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Testing by Minors: Risk Prevention for UX Pros

By Elizabeth Brown

Many usability professionals hesitate to conduct testing with children because of the potential risks of working with them. Could they be sued for something that happens to the children during, or in connection with, the testing? How should professionals treat children differently from adults in order to minimize the chance of a lawsuit? The most important concern, from a legal point of view, is the risk that a parent will claim that their child was harmed in some way during the study and that the practitioner is responsible. There are two main ways to minimize the chances that this will happen:

  1. Make sure that you provide full and clear information about the testing procedure so that the parent can give his or her informed consent to let the child participate.
  2. Make sure that the test is conducted in a reasonable way, determined by usability professional standards.

Full disclosure and reasonable procedures are your best lines of defense. The table below shows an overview of the best ways to ensure that your research with children stays well within legal bounds. This table is based on my own opinions and suggestions and you should not rely on it as legal advice. Always check on the pertinent laws in your location and, when necessary, consult your organization’s legal staff.UX

Fig 1

Global Guidelines

“In the past, we were involved in projects where we conducted interviews, observations, and testing with infant participants in school and kindergarten settings in China. We never encountered any legal problems with it because we always get permission from the school or kindergarten, and we work with the help of the teachers.”
Zhengjie Liu
Professor and Director,
Sino-European Usability Center,
Dalian Maritime University
People’s Republic of China

“In Italy there is a special requirement for parents to be in the same room with the children during test sessions. We tested with children ranging from six to twelve years old, and explained our procedures and policies to the parents. For example, they could help their children to start the navigation and then intervene if their children required any particular help on items that the facilitator was not responsible for. The main aim was to create the conditions for a natural (not artificial) condition of usage of the PC and website. We found that we were able to run the studies with no particular problems. In a few cases, when the children were under seven years old, the presence of one parent was an encouraging factor for the kids to be active and responding.”
Michele Visciola
President, Experientia

“In Latin America, legal guardians need to give their permission for their children to participate in testing. How do we do it? We always approach mothers and invite them to be part of it. In user testing, mothers are behind the glass with a researcher. We brief them before the test as to what we will do. They usually don’t oppose and, in fact, have a good time watching how ‘smart’ their kids are.”
Luis Arnal                                        
Founder and President, In/Situm

“A common practice in the Netherlands is recruiting via schools or kindergartens. After getting permission from the school to [take a] break in the curriculum, it is important to convince the parents. Parents are very concerned about what will happen with the recordings, especially with Internet presentations. What often helps is breaking down the permission into smaller sections; for example, permission to report, to present offline, to present online but with censored faces, or not to present at all. Giving parents control over the recordings in this way gains trust and increases the chances for recruitment.”
Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer
UX Consultant, User Intelligence
The Netherlands

“In Australia, a key requirement for conducting user research with children is to obtain parental consent. If direct, unsupervised contact with children is required, then the researcher needs to submit to a ‘working with children’ check, which is essentially a police background check. In a general sense, the main concerns are the duty of care to children, child protection and privacy, and consent of parents. Rules vary between states.”
Legal Advisor

“Professional ethics [in conducting usability research with children] in India are essentially those that are followed almost globally, like ensuring that the parents are made aware of the research, the level of participation required from their child, protecting the child’s identity, keeping the research environment comfortable, and so on. Following the common practices of testing with children ensures that the research is carried out according to the standards that are acceptable universally.”
Suneet Kheterpal
Senior Design Engineer, C-DAC

Elizabeth Brown is an adjunct associate professor of law at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. She also advises multinational corporations on a wide range of legal issues including contract, employment, and intellectual property matters. Before teaching at Bentley she was a litigation partner at Fish & Richardson, P.C., an international law firm. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2011.

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