In his acclaimed biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes a rare moment where the Apple founder sheds his raw intensity to reveal a tender, more compassionate side. Jobs watches a child use an iPad, marvelling at the intuition of the act and the ease with which the kid acclimates their self with the tablet.
Steve Jobs championed simplicity above all else, and watching a child use his creation was, to him, his vision realised – the perfect indicator of success: so simple, a child could use it.
Today, children become users earlier than ever, long before they develop significant cognitive skills like reading, speaking, or even long-term memory (that might be one of the reasons why both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates famously raised their kids tech-free).
However, like it or not, today’s kids are growing up as digital natives right from the get-go. So while that means a litany of different things for the world we live in, it also offers an intriguing case study for UX designers.
Watching a child interface with user experience is to observe a user without any biases or expectations.
So I spoke to some UXers who had previous experience designing for a child audience and asked them what their most significant takeaways from it were.
I should note this is not a guide to designing for children, but somewhat critical tenets of it that can be easily applied to UX design for any audience.
Properly Dividing Your User Base
If you have ever had to design a platform for children, you know that an exciting challenge arises early on in the design process, in a place that is typically smooth sailing: user persona creation.
One approach to persona creation that might make sense in the context of our product would heavily rely on demographics. We might have personas representing twenty-five to thirty-five year olds, or forty to sixty-five, for example. This broad grouping may make sense as we believe there is not too much of a difference between a twenty-year-old and a thirty-year-old (from a design perspective at least).
However, the difference between a four-year-old and a seven-year-old is massive. They have a completely disparate set of cognitive abilities and motor skills, meaning enormous implications for the designer. For UXers, the general rule of thumb seems to be three divisions when designing for kids: three to five years old, six to eight years old, and nine to twelve years old.
Moreover, that is a lesson we can translate to broader user experience design: smarter, more prudent ways to categorise the platform’s audience. More granular segmentation of your user base means more informed design decisions. There is a balance of course – we cannot design specifically for every person out there, but things are often more complicated than just bucketing everyone into a group spanning more than a decade. We are more different than we realise.
One of the reasons watching a child interface with an iPad delighted Steve Jobs so much was that the child had discovered how to use it independently. Children love learning things on their own. Some research suggests that it is actually the best way for kids to learn.
This heuristic style of learning (not to be confused with Nielsen’s heuristic design principles), is best implemented in user experience design through feedback. Children need feedback on just about everything. It is how they learn about the world around them and grow as people.
That necessity is absolutely crucial in usability design. Visual and auditory feedback for the user should be embedded in every task and process of the experience. That could mean form submission confirmations, progress bars, popups – whatever mechanism is necessary to validate the user every step of the way.
Consistency Over Creativity
One of the biggest mistakes UX designers make when crafting experiences for kids is making the interface too flashy or busy. They assume kids are too easily distracted, and that their design needs to be attention-grabbing, lest the child gets bored or uninterested.
However, in reality, consistent design is going to be more effective and more engaging to kids than one that is overcrowded with bright colours or flashing animations. These excess additions can actually serve as a detriment to the child’s experience.
From Debra Gelman‘s “Designing for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning”:
If everything on the screen moves, is brightly coloured, or makes noise on the same level, kids and adults become confused about what is interactive and what isn’t, and this makes it very hard for them to use the site or app
Gelman’s belief rings true for adults as well. This is yet another lesson in conventionality surpassing creativity in user experience design. You do not need to get too creative, too cute, or too crazy in your design. Keep things simple, clean, and consistent.
Just like one of the good attributes of a teacher is to learn from their students, the best designers are the ones that learn from their users, and children are no exception. Designing for children offers us interestingly useful takeaways on UX design and even the nature of usability itself, including segmenting your user base correctly, providing ample feedback, and ensuring you remain consistent in your design.
(Lead image: Depositphotos)