Kids & families: The not-so-little audience for apps and games on Google Play

Insights to help you understand and find success with families

Understanding the unique nature of the kids and families audience on Google Play has become essential to being successful with this group. I say “unique” because this is an audience that has very specific, albeit evolving, behaviors and needs. Our user research has shown that there are two distinct consumer types interested in family-friendly content on Google Play: 1) parents and 2) kids. Unsurprisingly, the needs of these two audiences are different. However, unlike other audiences, kids’ needs change as they grow up, which affects how they use Google Play.

The user experience (UX) research team at Google Play has invested in deeply understanding parents and kids, and their content acquisition journey. This included a rigorous user research program, gathering insights by surveying, interviewing, and product testing with more than 2000 families in the US. I am happy to share these insights, focusing on what motivates parents and kids to discover, download, and spend on apps and games.

Who downloads apps and games for kids on Google Play?

The main target audience on the Google Play Store are parents, however both parents and kids are downloaders of content, and the downloading is done differently depending on the age of the kid. The trends observed show that when kids are younger (8 and below), parents have a strong influence on which apps and games their kids have access to. Parents are most often the sole decision-makers when acquiring an app or game for their children at this stage. As kids grow older, parents turn into supervisors of content suitability and approvers. Note that while these are general trends, the exact age for these milestones can vary depending on each family’s digital behaviors and content type.

Let’s take a closer look at the behavioral and attitudinal insights for each age range, and dive deeper into the role that parents play in content acquisition. Importantly we will look at the implications for developers of content for kids and families.

Parents of younger kids: The drivers

Drivers are generally parents that have kids between the ages of 0 to 8 years. However, there is variation in this group based on the age of their children:

  • Parents of kids 5 years and under are in full control of both the discovery and acquisition of apps and games for their kids.
  • Parents of kids between 6 to 8 years continue to do most of the downloading of content (or require their children to get their download approval), but they might begin to allow their children to discover apps and games on the Play Store themselves.

Driver parents tend to have control over personal and shared devices at home, and prefer to vet apps and games before acquiring the content to make sure it’s appropriate and to their standards.

Age recommendation (star icon) displayed in apps that are part of the Designed for Families program in Google Play.

Specifically, on the Google Play Store, driver parents look at price, reviews, titles, descriptions, screenshots, and ratings to inform the decision to acquire apps and games for their kids. Parents also mention relying on the age recommendation icon (star icon on the screenshot), which is displayed on the detail pages of apps and games that are part of the Designed for Families (DFF) program, to determine if the content is age appropriate. These parents also tend to look for apps and games they consider high quality based on graphics, recognizable kid-friendly brands, topical interests, and popular TV characters.

Learning and education are often mentioned as decisive factors for acquiring content, which spans a wide range of skills, including things such as creativity, emotional intelligence, abstract thinking, and more. We observed that several parents’ definition of educational content changes when their children begin formal schooling, devices and apps then become primarily for entertainment and unwinding after school:

“When we first got the tablet, we wanted it to be a tool, not just an escape. Now they are in school we are more lenient about it just being for fun.” — Father of one boy (2) and two girls (5 and 7).

As children get older, parents have a harder time finding educational content that appeals to their kids or aligns with what children are learning in school:

“[Educational apps] are hard to find for my oldest daughter, especially ones she will want to play,” — Mother of 3 boys (2, 5, and 13) and one girl (8), talking about finding educational apps for her older children.

However, while educational content is important, it should be coupled with other factors for parents to be enticed to download the app or game, as follows:

  • Fun and engagement: The words “games”, “fun”, and “play” were some of the most mentioned in the open-ended responses to the survey question: ‘please describe the factors that made you decide to download this app for your child.’ These words were equated to kids spending longer on the app or game, as well as how funny, entertaining, and enjoyable it is.
  • Age suitability: Driver parents tend to evaluate this by the rating of the app or game, the content (for example, the absence of violence, blood, or profanity), thumbnails and screenshots, ease of use, and access to in-app purchases.
  • Characters: Popular characters that kids associate with TV shows and that parents can relate to play an important role in deciding what content to download.
  • Child’s (and parent’s) interests or desires: Parents often mention their children “loving”, “liking”, or “being interested” in certain topics and looking for apps or games related to these topics. On the other hand, parents’ interests also matter here, as our user research shows parents want their kids to be more interested in academic topics, such as math and science, and look for apps and games related to these. Conversely, as kids get older they might ask for an app or game themselves, and parents vet, approve, and download it.

Parents of older kids: The gatekeepers

Gatekeepers are generally parents of kids aged 9–13, who may allow their kids to select digital content and choose which apps and games to download. Their role transforms mostly into approving or monitoring content that is selected by the kids.

When do kids take control of the app selection process?

  • When parents lose touch with what’s popular at this age range. For example, in one of our user testing sessions, a mom of two boys (11 and 13 years), brought a piece of paper with a list of the games her sons play, because she wasn’t up-to-date with the apps and games they were using.
  • When friends’, siblings’, and recommendations on Google Play, or other on-line platforms, become the main ways kids discover content, parents become less knowledgeable and informed of their kids’ preferences. Even if parents do provide suggestions, these often clash with the kids’ interests.
  • When kids have become more technically savvy than their parents.

The concerns of Gatekeeper parents about kids’ downloading activity

While kids might take a more leading role in deciding what content to acquire, gatekeeper parents still monitor their activity, because of the following concerns:

  • Financial responsibility: Kids are generally not allowed to purchase content on their own or using their parents’ money, but parents might be more flexible when kids are using their own money (for example from chores completed, rewards for good grades, birthday presents, and alike.)
  • Content: Violence, sexual content, and profanity frequently came up regarding games for boys, especially first-person shooter games, which are very popular in this age range.
  • Screentime: Parents have concerns about their kids spending too much time in front of a screen and worry about them becoming addicted.

Mobile gaming within the family becomes more prevalent at this stage

Mobile gaming is popular with families. 53% of families reported that at least one child plays mobile games frequently, while 46% reported that at least one adult plays mobile games frequently. Our user research has also shown another side of apps and games acquisition when kids become older: parents want to preserve the bond with their kids through apps and games that interest the whole family. Families play mobile games together generally due to the following factors:

  1. Spend time together as a family: Parents play games with their children and see it as a way to bond with their kids. “I try to play the games with them, I have Clash Royale to play with my little one, and Clash of Clans [to play] with my older one…I thought it was a good way to bond with them.”… “Some families camp together, gaming is the thing we have in common.” — Mom of 2 boys (11 and 14 years).
  2. Connection: Mobile games are used to connect with friends and family. “It’s a social thing, a way to connect with your friends.” — Mom of 2 girls (ages 9 and 12), referring to what her kids like about mobile games. “It helps me know what my daughter and her friends are into.” — Mom of 2 girls (ages 9 and 12), explaining why she likes games that she can play together with her kids. “My husband and I like gaming, and sometimes we are trying to find that common denominator between us, something we can enjoy at [the kids] level.” — Mom of 2 boys (11 and 14 years).
  3. Kids and adults enjoy gaming: “The whole point [of mobile games] was to give us something to bond over. Because I cannot bond over Call of Duty with them on the Xbox. But, [with these mobile games] I can do. So, you know, I’ll ask them for advice and sometimes it’s real and sometimes it’s just to talk to them about it… So, I try to do it together with them. Sometimes it’s [physically] together. It’s hard to connect with the kids because they are teenagers…having the games on the phone, and being able to play with each other on the phone…if it’s multiple user and I like it and they like it…that’s really cool.” — Mom of 2 boys (11 and 14 years).

Parents of even older kids (teens — 13+): The enablers

Kids at this stage are generally self-sufficient on the Google Play Store, and some parents might allow complete ownership and control of devices. At this stage, we observed that devices used by teens can already include data plans and are used mostly as entertainment and communication devices.

Implications for developers of children’s apps and games

  • Narrow your user base as much as you can, and understand their skills (social, developmental, motor skills, language ability, and alike): Kids, teens, and family caregivers are very special kinds of users, and special considerations are needed when designing for them. A teen is not the same as a toddler, obviously. But a 5-year-old is not the same as a 7-year-old, and a 13-year-old is not the same as a 16-year-old.
  • Involve both kids and parents in the design process and understand their needs and desires, even if the child is the primary user of your app or game: When developing technology for kids, balancing the needs of kids and the adults in their lives is hard, but it’s necessary. As outlined in this article, those needs also change over time as kids grow up.
  • Target your app or game listing content to your audience on the Play Store: Thumbnails, visual design elements, and descriptions on detail pages should cater to both parents and children, but keep in mind the age of the end user when crafting your store listing so you’re accurately communicating the age appropriateness of the app.
  • Highlight differentiating features of your app or game based on audience needs and expectations: For example, high-quality educational elements coupled with other factors make a difference for parents of younger children. While, games that can be played with others, including family members and friends, might be appealing for parents of older children.
  • Most importantly, be responsible with your design choices, and thoroughly test these with your intended audience: Always remember that your app or game will have an influence, even if small, on young kids minds and their view of the world.

The user research conducted by the Google Play UX Research team with the Families and Kids audience was wide ranging and comprehensive. It revealed a complex and evolving audience, where needs and behaviors are strongly influenced by a child’s age. By sharing these discoveries, I hope to have provided you with the incentive to take a user-centered approach to designing interactive experiences for children and marketing them on Google Play. Kids and families may not be the easiest Google Play audience to develop for, but it can be rewarding not just in terms of revenues but from the knowledge that you are influencing the attitudes, abilities, and thinking of future generations.

Learn more about creating apps for kids with Designed for Families. And, follow Google Play Apps & Games on Medium for more industry research, trends, and thoughts for app and game developers from teams at Google. Have further questions or topics of discussion? Let me know your thoughts!


What do you think?

Do you have questions or thoughts on designing apps and games for kids & families? Continue the discussion in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.