Designing Experiences for Children

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Whenever I watch my 5 year old play games on my tablet, I cannot help but notice his irritation while using game interface. As a UX Designer, a few questions come to my mind–Is it so difficult designing for this age? If yes, why? What is so different from designing for adults and designing for kids? And why is it necessary to understand and realize the importance of usability in kid’s applications from their point of view? The purpose of this article is to answer these questions.

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Why the frustration?

Let’s nail down a few things that we as designers neglect while designing applications for young users.

Taking into account their short attention span

Kids do not have a lot of patience. They quickly want to find something that interests them. The best example for this is splash screen or welcome screen of any kid’s mobile application. If a splash screen takes more than 10 seconds then we should be ready for the comment from our little ones that ‘It’s not working’ or ‘ Or their Wi-Fi’.

Example of poorly designed loading screen

E.g. above is a loading screen from ‘Angry Birds EPIC’ game. Though the game takes 6-7 sec to load depending on Internet connectivity, there is no music for this screen and important information like ‘Downloading assets’ and 'percentage complete' gets totally hidden due to its small font and poor affordance.

To make the experience engaging we should make the loading time or waiting more interesting by adding some soft music or some funny animation.

In Brain Dots Android game they have made the loading part so quick and interesting by using smoothing splash screen music and simple animation of pink, blue dots and a pencil stroke.

Example of delightful loading screen

Not Understanding Kids' Gestures the right way

Designing for children requires the interface to respond to their input style. Now a days touch screens are everywhere. While designing for kids, as a user we need to consider their smaller finger size, less manual dexterity, and the fact that they are novice in digital interfaces. The most intuitive and natural interaction gesture used by most of the kids is Tap; Finger drawing or tracing and swipe. Advance gestures like multi-touch, swiping by using two hands are all learned behaviors. Interaction gesture like dragging also posses challenges like difficulty in maintaining contact.

Swipe-based gestures such as skeuomorphic curled-up page corner can be tricky for tiny hands

The most common methods of pagination for kid’s e-books are touch-based arrows and swipe-based gestures (indicated by a skeuomorphic curled-up page corner in above figure.) Sometimes swipes can be tricky for tiny fingers and the gestures usually require some accuracy.

No Age Appropriate Challenges and Reward

Kids use the mobile application for learning and entertainment purpose. The major problem while designing for kids is to reveal them to appropriate challenges and reward as per their age.

For kids below 2 to 3 years it is difficult to follow the game or a mobile app by their own, they expect to be guided by the app, and expect that every time they touch the screen something should happen and the app should give them some feedback.

But for the kids age 5 onwards, the emphasis is on perfection, their definition of fun is winning and getting more points. They do not only want to achieve the goal, but they want to do it better than their friends and be number one.

So it is very important to design the challenges and rewards for any particular game properly so that kids should feel praised and rewarded. Positive feedback, a word of appreciation or just a smiling face of their favourite character indicates success and it will definitely encourage kids to use the application and not switch to another one.

Following screen is a bad example of game reward screen without any indication of the performance and without any encouragement words about the performance.

Reward screen neither indicates performance nor gives encouragement to kid

Following screen illustrates good example of game reward screen with word of appreciation and highlighting the SCORE and their free gifts.

Children appreciate reward screen containing words of appreciation, score, and free gifts

Why UX for kids is Important?

Mobile devices are considered as the 21st Century Nanny. Around 61% of U.S. parents of children under 18 years have used smartphone or tablets to keep their child occupied. Source: Harris Interactive

Mobile acting as nanny for 21st century kid

How kids are different?

Children are curious and love to explore. They will just touch and interact with everything on screen, searching to discover content interaction within the interface. Young kids have no go-to patterns, no mould, and no expectations about how something should work.

“ Kids are no little adults…but special people!”

Children can have different Interactive Patterns and Mindsets. We need to consider wide range of possibilities and abilities as per the age group. If we are designing for toddlers, then there should be big buttons but for older kids the application needs to have more action and more entertainment.

The major differentiating factor for a child as a user and an adult as a user is that children change their minds really quickly. If we observe in just a short time span, a 3-year-old gains significant cognitive, motor and intellectual growth, while an adult's skills in these areas remain pretty stable.

Children – Who are they?

As per Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget believed that children go through 4 universal stages of cognitive development.

Sensorimotor Stage (Birth – 2 yrs)

Birth to 2 years is a period of tremendous growth and change for any toddler. During this initial phase of development, children experience the world and gain knowledge through their senses and motor movements.

Developing object permanence is one of the most important accomplishments at the sensorimotor stage of development. The ability to form a mental representation (i.e. a schema) of the object is known as object permanence. For example, if you place a toy under a blanket, the child who has achieved object permanence knows it is there and can actively seek it. At the beginning of this stage the child behaves as if the toy had simply disappeared.

For example, Peekaboo Kids is a fun and educational game for children between ages 1-3 years and its screen is shown below

Educational game for children between ages 1-3 years

Playtales has an excellent interaction for navigation. They keep the navigation menu options hidden by default, but kids know they can actively seek the options by tapping on clouds with a star.

Object permanance used for navigation

Pre-operational stage (2–7 years)

The pre-operational stage ranges from about ages 2 to 7. The child in this stage is considered as before (pre) operations (unable to understand this sentence). In this stage, a child is unable to use any concrete logic and thinks and sees things from his own perspective. This is a very interesting development stage because in this stage kids start using language as a communication tool with their own funny and adorable words.

This is also a very exciting stage to design for, because in this stage kids are able to pretend. E.g. By using towel they pretend to be a Superman, simple sticks become magic wands, Chair trail becomes their ‘Toy Train’, etc.

Kids start playing pretend in Pre-Operational stage – Pirate and The Sailor, Finding the Treasure is one of their favourite.
Children showing pre-operational behaviour

Kids love to play Mechanic Max Kids Game – where they can step into the game as a mechanic and can perform all the tasks related to car repairing and servicing.
Mechanic Max Kids Screen

Concrete operational stage (7–11 years)

In this stage children start thinking logically about concrete ideas or concepts but have difficulty in understanding abstract concepts and cannot make decision based on the information gathered. This stage spans through early childhood years i.e. starting from 7 yrs to 11 years. During these years a child's thought process becomes more mature and “adult-like”.

Major aspects of this stage are Inductive Logic which means that children can make generalized decisions after observing repeated specific instances of something. E.g. if a kid watches you do something good for your friend and your friend gets happy, the kid will learn that if he does something good for people, they will be happy and appreciate him. As such, at this age kids enjoy playing logical reasoning games

Logical Reasoning

There are many good mobile apps for kids which help them to learn good habits through inductive logic.

Screenshot of game teaching good habits to children

Another important fact of this stage is that children can concentrate on many aspects of the situation at the same time.

Formal operational stage (12 yrs–adults)

We all design for this stage regularly. For this stage our target user base is adults. During this time, the child develops the ability to think logically about abstract concepts, carry out deductive reasoning and solve complex problems.

Final Thoughts

Few key considerations that designers need to consider when designing for children are

  • We should understand the Kids Gestures the right way.
  • Design appropriate challenges and rewards as per different cognitive development stages.
  • Not testing kids' patience and make their experience more entertaining and fulfilled.
  • I also believe that there is some intangible info needed to succeed in designing UX for children.

Designing for children is itself a very fun domain and if you are not having fun yourself during the design process then you cannot put together a quality product. Most kids do not want to grow-up and most grown-ups still want to be kids. So design a product that works best for both!

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About The Author

The author of this document is Chaitali Tannirwar. She is a UX Analyst, HFI professional with acute liking for UX discipline. This guide is a summary of her team's experience of Usability Testing Services over several projects undertaken by Umber UX facility.