How We Made a Few Kids Cry, So We Could Make a Million Smile (Designing for Children)

Caroline was on the road this past week presenting at App Camp in Asilomar where she gave demos of some of our newer creative play apps including Trucks, Draw and Tell and Princess Fairy Tale Maker. She talked about the design of Draw and Tell, our full-featured creativity suite, and more specifically, how we made our app testers cry out of sheer frustration.

For the first iterations of Draw and Tell, the three of us brainstormed a list of features and then designed an interface which was perfectly aligned with the conventional UI paradigms. It was so beautiful and clean that even my grandmother couldn’t object. Fortunately, as it turns out, my grandmother very rarely cries when her computer doesn’t do what she wants it to (she mostly just shakes her head at it and goes to invent a new kind of food containing mayonnaise (I’m from the Midwest after all). Kids, on the other hand, rarely show such restraint and they really let us have it.

We were so traumatized by the crying that we scheduled a late night brainstorming session to regroup and in doing so realized we basically needed to throw out all our assumptions and start with a clean slate. After several rounds of testing, here are some things we learned as well as a few others we picked up along the way:

1. Say “no” to button overload
This one applies to all good UI design whether for kids or adults. Eliminate the excess. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Take the minimalist approach. Believe me, you’ll be happier and there will be considerably less crying.

2. Design for those who can’t read
Turns out the common icon for an undo button looks suspiciously like a back button on a bender.

3. Hidden = Nonexistent
Right. Forget about burying those less commonly used items. When in doubt, refer to #1.

4. Large targets for little fingers
Make targets larger than you think you need to accommodate for users with varying motor skills

5. Overstate the obvious
Highlight calls to action and navigational elements. Subtlety is not your friend. Affordance is key here.

6. Include spoken instructions, but make them pithy
We found children stop listening after a few words, so imagine that your spoken instructions need to be given in Willy Wonka’s glass elevator — you get approximately 2 seconds before they are up and out.

7. Design, iterate, test, refine, repeat.
Children have remarkably different ways of looking at the world and often pick up on things that we, as adults, take for granted. You can easily find out whether a design is working by testing with just a few children. If they cry, you know it’s time to go back to the design phase.

8. Have a sense of humor
Find out what makes kids laugh. They are funnier than we are and they have a better sense of humor about almost everything (except for maybe nap time and shots).

Read more about the Duck Duck Moose design process

One thought on “How We Made a Few Kids Cry, So We Could Make a Million Smile (Designing for Children)

  1. Good stuff. I'm always working these things out in my own mind as well when designing.

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