How to Design Amazing Apps for Kids – Best Practices

Cygnis Media Editor
How to Design Amazing Apps for Kids | Best Practices

Just the other day, I was stunned by how easily a two year old was able to scroll through a list on an app on his mother’s phone and click on his favorite cartoon video. It had me thinking; did the designer who created this app follow the same principles when designing an app for adults? How did he anticipate the user needs for different age groups, map out the experience and create an amazing design?

You can see where I’m going here. Designing applications for kids is way more challenging than designing for adults, especially when you haven’t interacted with kids a lot.

There are some things you need to understand before designing an app for kids of different age groups. Such as:

  • How is designing applications for kids and adults different? Do these differences really matter?
  • Are there any similarities between the two user experiences?
  • How can you create app designs targeted to kids?
  • What are some important tips that should be considered when designing apps for kids?

In this post, we will discuss what designers need to keep in mind when designing engaging and interactive applications for kids. Let’s begin.

1 – Understanding the Difference Between Designing for Kids vs Designing for Adults

Difference Between Designing for Kids vs Designing for Adults

It’s hard to make a two year old sit still while narrating a long story. But it’s not hard to make a sales representative sit for a two hour training session to learn something.

The difference between these two scenarios is perception.

The sales representative perceives the lesson as a positive experience as this could help in scaling his career. The child however sees his learning experience as an obstacle to something else that he would rather be doing for that period, like playing.

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Keeping differences like these in mind helps in the design process. To give your app a direction, learn how both user experiences are different concerning aspects like:

Feedback loop:

Feedback loop in toddler apps

When we type in the wrong password, we receive instant feedback or an error message which alerts us to our mistake and how we can fix it. Our reaction to the feedback is also logical – typing the password again or resetting it after multiple failures to gain access.

When designing feedback loops in apps for kids, this becomes more elementary. Adults expect feedback when they interact with an interface. For example, tapping on the Like button on Facebook fills in its icon. The purpose of this feedback loop is to alert them that an action took place.

Kids want feedback whenever they do something. They tend to act first and see the consequences themselves. This is why most apps for kids generate some type of response for every action. To illustrate, consider an app for identifying animals in which clicking on a cat’s picture makes it meow, a horse goes neigh and the cow goes moo.

Challenges:

Challenges for children

Kids love challenges. It’s why they have so much fun in sporting activities. And if a challenge is rewarding, all the better. Afterall, which kid does not get excited earning a badge or a trophy?

Consider a puzzle app in which kids have to earn a certain number of points to advance to the next stage.

Implementing challenges like this in your app can:

  • Keep kids interested in your app
  • Make them want to learn more by overcoming those challenges

Trust:

Children Trust

Adults don’t trust easily. It’s why we don’t click on links in emails from unknown senders. Kids on the other hand, trust pretty easily.

For example, if something on your app happens in a certain way, children expect it to act the same way when they perform the action next time. But, if it stops doing so, they feel betrayed and lose their confidence.

To illustrate, consider a scenario where a Q&A session hints at the right answer after a third try. Naturally, they trust the assistance to happen after they get stuck in every question. If the hints stop after some questions, it would break the their trust.

Understanding the Age Factor

Age Factor

If you take a look at the App Store, you will notice that you can select apps according to age range. Amongst them are ages “5 and under”, “6 to 9”, and “9 to 11.”

There is a good reason for this as learning abilities for each age group differs. For example, five year olds may need more help in understanding certain concepts as compared to older kids. This can be a lack in reading ability or in using applications on a mobile device. To create apps that make them learn is to design according to these limitations.

To illustrate, let’s say that you have to create an app for 3 year old kids. A good practice is to:

  • Use Visuals: Keep action buttons larger.
  • Use Audio: A kid of this age won’t have the attention span or the ability to read a text based storybook, but he will stay hooked if the story has an engaging audio narration.
  • Show them how: What kids learn, they retain. With this quality in mind show kids how to use your app once and they won’t need your help throughout. To illustrate, consider the Nick Jr Music Maker app which teaches kids how to drag a character onto the stage before they can try it themselves.
2 – The Similarities between Designing Apps for Kids v/s Designing for Adults

Similarities between Designing Apps for Kids v/s Designing for Adults

While there are differences between developing applications for different age groups, there are also some areas in which they are similar. Here are the similarities that need to be considered when designing your app:

Consistency:

Consistency in app

We want an app’s user experience to be consistent throughout. For example, if the back button is placed on the top left of an app, we expect it to always be there.

Kids also rely on a consistent experience. And like adults, they would be annoyed if unexpected or random elements ruined their experience.

Reasoning:

Reason to purchase app

Everyone needs a reason to use an app. For example, you download a social media application, like Facebook or Instagram, to stay in touch with your family and friends. The same concept applies to applications developed for kids, specifically their parents.

There must be a good reason why a parent would want to download your app for their child. Is it useful? Will my child learn something by using it? These are the questions they want to be answered by the app they download.

To illustrate, consider an iPad application that is supposed to teach a five or six year old kid grammar rules. If the teaching method is flawed (eg. doesn’t teach them how to use these rules practically in sentences) a parent probably won’t have a reason to pass it on to their child.

The same applies to an older kid who doesn’t need adult supervision. For example, if your app has nothing but a collection of Youtube videos, an older child may most likely stop using it since he can probably get a better experience by using the YouTube app itself.

Surprises:

Surprises in app

Adults deal with surprises the same way kids do. In apps, pleasant surprises, like bonus points, are good. But unpleasant surprises? Not so much.

Adults expect an application to work as intended. For example, after you click on the Buy button to purchase an item from an online store, you expect to see a message that says that your order has been confirmed, not a page that tries to upsell and keeps you confused about the order’s confirmation.

The same applies to apps for kids. Imagine what would happen when a kid finds a treasure chest at the end of a long maze only to find another puzzle to complete instead of a reward.

Extras:

Extras in app

Everyone likes getting something beyond expectations. It’s why we loved it when Steve Jobs feigned some concluding remarks after reviewing latest products, turned to leave the stage but turned back and said “But there is one more thing” before revealing either a product or an exciting news.

Kids too love getting something extra. For example, a bedtime story app tells you that you have ten stories in the free version, and once you have completed all ten, the app provides you one extra to let your child enjoy.

3 – Designing Apps for Kids Framework

Designing Apps for Kids Framework

Now that we have the differences and similarities illustrated, let’s look at how you can design a great app for kids. You may not want to stray too far from a design thinking approach.

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The same approach was useful when I wanted to create a bedtime story app for 2-3 year old kids. Here is how it went out:

Empathize:

If you want your app to resonate with kids of a certain age group, you must first empathize with them. What does your target audience desire? How do they think? How do they respond to certain situations? What do they desire? You can get the answers to these questions by talking to a set of people directly.

I chose two year olds and observed how they interacted with each other and with their environment. Practically anything they did told me how they would use my app.

Define:

After figuring out why or how your users behave in certain ways, the next step is to define the problem your product is going to solve. Developing apps for kids follows the same principle.

For example, to define problems for my app I narrated five stories to kids and observed their reactions. All of the stories had different characters and were of varying length. Also, to figure out how they would react to visuals, I displayed sketched illustrations of characters and places throughout the storytelling process.

And here is the problem statement I created: Kids this age don’t have the attention span to sit through a long story because they had limited reading skills.

Ideate:

After using the first two steps to gather the data you need, the next step is to expand on them. Ideating means brainstorming as many possible solutions for the problem statement, and narrowing them down with discussion and collective feedback.

Here are the possible solutions to the pain points that I identified in the previous stages:

  • Short stories
  • Less text and more visuals across the app
  • Usage of illustrations kids are familiar with
  • Immediate feedback on actions

Prototyping:

Prototyping means creating a scaled down version of your app to investigate the problem solutions derived from the first three stages. For example, my prototype was designed with the following in mind:

  • To take limited attention spans into account, the stories had to be short
  • To overcome reading limitations, it had audio narration
  • To keep them engaged, it had images of animals or other things that they had already seen before like stars or cats

Testing:

Testing the prototype helped me identify other pain points that I wasn’t able to during the first three phases.

For example, the book pages flipped after a few seconds in my app, which frustrated the kids I tested it on. A few seconds just weren’t enough to let them grasp the story. So in my next prototype, I added a button which they could tap to flip the pages themselves.

4 – Tips for Designing Apps for Children

Tips for Designing Apps for Children

Now, let’s look at some design tips that can help you create a good user experience for kids:

Don’t trick kids to buy:

Adults don’t trust easily. Its why you have to ensure that the free version of your app is good enough to urge users to download the paid version.

The same should apply to designing applications for kids. Why? Keep in mind, your primary user base are children but the people who will probably download your app will be parents. It is therefore a good idea to:

Introduce a mechanism that consider parents:

An example of this can be a code required to process the paid version so that kids don’t end up buying it themselves by mistake.

Focus on good content:

It’s better to offer a free version of your paid content so that users can see the value they would get from the premium version.

Use bright colors:

Color preferences in children vary according to their age. For example, 2-3 year olds find bright colors appealing. Use bright shades of yellow, blue and red to keep them engaged.

Think beyond imagination and connect to reality:

Kids have vivid imaginations and they use their creativity to solve problems later in life.

Connecting to their imaginative side is useful in keeping them engaged. But your product should also be linked with reality. It shouldn’t just exist. It should provide some learning to help them in real life.

Keep age group in mind:

A product that targets a young age group should be different in content, interactions and other elements compared to a product targeting an older one.

For example, a mobile game app created with 3D elements and animations would be more suited for 7-8 year old kids rather than 3-4 year olds. Younger kids prefer flat 2D elements, while the older want a more realistic look and feel.

Consider the LeapPad Glo tablet which has kid specific content. To create a profile, it asks you to provide your age and gender. The content is personalized according to the data provided.

Let kids make mistakes:

The most important of all. Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. Consider how we would react when we tap on a wrong button and an error message comes up. The natural course of action would be to look for a solution to the problem.

For kids, a message that tells them they made a mistake would be demotivating or would leave them confused. To counter this, your app should play the role which a parent usually would in situations like these.

Tell the child they made a mistake and hint at the right answer. For example, if a kid fails to identify the USA on a color coded map of the world after several attempts, a hint can be an audio message that says “The color of United States is blue on the map.”

5 – Combine Learning with Fun

An element of fun keeps kids engaged, no matter which age group they belong to. A lesson is effective not only if kids learned something from it, but also because if it made them feel good.

To achieve the same result, your app should have a fun element in it. Here are some apps that do this really well:

Dino Walk – Continental Drift:

Dino Walk - Continental Drift

Dino Walk – Continental Drift application shows how video and audio can engage users. It uses engaging visuals such as a 3D image of the earth when you open the app and a beautiful soundscape to keep users hooked.

Gus Learns:

Gus Learns

Gus Learns app uses games to make Spanish lessons more interesting for younger audiences. Delightful animal noises and transportation sounds keep the learning experience fun.

Counting 123:

Counting 123

Fun interactions encourage kids to use your app more. Consider the Counting 123 app in which users can learn to count by playing interactive games (like tapping on animated fish on the screen to count them)

Spell Bear:

Spell Bear

Spell Bear app teaches kids to spell words by learning about sounds that certain letters make. To keep things fun, it rewards kids with “Paw Points” for correctly spelled words which kids can cash in to buy clothes for the central character.

Trace it, Try it:

Trace it, Try it

Trace it, Try it app gives kids multiple opportunities to learn how to form certain letters. Positive reinforcement and peppy music keeps things fun and comfortable. And if kids want to unwind, they can play games in the app’s “Play” section.

Wrapping Up

If EdTech is something that interests you, don’t forget to read about the importance of mobile apps in education.

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