4 min read

Born Digital? App Design for Kids

We’re currently seeing two disparate schools of thought when it comes to kids and the web. In one camp are a low-tech crowd who are keep digital devices away from kids (which interestingly include Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs as well as a lot of Silicon Valley). But they seem to be a minority. More common are parents and educators who see digital devices as tools for learning as well as fun.

Designing for the latter group raises particular issues. What makes designing for kids different from adults? How is a 6 year old different from a 10 year old when it comes to making an online game? How does this relate to designing for a multitouch device such as the iPhone? Debra Levin Gelman, a designer with years of experience developing online kids’ games, wanted to know this herself, and on finding that there was nothing on the market that expressly addressed this, ended up writing a book on the very topic. (Not before doing a talk about if first though, I highly recommend looking at her Interaction 11 talk video, slides, or a podcast she did in the lead up to the conference).

Overall, Levin Gelman suggests that while in some ways kids are like adults when it comes to being online (they like consistency, a clear purpose, and small easter eggs but not unexpected surprises) there are some ways that children approach games very differently from adults:

  • Challenge: where adults want things to be simple, they like a bit of conflict
  • Feedback: ever get annoyed at apps which constantly tell you or make noises when you’ve done something? Kids don’t! They particularly love getting positive feedback for doing something.
  • Trust: Children are more trusting than adults, partly because that part of the brain isn’t yet developed. This can mean that they take a lot of risks that adults won’t.
  • Change: every two years a child develops a lot, to the point that it’s near impossible to build an app that caters to all children. More on this next.

One thing that is an obvious difference is that parents play a part in games chosen and played as well, be it letting the game be downloaded or getting permission for the game to register the child.

Anyone who’s done a bit of psychology or pedagogical learning will know about Piaget’s levels of learning, apparently described by Einstein as “so simple only a genius could have thought of it”. Levin Gelman explains these chapter by chapter and then explains how this relates to how that age group needs to be catered for in relation to game design.

She doesn’t cover under 2s (partly as the Pediatrics Society of America doesn’t recommend screen time for under 2s) but partly as they usually don’t have the fine motor skills present to use a device such as a touchscreen. From there up, the divides the book into the following segments:

Piaget’s ages and digital considerations
Age (years) Design considerations
2-4 Little People, Big Expectations Interested in the details rather than the big picture, don’t understand iconography.
4-6 The “Muddy Middle” Interested in things that feel social and let them express their identity. Wants feedback for doing things right.
6-8 The Big Kids Don’t want to be seen as babyish, like to know the rules and do things right.
8-10 The “Cool Factor” Interested in being social, ambiguity and complexity, but also want to be the experts.
10-12 Growing Up Very close to adults, may overthink consequences in games.

She also points out some common misconceptions.

Contrary to popular belief, games for young children shouldn’t be an eye assault of bright colours, but instead be just one or two strong colours against muted backgrounds since too much visual stimulus can confuse this age group so that they can’t tell what’s important.

I particularly found the ideas of instructions changing across the years fascinating: while age 6-8 are at a stage where they want to do things right and so want all the instructions up-front, once they graduate to the next stage they aren’t interested in reading the rules at all but still want to get things right. In fact, Levin Gelman says that 6-8s are more like 10-12s than 8-10s. Similarly, their want to be social flip-flops over the different age groups.

Researchers on a deadline will do well to skip to the final chapters 9-11, where Levin Gelman shows in detail how something as simple as a video player interface should be changed dependent on the age that it’s aimed at (2-4s need autoplay and minimal UI, 6-8s should be given instructions upfront but 8-10 shouldn’t etc). She also gives practical advice on ways to recruit participants for each age group: as one can expect, the younger the age group the harder it is, but in general trying to work with a learning facility (or a childcare unit tied into a university) can make things easier.

Image from apps for kids
Image from Rosenfeld Media

She also goes into the ethics of consent and privacy. A handy inclusion is an example consent form for a parent to sign (children under 13 aren’t old enough to consent). More sobering is an interview with marketing compliance expert Linnette Attai about the legal ramifications of creating apps for kids. In the USA the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) means are strict policies about data capture and consent for under 13s that carry potentially business-destroying penalties if broken: at minimum this is not only a $50,000 fee but also the wiping of all historical data that includes the infringing activity, and most importantly include being put on a warning list online and having to pay for in-house training on child protection data for several years. While I can’t find there to be quite the same level of legislation in the UK (here the concern seems more turned towards in app purchases) it stands for consideration for international apps.

All up, Levin Gelman’s book is a timely and well-researched addition to a newly growing market. Her book is available from Rosenfeld Media.