Children and Interaction Design (Part 1)

Why Work with Children?


So often, interaction design for children consists of taking an interface or design for adults and putting colorful graphics on it. Doing this is most certainly the worst possible thing that you can do when designing for children. The interaction design needs for children are not superficial requirements that can be met merely through colorful displays. Instead, children’s interactions with technology need to crafted from the earliest phases of design.

In this series of articles, I attempt to provide a cursory overview of the state of Interaction Design and Children. I will cover a brief history of Interaction Design and Children, how this field is studied, and what kinds of child-based interactions have come out of this field. So much of the literature is focused on the design phase of technologies for children and I will focus on that.

Why Work with Children?

You may wonder why someone would want to study interaction design and children. I have found that children are not only fun to design with, but are an important and interesting group with which to work. One important fact about children is that those under the age of 12 sense, and therefore experience, the world differently than adults (Nardini, Bedford, & Mareschal, 2010). Nardini et al found that these young children do not combine sense information into one message to be interpreted by the brain. Instead, children keep each of the senses separate and interpret those stimuli independently.
Piaget developed four stages of development for children. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 are considered pre-operational by Piaget and construct their reasoning through those experiences and perceptions (Gelman, Baillargeon, & others, 1983). This means that children between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age think (reason) in a way that adults cannot.

Not only do children experience the world differently than adults, nor are their cognitive processes different from adults, but children have different psycho-motor skills than adults. The ability to use a mouse and click on the screen is possible for children, however, researchers have found that the scale of those abilities are different than adults. While adults may be easily able to click on a small icon on the screen, Hourcade et al (2004) found that children have difficulty with smaller icons. They recommend that icons designed for children are 64 pixels or larger.

Another important reason for working with children is their impact on the economy. Today, in the United States, children under 12 years of age spend $40 billion to $50 billion annually of their own money (Lappe, 2010; “Trillion-dollar kids,” 2006). In 1960, children directly influenced about $5 billion of family spending in the US, but today directly influence over $350 billion (McNeal, 1998; “Trillion-dollar kids,” 2006). Children have tremendous purchasing power in the United States and are an important aspect of this economy.

Finally, children and their interaction with technology is an important topic to Human-Computer Interaction academics and professionals. This importance is realized as a featured community within the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI) and as a special interest group within the International Federation for Information Processing’s Technical Committee on Human-Computer Interaction (TC13). There is an international conference for this subset called Interaction, Design, and Children and a journal named the International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction.

Rest of the Series
Part 2: Designing with Children


Gelman, R., Baillargeon, R., and others. A review of some Piagetian concepts. Handbook of child psychology 3, (1983), 167–230.

Hourcade, J.P., Bederson, B.B., Druin, A., and Guimbretière, F. Differences in pointing task performance between preschool children and adults using mice. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 11, 4 (2004), 357–386.

Lappe, F.M. Retire Ronald McDonald — Do it for our kids! Huffington Post, 2010.

McNeal, J. Kids’ Markets. American Demographics 20,4 (1998), 36

Nardini, M., Bedford, R., and Mareschal, D. Fusion of Visual Cues Is Not Mandatory in Children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 39 (2010), 17041–17046.

Trillion-dollar kids. The Economist, 2006, 74.