Apps for Kids: Basic Usability Guidelines

More kids than ever before in history are engaging with computing devices on a daily basis, whether that may be that a smartphone, a tablet, a PC, or a convertible tablet/PC form factor. They do homework, interact with friends and family, and play games, and as seen by a simple search in any popular app store, apps for kids are getting downloaded at a fantastic rate:

“NPD found that there is an average of 12 apps on the mobile devices that kids have access to; 88 percent of those apps were acquired for free. Kids spend about five days a week using mobile devices, with an average session typically lasting just under one hour. Much as it is with adults, gaming is a leading category on mobile for children. NPD found an average of 6.5 gaming applications on a device, and games were by far the most popular type of app used by children, followed by listening to or downloading music, and taking pictures.” –

This burgeoning market brings with it its own unique challenges for developers, specifically in the field of app usability. How do you create an app for kids that is appealing, yet developmentally appropriate? How about an app for kids that is challenging, yet helps them feel like they’re in control of the environment at the same time? These are all issues that come up with creating great apps for kids. In this article, we’re going to explore how developers can make programs that pass the tests of usability for children by going through some of the common problems faced and how they can be addressed in the development process.

New form factors are definitely kid-friendly

There are a wide range of new form factors that have come our way in the last few years – tablets, convertible Ultrabooks, new designs for smartphones, etc. – that lend themselves well to a great computing experience for the younger set. This is especially true of devices that feature touch-based interaction. If you’ve ever been around a child for more than a few minutes you’ll agree that touch is one of their primary avenues of interaction with their environment, and computers are no exception.

Touch-based tablets and convertible devices offer a low barrier of entry for kids that really want to jump in headfirst to their favorite apps. Devices that work best with kids have to present great touch interactions, an experience that offers various activities, and input controls that are user-friendly but not dumbed down.

Tablets and tablet/PC convertible form factors are especially popular with kids, according to recent studies. They’re easy to hold, easy to use, and the technology is easy to access. My personal experience with a convertible Ultrabook recently proved these statistics; my kids instantly dived into the touch experience, seeming to know intuitively which buttons to push, which controls to interact with, and their experience was the richer because of it. While they definitely used the device’s keyboard and touchpad, touch was the big winner: using Windows*8, tablet mode, clamshell mode, it was all about touch interaction.

Kids and adults use apps in a very different way

Although this is something that is probably obvious, kids interact with their apps in a completely different way than adults do. The challenge when designing apps for kids is to come up with an environment that produces the desired behavior and interaction, while at the same time discourages behavior that could produce undesirable results.

Children will interact with things that they aren’t necessarily supposed to be interacting with in an app that is not designed with children in mind, like user controls. They just view the world very differently than adults do:

“Adults view the environment in terms of form, shapes, and structures and as background. So if something like a couch is in a public place, adults will interpret it only for its socially acceptable use, for sitting upon. Children, on the other hand, interpret the environment holistically and evaluate it for all the ways they can interact with it. They use the environment to aid their development and improve themselves. They look for the environment's affordances -- the opportunities it affords them to do things. Also, children interpret the environment in terms of its possible function rather than its form. So in the case of the couch, because children haven't yet acquired the social norms for its accepted use (and aren't developmentally ready to accept social norms for behavior), they see the couch as something that affords them opportunities for bouncing on, sprawling out on, climbing on, jumping over and hiding behind.” –

Anyone that has observed kids in action has definitely seen this scenario play out! Kids interact with apps the same way; they are looking for different opportunities for interaction than an adult would, which is why making apps for kids can be a tricky process.

Four usability principles for kids’ apps

Usability thought leaders and child development experts seem to have a few common ideas when it comes to usability principles as applied to apps for kids:

1)    Freedom: The ability to move within the app within a controlled environment

2)    Comfort: Stimulation, but not too much stimulation. Audio input, but not too much. It’s a balancing act. Varied levels of stimulation are definitely needed, but there’s a fine line between stimulation and just noise for the sake of noise.

3)    Confidence: Kids – just like us adults – need to feel that they are competent. They want to have confidence in what they are doing.

4)    Control: Children want to feel that they are accomplishing something when they are interacting within an app. Goals are met, decisions are being made.

Good app design is able to meet all of these goals.

Developers can steer children away from engaging in undesirable activities within apps by offering kids age-appropriate activities that produce the desired outcome. Kids need to be challenged within apps so that they don’t get bored and start “experimenting” with items not meant for their play – like user controls, system settings, etc. (and any parent reading this is shaking their head in agreement, I’m betting!)

Kids give the “I’m bored” excuse when the task given is too difficult; it’s not that they are necessarily bored, it’s just that developmentally, they’ve reached something that they have no tools for. If the job they are given meets where they are at developmentally, then typically, the child is going to enjoy it. If it’s below them or above them, it’s not a good fit, and they will find other ways to be challenged.

Apps that offer more ways to interact than just the activity – like an interactive sign that invites some kind of input – are going to be more appealing because they offer more opportunities for interaction. Attention spans are notoriously short for the younger set, so the app environment has to offer several options, levels, and activities, along with an easily navigated environment with age-appropriate signposts.

Apps and kids

Apps designed for children should be simple to interact with, especially touch-based apps. Touch-based apps give kids a better understanding and innate connection to the device that they are using. This input – along with keyboard and mouse – is a major usability indicator for any app that is designed for kids, and should not be neglected in order to make the app truly interactive and appealing.

A tech-savvy parent recently wrote up a set of recommendations for developers based on his experience navigating the world of apps with his two year old daughter:

  • Lots of stuff going on in the app is great, but app elements need to give an indication of which of them is actually interactive. There has to be some kind of feature (sparkle, jumping, sound, etc.) that makes it clear they are touchable.
  • Going back and forth with pages is something that many apps offer (especially storybook apps), but every app seems to have different ways to accomplish this. Swipes and curled-up page corners can be tricky for little fingers. Arrows at the top of the page seem to work best, especially since kids tend to accidentally touch the bottom part of the screen a lot, and that can interfere with app and system controls.
  • Anything that “tricks” a child into buying something is going to put you on the Naughty List. Don’t do it, it’s just not worth it.

Apps for children are a booming business, especially as more and more kids interact with smartphones, tablets, and PC/convertible devices. Developers should keep in mind that designing apps for kids is much different than designing for adults; age-appropriate content, stimulating environment, good flow of action, and developmentally agreeable interaction are all elements that have to be included. For more on app usability for kids, please read the following resources:



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