Building apps for kids: The definitive guide

4 min read
Tanya Unger
  •  Jan 18, 2017
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I remember Mark Zuckerberg once saying “I definitely wouldn’t have gotten into programming if I hadn’t played games as a kid.”

This correlation isn’t a surprise, although it did spark a revelation when I was researching the most popular children’s apps for this post. The same apps kept appearing again and again. At that moment, I realized that creating a phenomenal kids’ app has an incredible but often underestimated power to mold the future.

Through their apps, these designers and developers have a huge influence over future generations. Indirectly, their apps are responsible for creating our next Mark Zuckerbergs.

Related: These 5 major UI mistakes will kill your app

It’s fair to argue that these select apps have a larger collective impact on the future than massively successful, well-established companies we look up to, which is why designing a children’s app isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really quite difficult.

If you think you’re up for the challenge, keep reading. In this post, you’ll learn:

  • The differences between designing for kids and adults
  • The similarities between designing for kids and adults
  • A framework for designing for kids
  • Tips for designing for kids

Designing for kids versus designing for adults: 4 key differences

The main difference between designing for kids and designing for adults comes down to the goal(s) of the users.

When you’re designing for children, the finish line is just a small part of the story.

According to Debra Gelman, author of Designing for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning, when you’re designing for adults—even when designing games for adults—the goal is to help them cross the finish line. But when you’re designing for children, the finish line is just a small part of the story.

Here are 4 key differences to examine.

1. Kids love a good challenge or conflict

Think about it. An adult, using a banking or email app, just wants to accomplish their task as quickly and easily as possible. Whereas a child, playing a game, enjoys challenges and conflicts along the way because it makes their accomplishment more significant in the end.

“Designing a good children’s app is more than just dumbing down adult concepts.”

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A prime example is Toca House, a popular iPad app by the makers at Toca Boca, which challenges children to vacuum a dirty rug. Of course, the rug isn’t clean after just one swipe because that wouldn’t be hard enough.

Gelman says that micro-conflicts—like vacuuming a dirty rug—help children resolve their own inner conflicts. She bolsters her case with a LEGO study on conflict play, which states that micro-conflicts help kids develop skills like:

  • Predicting how others are likely to react to their behavior
  • Controlling their own emotions
  • Communicating clearly
  • Seeing other people’s points of view
  • Creatively resolving disagreements

2. Kids want feedback on everything

When playing in a digital space, kids expect visual and auditory feedback whenever they do something.

This is why most children’s apps generate some sort of reaction or response for every interaction. Kids expect to be rewarded for whatever they do.

3. Kids are more trusting than adults

Because children can’t predict or understand the consequences of their actions ahead of time, they’re typically much more trusting than adults. This means that you, as the designer, are responsible for knowing this and building safeguards into your app.

4. Kids develop faster than adults

If you visit the App Store, you’ll notice that the kids’ category can be filtered by age ranges—“Ages 5 and under,” “Ages 6 to 8,” and “Ages 9 to 11” among them. This is because kids develop much faster than adults, meaning an app for a 4-year-old won’t also be a fit for a 6-year-old.

A good rule of thumb: Focus on a 2-year age range, max. Just think about the differences between a 4- and 8-year-old. While one age group may dive in and learn the app as they go, another may need clear instructions to boost their confidence in using the app.

“Designing an app for kids? Focus on a 2-year age range, max.”

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Designing for kids versus designing for adults: 4 key similarities

You don’t have to relearn everything you know about good design to make a children’s app. There’s still quite a few similarities between designing for kids and designing for adults.

Here are the 4 key similarities of designing for kids and designing for adults.

1. Users expect consistency

Children and adults both expect design patterns to be consistent. Contrary to popular belief, kids don’t like it when everything on their screen does something ‘cool.’Twitter Logo

According to Gelman, both kids and adults get annoyed by design elements that seem random and unnecessary. Children like items on a screen to do cool stuff as long as there’s a method to the proverbial madness.

Related: Mobile UX and user expectations

“Elements that get in the way or animate spontaneously or don’t contribute to the overall goal can frustrate kids and adults alike, and cause them to abandon a game or an app entirely,” Gelman says. “In addition, if everything on the screen moves, is brightly colored, or makes noise on the same level, kids and adults become confused about what is interactive and what isn’t, and this makes it very hard for them to use the site or app. A common design principle for adults is to keep interactions and feedback consistent so that users will be able to learn how use the site or app quickly. The same is true for kids.”

2. Users need a reason to use your app

Your app must have a purpose, and its purpose must be obvious from the startTwitter Logo, for both adults and children.

While it’s easy to believe children will just love exploring your app, they’ll quickly become bored if it doesn’t give them a reason to use it.

Whether designing for kids or adults, always clearly articulate what your app does and how it works before users have the opportunity to become bored with it.

3. Users don’t want to be surprised

Users will envision your app working a certain way, and they expect it to work that way.Twitter Logo They don’t want to be surprised when it behaves another way than they expected.

For example, when you’re purchasing something online, after you pay, you expect an email receipt and a message that confirms your purchase. Adults don’t want to be re-routed to a landing page, where you try to upsell them on another offering.

The same is true for kids, Gelman says, and she provides the following example.

“As a kid adding gems to a box in a game, you expect to be able to open the box where the gems are stored to see them all, not to have to open the box, pull out drawers, and hunt for the stuff you thought was in there,” she says.

“Kids and adults get annoyed by design elements that seem random and unnecessary.”

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4. Users want a little something extra

Gelman calls this a lagniappe.

A lagniappe is a little something extra—an Easter egg—thrown in to delight users or customers, and both adults and kids enjoy these small, unexpected interactions that enhance their experience with a site or app.

Related: 3 ways to design happiness

Lagniappes are different from surprises, which as I mentioned above, users don’t enjoy.

A surprise is when someone comes up from behind you, when you’re deep in work and scares the crap out of you. A lagniappe is the first-class upgrade you got for free, when you were squished in a middle seat, between 2 crying babies and their mothers.

For example, Snapchat’s “pull down to refresh” feature shows a dancing ghost that changes colors, letting users know their feed is updating.

You can always steal some ideas from Toca Boca, too.

Keep these differences and similarities in mind when you’re designing apps for kids.

A framework for designing for kids

Designing a good children’s app is more than just dumbing down adult concepts.Twitter Logo Like designing for adults, you must understand your users and where they are cognitively, physically, and emotionally so your app resonates.

Simultaneously, you don’t want to stray too far away from common design principles either, which is why it’s helpful to also understand the similarities of designing for kids and designing for adults.

Some of these steps will probably look familiar.

Drop your sketchbook, and pick up your notebook

One of the reasons designing a phenomenal kids’ app is so difficult is because designers aren’t children. This is an issue because, as we all know, designers must have empathy with users.

But before you decide to go watch some random kids to figure out how they interact with each other, and what holds their attention and what doesn’t, choose an age range—2 years max—to focus on.

Once you pick an age range, it’s time to observe and take notes.

Let’s be real: Kids can be difficult to understand, especially for those of us who aren’t around them a lot. This is why you have to observe them to actually understand them.

Also, today’s children are digital natives. They’ve grown up with technology, so even if you can somehow remember what being a kid is like, you can’t possibly fully relate to today’s youth.

Try observing different groups of children in the same age range, such as children who know each other, all girls, all boys, indoors and outdoors.

According to UX Matters, children communicate volumes simply by how they play, what they choose to play with, how long they choose to play with it, and when they decide to play with something else.

How do they play, communicate, and interact with things in their environments?

Surprisingly, any silly thing a child does could potentially tell you how they’ll use your app.

Here’s a few things you could ask yourself.

  • Do kids in this age range enjoy sticking to the rules, or do they prefer inventing their own games?
  • Are they trying very hard, or are they just trying to out-silly each other?
  • Are there differences between the ways boys and girls approach play?

Now it’s time to take things up a notch and choose a specific type of play to narrow in on that relates to your app.

Toca Tea Party, the popular iPad app by Toca Boca, is a prime example here.

It began as a paper prototype, with cutouts of teapots, cups, and saucers, sitting on top of an iPad. The creators set out the elements and let kids play with it.

“Originally the idea was to make the food, but the kids just wanted to get past that part,” says Jeffery. “Now we have pre-made cakes but you get to set the table. One of the most appreciated features was spilling. That came from the kids. ‘Ooooh, he spilled!’”

Consider participatory design

Participatory design, also called co-design, is a phenomenal method for understanding children. It involves gathering groups of children together, giving them craft supplies, and having them come up with their own design ideas for your product.

This helps you not because the kids’ designs will be good, but because you’ll understand how they view different subjects. For example, if a girl creates a fairy to help her with her homework, what type of personality does it have? Is she mischievous like Tinkerbell or caring like The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella?

You could also give children workbooks, or have them create collages or storyboards for you as well.

Test it out

Now it’s time to test out your app with a prototyping tool that will allow you to test complex tasks, such as swiping and zooming.

These gestures are important because younger children haven’t developed their motor skills, like adults have; therefore, they can’t use their hands the same way adults can. In fact, one designer recommends staying away from these types of gestures and sticking to the classic arrow buttons.

“Education apps are useless if they aren’t built on facts.”

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Once you create your prototype, give it to a child and ask them to teach you how to use your app, or watch them teach another child how to use it.

Tips for designing for kids

As you’ve learned, designing for kids is a pretty different ballgame than designing for adults. They love bright colors, and they want feedback on everything they do.

To take our research a step further, we spoke with a variety of experts on the topic. Keep reading to get their best tips and tricks for designing for kids.

Let kids make mistakes

Word Wizard is an app that teaches kids how to spell with a moveable alphabet that embraces mistakes beautifully.

In a sandbox-type of environment, kids can put letters in any order they like, then the app reads the “word” aloud, allowing children to understand how the letters sound together.

For example, a child might put together a 100-character “word” or rather a fascinating amalgamation of seemingly nonsensical sounds. Users can even change the audio feedback speed, accent, and tone, which adds to the playfulness and immersive power of the experience.

There’s no abrasive buzzer, alerting kids that they created a word that isn’t in the dictionary. And you won’t find a giant, red “x” icon placed beside the imaginative juxtaposition either.

The child will understand that they made a mistake on their own by listening to the result.

“Mistakes are okay. It’s okay to make mistakes,” Abel said. “Mistakes are a natural part of learning. Integrate the mistake into the learning.”

When asked what advice he’d offer designers interested in building children’s apps, Abel says it’s vital that education apps are built on facts, otherwise they’re useless.Twitter Logo

“There are a lot of apps out there where the person didn’t do their homework. You can easily get a book on a new topic, and learn everything you need to know before you start developing the app. If I ever have a doubt, I ask experts, and they explain everything to me.”

Give children endless possibilities

Josh Sheldon, Director of Programs at MIT App Inventor, says the best children’s apps give kids the freedom to explore and delve into an immersive experience.

“Make sure it isn’t entirely scripted,” he recommended. “Give kids the ability to take their own path or journey through a new experience.”

Design for children first

Designers miss the mark when they try to impose an adult perspective.

“This can vary from having interactions that seem ‘normal’ from an adult point of view, such as tapping an object to select it and then tapping again to use it which is not something that kids can relate to. Kids tend to pick up an object, and make their action straight away, it’s not a two-step process for them,” Victor Guerrero, programmer at Toca Boca, said.

“Designers should never impose an adult perspective on a kids’ app.”

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Guerrero cites Vectorpark as a good example.

“[Vectorpark] is very good at interactivity and physicality of interactions so playing around with objects in his creations feels super nice. Another great aspect of their work is that the concepts are always surprising which pokes kids’ (and adults’) imagination too.”

It’s important to note that kids are more imaginative and physical than adults.

“Try to surprise them, and make systems that give them freedom so they can explore, and be creative within your app,” Guerrero said.

But keep in adults in mind

Abel reminds designers that the app must please parents as well as children because it’s not the kids who are buying the app. This makes things difficult.

To circumvent this obstacle, Hopscotch, an app that teaches people how to code, gather as much feedback as possible from a wide variety of people in different contexts.

“We’re next to Grand Central so we wait for kids to come in with their parents at the Apple store, and ask them to try the app,” Hopscotch’s Head of Community and Partnerships Liza Conrad, said.

Conrad highly recommends getting as much feedback as possible from kids, teachers, and parents, in a variety of different contexts. By actively seeking diverse groups of people, your app will be less likely to have biases.

Think beyond reality

According to Guerrero, limiting for the sake of limiting could be a bad option, such as making some clothes items available to only certain characters or not being able to do things just because you can’t do it in reality.

“One feature in Toca Boca apps that kids love is being able to stack many items on top of each other, such as hats or scoops of ice cream. It’s hard to do that in real life but kids don’t care about that, they just want to play and have fun,” he said. “Challenging the norms can often give an interesting perspective on play, and usually challenging norms is fun too.”

Kids love hard fun

A first grader inspired the late mathematician, computer scientist, and educator Seymour Papert to find the term that had been eluding him: “hard fun.

“The Gardner Academy was one of the first schools to own enough computers for students to spend significant time with them every day. Their introduction, for all grades, was learning to program, in the computer language Logo, at an appropriate level,” Papert wrote. “A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: ‘It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s Logo.’ I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.”

Hard fun boils down to the belief that everyone enjoys themselves when they’re working on something challenging.Twitter Logo

Combine learning and fun, and you’ll have an app kids can’t help but stick to.

“Did you ever hear about a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.”

And Papert wouldn’t recommend that you take a play from curriculum designers’ playbooks, but instead look to game designers and developers for guidance.

“Combine learning and fun, and you’ll have an app kids can’t help but stick to.”

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“Game designers have a better take on the nature of learning than curriculum designers….Their livelihoods depend on millions of people being prepared to undertake the serious amount of learning needed to master a complex game. If their public failed to learn they would go out of business. In the case of curriculum designers, the situation is reversed; their business is boosted whenever students fail to learn and schools clamor for a new curriculum! I believe that this explains why I have learned very little about learning from reading textbooks on curriculum design, and have learned a great deal from both the users (mostly kids) and the designers (often ‘grown-up kids’) of computer games.”

Don’t trick kids into buying stuff

Abel recommends keeping ads out of children’s apps because kids just aren’t prepared to handle it.

Clean up the bottom of your screens

Kids incessantly touch the bottom of tablets by mistake; therefore, putting any interactive elements there will most likely irritate users, when they keep accidentally hitting stuff they don’t mean to hit.

And don’t forget to use bright colors

This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but nonetheless important.

The children are our future. Design an app that helps them lead the way.

Today’s youngest app users, the freshly minted Generation Alpha (born post-2010) have unprecedented exposure to digital technology. Recent studies have found that in the US, 75% of children younger than 8 have access to a smartphone or tablet, as do 36% of kids under the age of one.

While this means designing children’s apps can reap you massive monetary rewards, it also—and arguably most importantly—means app creators have the potential to influence an entire generation.

I mean, can you imagine if you were responsible for creating the game that got Mark Zuckerberg into programming? I’m sure it must feel nothing short of exhilarating.

This post was originally published on Toptal.

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