standard for UX research and also work well for this population. The individual one-on-one nature allows for open and focused conversation.

Two sisters on their laptop at the kitchen counter

Dyads with other household members, small friendship groups, or siblings

Conducting research in pairs and small groups can help give a more holistic perspective and encourage comfort and ease during the session. Research with other family members can give you insight into household dynamics as well. And often, pairs of participants can build off each other’s thoughts and add even more detail. This method works best when paired with one-on-one interviews, so you get the whole picture.  

In-home ethnography

In-homes can be valuable for understanding context, household dynamics, and home environments. If you need to conduct in-homes remotely, you can employ one-on-one interviews with some different moderation techniques, pre-session homework assignments, or other elements like a virtual home tour to uncover insights related to household dynamics and home settings.

Diary studies with follow-up interviews

Diary studies help get participants thinking and sharing over time, giving them the needed time to break the ice and become comfortable with the interviews. Diaries can yield rich artifacts about how teens engage with the world. And after your diary study is complete, conducting follow-up one-on-one interviews can help you dig deeper. Diaries help uncover additional topics to cover in your one-on-ones and identify key follow-up questions. Diary studies can also help narrow down the field to select participants that are most articulate and open to your in-depth interviews.

Focus groups

Focus groups work well for encouraging teens to work together in groups. Put together some different creative exercises to get them thinking critically. Encourage them to draw or brainstorm what they think using a flip chart or post-it notes. These kinds of activities mirror ones they do in school and this familiarity can help them open up. When conducting sessions like these remotely, try using remote whiteboarding tools like Mural for a similar effect.


Research with teens requires adjustments to your moderation techniques.

Teenagers often have an entirely different way of communicating with each other than they do with the adults in their lives. In general, teens are much more sensitive to timing than adults and have a greater awareness of subtle cues and communication during research. Of course, regular moderation rules still apply. You want to build trust, ask open-ended questions, and come up with creative ways to get their ideas flowing. But, with teens, there are some additional guiding principles you need to consider like making them feel safe and comfortable in an unknown setting. The power and age dynamics of participating in research can be intimidating, so creating a safe space is important. Here are some guiding principles we consider when moderating research with teens:

Teen sitting at desk in room on remote research session1. Give a thorough introduction

Because you’re interviewing minors, their parents have to sign the consent forms and NDAs. As a result, it’s good to give a thorough introduction at the beginning of the session to remind them of what’s going to happen during the research and reinforce that they need to hold what they see in confidence, not take screenshots, and not share any details with anyone else who isn’t involved in the research.

2. Highlight their agency and power

Because of the power differentials and age difference (and the fact that most of these participants won’t have engaged in research before), as the moderator, you need to share that it’s okay for them not to answer a question if they’re uncomfortable. Give them agency and power in a situation where they may not feel that right off the bat.

3. Emphasize the impact of what they’re about to share

Teens are often really motivated by the message that their input is going to have a real concrete effect and even shape some of their favorite digital products. Make sure to convey this to them so they feel motivated to give their true thoughts. With parents, it’s helpful to frame the experience for them as an educational one and something new and different for their children to learn from and about.

4. Build empathy

Really look at them and show them you care about what they have to say. They’ll open up more over the course of the session and you’ll glean better, more authentic insights as a result. When you’re conducting sessions remotely, this is even more important as video conferencing can sometimes feel impersonal.

5. Match their body language and excitement level

As moderators, it’s helpful to mirror a participant’s body language and excitement level during sessions to make the experience more comfortable. Sometimes we even try wearing more casual clothing like a hoodie for example to take the formality down a notch.

6. Know your stuff

When talking with teens, you really have to know the subject well to show them you understand. They won’t bring things up if they think you don’t understand them. They assume adults have never heard of TikTok or finstas. Once they realize you know what you’re talking about, they’ll open up and confide in you.

To get this message across, ask your questions confidently. Ask “How many accounts do you create content on?” instead of “Do you create content on more than one account?” One of our moderators shared that many of her participants find it cathartic to interact with someone who knows these intricacies and who will never be a part of their life again. It means they can share things more openly without worry. 

7. Be aware of sensitive topics

Be prepared for conversations that might be difficult or emotional. You may run into situations that might be uncomfortable if they share experiences of bullying or embarrassing moments, for example. Have resources available for them and be ready to respond kindly and calmly. If you see an outburst of emotion or a participant starts to shut down if you broach a tougher subject, don’t let it rattle you. Respond with empathy, and be ready to take a break, get a snack or drink of water, and redirect when the time is right. 

8. Ensure they have privacy

We try to make sure teens have privacy during research, so they can share what’s really true for them! Sometimes parents want to be present during research or fill in details they think would be helpful, but often, they can make your participant feel uncomfortable or less likely to share their true experience. We want to make sure the participant feels in control of the conversation and keeping parents out of the room plays a critical role in that.

9. Be flexible

Go in with a well-thought-out script, but be ready to deviate from it quickly. Surprises, stories, and new ideas come up often when conducting research with this population. You may uncover better insights by deviating from your script instead of following it to a tee. Be flexible and willing to follow ideas wherever they go.

Teen showing her art portfolio to researcher on video conference

10. Use show and tell techniques

Let participants do show and tell techniques if it’s going to help guide the conversation. One AnswerLab researcher told us about an experience he had with a shyer participant during in-home interviews. He was hesitant to open up, but he kept mentioning his drawing and artwork when he did have something to say. Our researcher went off script to ask him about his art and let him show the team his portfolio. By showing interest in the participant’s hobbies, he opened up and shared even more once they got back into the session, making the detour well worth the time. Try to pick up on small things and personal interests and give them the opportunity to share about what they’re passionate about.

Ready to take the next step? Our Research Operations team shared their tips on study logistics and recruiting for this group. If you want to be the first to hear about new articles from AnswerLab, subscribe to our monthly newsletter. 

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AnswerLab Research

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