Growing up is one of the few experiences that everyone can relate to. And whether it’s a distant memory or a more recent one, a hallmark of childhood is that healthy push-pull between freedom and safety. We want breathing room for exploration and growth, but also parameters within which to feel safe and respected. How those are defined and enacted differs for every family, however, so when a group of people at Microsoft came together to build the Family Safety app, you can imagine the breadth and complexity of that purview.
It wasn’t just about identifying core needs and corresponding solutions, it was also about creating a design framework that would be robust and flexible enough to apply atop any family’s needs. Ultimately, the app’s ability to drive productive conversations proved central to their design thinking.
Conversations support family achievement in ways that are effective, sustainable, and collaborative because they foster co-creation and respect the agency of kids and adults alike. Short or long-term goals, screen time, grades, driving — these are among the many topics that families come together to define, discuss, and plan for.
From a design perspective, we can create experiences that support and spark those conversations. Conversations where you co-define the environments you want to create, habits you want to build, and adjustments you might need to make while en route because, as 2020 has reminded us in ALL CAPS, life is unpredictable. Through building better habits and conversations, the app hopes to provide families with more peace of mind.
Creating emotive and inclusive visual designs
By nature, families are multi-generational and multi-cultural, so the team wanted to create inclusive designs that would emotionally resonate with all family members. User research and an iterative design process helped them identify which emotions were most important for families to experience while using the app: trust, safety, connection, a sense of growth, and most importantly, joy.
A sense of warmth corresponds with feelings of joy and to bring that into the app experience, designers adapted the Microsoft brand principles to lean more on creativity and invention. They focused on evolving the visual style in a colorful direction that brought together a vision for an app people would enjoy using and encourage long-term growth and achievements. For example, features around screen time and content filters have visually designs intended to feel more like friendly guidance than hardened barriers to work around.
This was similarly true for the illustrations. It’s important for families to be able to see themselves in the app, which meant creating illustrations that were inclusive and different from a “traditional” nuclear model. And because each family will use features depending on the child’s age and family preferences, we wanted to ensure that the app was designed to be adaptable. Inclusivity was a primary goal as the team leveraged designs to welcome positive dialogues for family members about digital well-being.
Putting families on the same team
User research is a critical step in the human-centered design process and a key insight that the Family Safety app team wove into their designs was the need for equity and transparency within family-oriented experiences — not just for guardians, but for children, too.
Children are less likely to use apps with restriction features such as app limits, screen time, and location viewing — all of which are important parts of the Family Safety app. To include features like these and engage kids, the designers crafted experiences that helped younger users understand the app’s ability to help them learn and move toward their goals (versus seeing it as something that restricts and holds them back).
As the Family Safety app design director Sabih Mir described, “We designed for the child as someone who had a full set of rights or own set of liberties.” By seeing children as independent beings, versus just extensions of adult intent, led to more transparent and equitable designs.
For example, both the guardian and child can view activity reports to see how the child uses their screen time. The hope is that transparency between the two parties will foster productive conversations rather than increased restrictions. The app also gently reminds kids when they have run out of screen time and gives them the option to request more. By notifying all members of the family, the app can build partnerships and collective understanding between children and guardians.
Transparency was also important for physical safety features such as location sharing. This means providing an experience that reassures users of their privacy while helping families stay connected physically. Microsoft remains dedicated to protecting the consumer by not using location data for any other purpose, only for families to find each other on a map.
Fine-tuning the voice of reason
Writers for the Family Safety app took this unique opportunity to experiment with the traditional Microsoft voice and tone to craft a more family-oriented approach that delights customers. The hardest challenge was figuring out what strayed too far from the brand or, conversely, what choices kids might perceive as boring.
The writers assessed a range of language styles to find a happy medium that’s gentle enough to not frighten younger users while also steering them away from harm and unhealthy habits. The content design intentionally avoided words with negative connotations such as “track”, “restrict”, or “watch” and focused more on neutral language using words like “locate”, “monitor”, and “filter”. This was one way to transform experiences that might feel confining for kids into experiences that lead to self-awareness about digital habits.
Balancing freedom and safety
We want everyone to use this app when and how they want to, as a complement to our increasingly busy digital lives. What does it mean to be transparent when designing an app focused on protecting? To the team designing Microsoft Family Safety, it means treating all family members as equal stakeholders in our product. We want online experiences to be safe for everyone without taking away independent exploration.
Achieving a balance between online and offline time can be difficult, but by setting boundaries and taking steps to develop healthy habits at every age, the Family Safety app hopes to empower families to feel more in control and at peace. From representing real families to encouraging mindfulness, we designed this app with loved ones in mind, helping families feel safer as they move through the digital and physical world.
If you try out the new Family Safety app, let us know what you think in the comments below.
Thanks to Sabih Mir, Maurice Woods, Vaibhav Jain, Minah Kim, Chang-Ling Wu, Ben Chan, Christophe Berthoud, Michelle Wang, Kolby Hoover, Melissa Santos, Sara Schlagel, Mike LaJoie, Ena Yun, and all of the Family Safety team.
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