Kids are arguably the trickiest of audiences for product designers, we have no reference point except trawling our memories for what we were like at that age.
Kids have grown up in a completely different world to most of us, one with swiping, scrolling and the answers to any question at their fingertips. It’s safe to say these digital natives will not use your product as intended.
I’ve been designing experiences for kids of all ages for over a decade and found there is surprisingly little information available online about designing for this audience. Most UX and design is targeted towards adults so i’ve decided to consolidate my 10 years of experience into this article should you need some pointers about creating digital experiences for the under 16s.
1. ‘Kids’ is a very broad term, pick a specific age range
Understand what level your target audience is at.
There are massive differences between a 5 and an 8-year-old yet most experiences will try cover ‘all kids’. It’s important to understand what level your target audience is at. For example, does your experience require a mouse and keyboard? This would call for a user with a certain level of dexterity that a pre-schooler may not have.
Debra Levin Gelman talks in great detail about these age ranges in her book Design for Kids and suggests the following:
- Kids 2–4: Little People, Big Expectations
- Kids 4–6: The “Muddy Middle”
- Kids 6–8: The Big Kids
- Kids 8–10: The “Cool” Factor
- Kids 10–12: Growing Up
Its also not uncommon to find your audience is younger or older than you expected but be careful of designing your product too young as this will alienate older kids who will think it’s for “babies”.
2. Build something they will love
Create products that help kids make progress
This is obvious for all audiences not just kids, however this audience is unforgiving and remember you can fix UX/UI problems but not a product no one wants. Nobody uses Snapchat because its easy to use but because its experience meets a need i.e. a fun way to communicate with friends.
I highly recommended a free ebook called When Coffee & Kale Compete by Alan Klement, which gives great insight into how to validate or identify opportunities and make products people will actually use. The basic idea is that you should create products that help people make progress. This simple concept is universal and can be easily applied to kids product design.
Don’t forget kids love surprises and wackiness. Simply adding small surprise effects or animation will delight them. If you can get an emotional reaction out of someone, you will have them hooked.
3. Kids instinctively strive to be adults
Make kids feel like adults.
Humans are born to mimic and the most popular online experiences make kids feel like grown-ups. It’s no surprise that the most popular games and TV shows generally involve activities or jobs that adults do, think of Paw Patrol which has animals with grown-up jobs and Minecraft which allows kids to build their own homes.
Something I recall from my childhood is a day when my father brought home broken office equipment, which I used to set up my own ‘workplace’ where I could work just like I imagined he did.
4. Technology is an enabler
Context. Know where and when your product will be used
Kids now have access to a vast array of devices and a one size fits all approach will not work anymore. Think of the context, where and when your product will be used, not what type of technology is cool at the moment.
Roblox is a game where users can play other people’s games or create their own. The game creation element requires a laptop or computer, which prevents bloating the app experience with unnecessary features when kids primarily want to use their mobile to play.
5. Digital Ethics and Gamification
Don’t use psychological tricks on kids to get them hooked.
We have all heard Google’s corporate code of conduct “Don’t be evil”. The ethics of a company or designer play a massive role in the perceived success of a product.
Most knowledgable product designers and managers understand how to create addictive experiences which drive engagement and revenue, however some of these are unacceptable when designing for kids. Most countries have strict rules around advertising and marketing to kids online but cannot keep up with changing digital trends, they simply don’t cover psychological tricks.
If you are building digital products that use design patterns or features intended to be addictive or increase screen time with no real educational benefit to kids I urge you to rethink your strategy, you could become a headline in a news publication in the future.
Some things I strongly suggest you stay clear of are:
Randomly generated rewards. These are scientifically proven to increase engagement. If you have ever played an MMO like World of Warcraft you will be familiar with the term ‘drop rate’, this is a percentage chance that the item you are after will ‘drop’. The item could drop now or in an hours time and this makes you play longer. Gambling machines work in exactly the same way and adults are - for the most part - very aware of the psychological tricks at work here. Kids, however, are not mentally aware or prepared hence why these gaming experiences are strictly for 18+.
Rewards for time spent playing. The longer you play the larger you win.
Bullying or negative feedback. If a user fails in their task, they are ridiculed or seen to be a loser.
Pay to win. More commonly called in-app purchases and creating ‘free’ games which slowly force you into spending money to unlock rewards or speed up achievements. There have been a number of articles about kids spending hundreds of dollars on their parents’ phones. If you do need to implement in-app purchases make sure they’re targeted at parents and locked behind a parental verification gate.
There are obviously lots of great ethical gamification ideas to use when designing for kids and I plan on doing another post about that in the future as I feel this topic is too broad for this post.
6. Enable creativity
Avoid the blank canvas and enable creativity through features.
Creativity is extremely important as it is an enabler to mimicking. Minecraft and LEGO give kids the tools to create houses and personal spaces but be careful of the ‘blank canvas’ when you give kids no inspiration or starting points for them to use as a launch pad.
If you need ideas or knowledge to help avoid the blank canvas problem, then make the most of the many tutorials and inspirational videos found on YouTube.
7. Keep It Simple Stupid… sort of
Don’t dumb-down your product just because it’s for kids
We have all heard of K.I.S.S. but interestingly enough there are some really successful complex products out there for kids. The digital native kids of today are way more savvy than their counterparts a few decades before. Some of you may be aware of the saying “if you don’t know how to use it then ask an 8-year-old”.
This doesn’t mean you need to dumb down your product for younger kids but introduce complexity progressively, just like designing for any other audience type.
Older kids - especially boys - won’t read tutorials or tips until they fail, so it’s better to use post fail directions instead of upfront instructions.
8. The paradox of choice
Kids don’t suffer from analysis paralysis, more is more.
The paradox of choice is a psychological problem adults have when presented with too many options, also called analysis paralysis. Funny enough kids don’t have this problem and it’s an extremely important point to remember when designing for them.
If you show an adult a long, unfiltered list of items they will start figuring out which items they should select based on a number factors like chance of failure and how much time failure will waste. Kids haven’t developed this type of thinking yet and are happy to proceed with trial and error.
There is a great research piece by Maurice Wheeler, Strategy Partner at the Little Big Partnership on the subject.
9. Testing and confirmation bias
Avoid bias and remember kids will tell you what you want to hear.
OK, so you have this great idea and want to test it out on kids to be sure. You show a bunch of them your prototype and even though they look bored (they’re just shy, right?) and don’t quite do what you want them to do (they’d *definitely* click that option when it has a better image), they say it’s awesome and they would definitely use it and tell all their friends. We all give ourselves a pat on the back for being so knowledgeable and go full steam into development only to get a lukewarm response when it’s live. Sound familiar? Ignoring the subtle signs and only paying attention to the results that are what you wanted to hear is confirmation bias and it happens all the time in large companies.
Remember kids are taught to respect their elders and they will tell you want you want to hear. It’s even worse when they know they will be rewarded in some way after the test (givers of goody bags, i’m looking at you).
So how can we avoid bad insights?
- As with most modern user research for all audience types it should be a conversation not an interview.
- Don’t ask kids direct questions about the product like “Do you like this…”
- Watch what they do, not what they say. Study their body language and emotions. Did they laugh or get excited?
- When they struggle doing something important how long does it take for them to learn and not repeat the mistake. Repeat mistakes could mean confusion and could led to product abandonment.
- Ask them what other similar products they are using and what they like about those. This will give you less biased answers and more insight into whether your product is really meeting a need. In the aforementioned book When Coffee & Kale Compete, you’ll find some great interview questions to avoid bias.
10. Social media and kids
Social elements can help give your experience freshness.
Social to kids means different things at different age ranges and genders. For younger kids its simply being part of something bigger than themselves, whilst with older kids it starts becoming about competition, communication and expression.
It is also important to be familiar with the legal regulations around social and kids in various countries, for example kids cannot upload any personal data without verified parental consent.
Some best practises include (but may be different in some countries):
- Its best to stay away from unmoderated freeform chat if your product is targeted at kids or else bad things can happen…
- Any user uploaded content must be moderated and moderation isn’t cheap or foolproof
- Any cookie tracking of kids is very risky and potentially expensive
- Be wary of enabling online bullying and all the creative ways kids can do it. The YouTube thumbs down is a notorious bullying feature
- Always speak to your digital legal expert before doing anything around social and kids
Great examples of social features for kids
Roblox and Scrap Mechanic both take full advantage of user generated content to keep their products fresh. Roblox lets users create games for their platform and Scrap Mechanic allows kids to download new user created models to use in their worlds. Minecraft encourages kids to create their own worlds and invite their friends and families to build together in realtime.
If you look at the most popular digital experiences for kids they all have some level of social interaction but not in the traditional way we think like Facebook or Whatsapp.
The most popular social media channel for kids is YouTube and if you want kids to know about your product the best place is a popular YouTuber’s channel.
More and more kids are being influenced by what people say on their channels and it’s the go-to place for kids to find out about new things. As a company (or parent) you should be aware of which YouTubers your audience follow as some are NSFW. One of the most popular YouTubers PewDiePie has already been in the news for various issues so you must understand the risks of associating your product or brand with Influencers.
So there you have it, 10 tips for designing great digital products for kids! I hope you learnt something useful to take into your next project to delight and inspire the next generation. : )