Designing media apps for Generation Z

4 min read
Matthew Morrison
  •  Jan 25, 2017
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One of WillowTree’s most common target personas is the Millennial, and for good reason: Millennials are tech-savvy (or at least tech-dependent), brand agnostic, and comprise America’s largest living generation.

While research on Millennials abounds, we know far less about America’s newest generation—known as Generation Z. There is no consensus on Generation Z’s exact age range, but members of the generation are usually considered to be born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

Related: The definitive guide to building apps for children

It remains unclear when this generation officially “ends,” but for the purpose of this post, we’ll assume Generation Z includes anyone from 3 to 18 years old. What we do know about this generation is that they are socially and racially diverse, the first true digital natives, and are mobile first—even more so than their Millennial forebears.

We recently created an iOS, Android, and responsive web streaming experience that would appeal to the youngest group of Gen Z—those between the ages of 3-12 years old. Our 2 key challenges were to create an experience that would be:

  1. Integrated with an existing on-demand TV experience
  2. Appealing and usable by both 3-year-olds and 12-year-olds

This post details some of our key findings. We recognize there are drawbacks to designing a tablet experience that would appeal to both a 3-year-old and an 11-year-old. Still, we viewed this defined scope as an opportunity to test the limits of existing UI patterns for kids.


In order to design the most inclusive Gen Z experience possible, we invited 20 kids, divided by age group (opens PDF), to visit our usability lab. Each child interacted with some of the more well-known media apps, including Netflix, PBS Kids, and Nick Jr. There is little existing research on best practices for usability studies with kids, so we decided to write a blog post on what we learned from the experience.

A few key takeaways from that piece include:

  1. Obtain consent
  2. Have a parent in the room
  3. Make a comfortable testing space
  4. Practice patience
  5. Don’t worry about the cameras

“You don’t need to ‘dumb down’ the experience for kids to understand it.”

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It’s also important to note that there are key distinctions between research on desktop and mobile/tablet experiences, which made our study ever more important. We also armed ourselves with a few key research questions during testing:

  1. Do kids in this age cohort navigate in fundamentally different ways?
  2. Do all kids understand the concept of seasons?
  3. How does a 3-year-old differ from an 11-year-old in searching for a particular show?

Finding #1: (How) kids use their hands

Surprising to us (though perhaps less surprising to all the parents out there) was that our youngest cohort was skilled at tapping, zooming, and swiping on devices. In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Iowa found that 90% of kids at age 2 have moderate ability to use an iPad. Still, watching this in practice was enlightening—and taught us that you don’t need to ‘dumb down’ the experience for children to understand it.Twitter Logo

Illustrations by Nate Wootten

For example, we asked one 3-year-old to toggle a video to full-screen; she almost naturally used a pinch-to-zoom gesture on the video. Our findings run contrary to existing research, which states that the “youngest of users” are more comfortable with taps than pinching. We theorize that kids have learned this gesture from enlarging photos on handheld devices (again, which they’ve been using since they were able to grasp objects). While more research would need to confirm this finding, we recommend keeping the pinch-to-zoom gesture in your toolkit for any app designed for kids under the age of 5.

We also discovered that even the youngest users knew how to scroll both vertically and horizontally. For example, Nick Jr.’s app, which allows panning, may be fun, creative, and fluid—but might also be unnecessary.

“Keep the pinch-to-zoom gesture in your toolkit for any app designed for kids under 5.”

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In sum, we recommend the following for designing for ages 3-12:

  • Leveraging pinch-to-zoom for enlarging video
  • Adhering to to existing UI guidelines for scrolling

Finding #2: Not all kids understand the concept of seasons

Nearly all TV shows are organized by season. We found that younger groups of kids (those younger than age 5) do not understand the concept of seasons; rather, they simply look for a show by recognizing characters (more on that in a moment).

But don’t worry too much: Kids as young 5 understand the concept of seasons—and they were surprisingly adept at articulating the concept to us.

Related: These 5 major UI mistakes will kill your app

Seasons are most likely not going anywhere, even if they don’t necessarily mean the same thing as they used to. So what type of experience should you design if you want to appeal to both age groups? We recommend the ability to toggle between seasons or showing all the episodes in a series.

“Give kids the ability to toggle between seasons or show all episodes in a series.”

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Finding #3: Kids search differently

Even though seasons are critical for the older ages, the ability to simply search for a particular show remains king. Obviously, searching requires the ability to read and write. The youngest of kids (ages 3-5) will search for their favorite show by looking for and tapping on recognizable characters.

Nick Jr., PBS Kids, Netflix, and a slew of other media apps follow this UI pattern in their navigation bars (interestingly, no reputable research confirms this finding, but we agree that it works). But kids of reading age want to be able to simply search for a showTwitter Logo above anything else.

We also found that kids over the age of 5 understood that the magnifying glass icon indicated they could search for something to watch by name.

So again, if you’re designing for kids ages 3-12, what do you build? First, we strongly recommend that you include a search bar or magnifying glass icon on each page to build the best Gen Z experience.Twitter Logo We also recommend including highly-visible characters (for those under age 5) as well as show titles under the character names (for those over age 5).

“Kids 3-5 search for favorite shows by looking for & tapping on recognizable characters.”

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Final thoughts and future research

There’s a bit of research out there on designing experiences specifically for the youngest of users. We sought to build an experience that would appeal to a broad stroke of Generation Z. Here are a few key takeaways, if you’re ever tasked with building such an experience:

  1. Always include search—preferably on every page. The magnifying glass icon is sufficient.
  2. Don’t fight against seasons, but realize that not all kids will understand the concept. Instead, allow some children to view an entire series in chronological order.
  3. Don’t shy away from pinch-to-zoom. While tapping is indeed the most primary gesture, even kids as young as 3 are able to pinch to make a show full size.Twitter Logo

Our final experience incorporated all these features. And much to our delight, all of the kid testers enjoyed the look and feel of our designs.

Future research should also look into patterns by gender, something we did not systematically analyze. Are girls more likely to interact with tablets differently than boys? Or, as Gen Z research suggests, are these binaries best left behind?

Let’s research and find out.

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