Designing for Kids: The Basics

16 Aug

Imagine a brilliant yet egocentric group of people with highly established social hierarchies, fickle brand affinities, a strong sense of right and wrong, limited powers of deduction, and more creativity than you can possibly comprehend. Now imagine that you have to design a digital experience for these folks that they’ll not only be able to use, but frequent, praise, evangelize, and maybe even help build.

Oh, yeah, and most of these people can’t read.

Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of designing for kids.

How is designing for kids different from designing for adults?

Concrete vs Abstract:

Kids, specifically kids ages 7-11, are in what Piaget called the “concrete operational phase.” At this stage, kids understand concrete events, but are still struggling with abstract concepts. As a result, they look for concrete “proof” in their digital interactions. They see every item on the screen as a possibility for interaction. For example, kids will click or touch everything they see in a digital experience just to see what will happen. This presents a tremendous opportunity, because every asset can become its own little game. Unlike adults, for kids, the journey is as meaningful as the destination. So whether you’re designing a game, a video, or an activity, fill the experience with little elements to play with along the way.

Perspective:

Kids of this age group are just starting to see things from perspectives other than their own. So when thinking about the stories that will inform your interactions, make the child the “star” and present things from his/her perspective.  If you have characters on your site, make sure these characters are able to “interact” with the kids on some level (ie “great job”, “way to go,” etc.)

Text and Symbols:

Lack of abstract thought means that the symbols and icons that we take for granted as adults may not resonate with kids.  This presents a challenge, especially in light of the fact that kids in this age group are still firming up their reading skills.  Since you can’t rely on text or symbols, you’ll need to develop other clear visual ways to present information.

What are some key guidelines when designing for kids?

Familiarity:

While adults look for freshness in content and functionality, kids gravitate towards the tried-and-true. They’ll happily watch the same videos and play the same games every day. So instead of adding a whole bunch of new stuff on a regular release schedule, make gradual modifications -  introduce a new game level, add a new music category, or update the functionality of your video player.  These small changes will let kids see that the site is changing regularly, without taking away that sense of the familiar and comfortable.

Tangibility:

As mentioned above, kids in this age group have trouble grasping abstract concepts. So the whole idea of a “virtual space” can be confusing and even a little scary. To bridge the gap between the virtual and the concrete, give kids something to literally hold onto while they engage. The creators of Webkinz got it right; a special “key” sold with a plush animal unlocks the experience, allowing kids to create an online presence for a beloved physical item. Other companies have followed suit. But you don’t have to create a whole line of toys to accomplish this. Something as simple as a printable certificate or membership card gives kids a connection between the digital space and the real world. This allows for an additional level of creativity and personalization as well, if you give them the opportunity to enter their first name or decorate their certificate.

Time-Sensitivity:

If they had their way, kids would spend HOURS on the computer. But parents tend to put limits on computer time. 1/2 hour to 1 hour at a time seems the norm. So give kids the tools they need right at the beginning of the experience to make the right choices and maximize their time. If your site has video, keep the videos short (no time for feature-length movies here). If they want games (and they all seem to want games) provide access to as many games as possible at the outset. Spend some real time finding the right balance between “lots of great options” and “cluttered.” As we said earlier, kids will click on everything until something resonates. Choose a wide, shallow architecture over a narrow and deep one.

What are some ways to incorporate social media into kids’ sites?

To kids, “social media” refers to the conversations they’ll have about the experience while playing kickball or having lunch. They’ve been scared silly of posting any personal information anywhere, they have enough real-life friends, and they’re terrified of strangers, both online and in the “real world.” I had one little boy tell me it was “really bad” to talk to people online, because they could find out who you are and “come to your house and steal your stuff.” If kids have email addresses, they usually don’t remember them, and generally don’t use email or IM to talk to their friends.

That being said, there are opportunities to include social components into kids’ sites, to promote creativity and self-expression. Providing simple “canned” statements, like Club Penguin does, allows kids to share ideas without having to type. Multi-player games can encourage things like non-verbal communication and collaboration. Posting online art projects to galleries lets kids share their talents.

What can designing digital experiences for kids teach us about designing for adults?

Creativity:

Kids’ sites are designed with creativity in mind. Not the creativity of the designers, but the creativity of the audience. Thinking about things in different ways, allowing users to chart their own paths through the material, not establishing a one-size-fits-all navigation strategy, and presenting information in formats other than text can help your users achieve their goals in a meaningful way, whether they’re kids or adults.

Point of View:

Whether you’re designing a marketing website, a virtual world, a financial application for the iPad, or a basic email product, try to make your user the star of the story. If she’s looking for product information, use behavioral data to make it about her. If he’s in a virtual world, give him tips and tools geared towards his character. If she’s managing her 401K, give her specific recommendations and feedback. If he wants to watch a movie, show him options he might be interested in based on other movies he’s watched.

Time:

Adults are time-crunched too. Do your research, be clear on your users’ primary and secondary goals, and make these goals abundantly available at the outset, so people can maximize the time they spend engaged in the experience.

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3 Responses to “Designing for Kids: The Basics”

  1. Susan McVeigh August 16, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Hi Debra,
    Fascinating talk, with lots of excellent thoughts. I would like to correct one statement you make, however. Webkinz is the invention of GANZ, not gund as you state in the interview.

  2. dgelman August 16, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Susan, thanks SO MUCH for the clarification! I also posted a correction in the comments section on the podcast page on Radio Johnny.

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