4 Things to Avoid when Creating Apps for Kids
Children are an incredibly hard audience to develop products for. They are impatient and demanding, fickle and feisty. And with them are their cash-strapped, time-poor parents who desperately want only the best for them.
Viewed from afar, the kids market might seem to be the largest of niches, a vast swathe of entertainment and education products for any small human who hasn’t reached puberty. But after a long career developing digital experiences for families, recently at Hopster and now at Azoomee, I’ve seen that the fine granularity of this audience and their needs cry out for a different product development approach.
But too many of our development paradigms and processes are generic in nature. While there may be a broad consensus of what’s required to make, say, a mass market casual free-to-play game a commercial success, the same cannot be said for specialised audiences or use cases.
Perhaps nowhere is this truer than when creating apps for kids. The requirements, temperament or operational environments for family apps are incredibly varied, and the challenge for the product leader is to adjust their approach and processes accordingly. After all, our users are what matter, not adherence to established ways of doing things.
So here are four critical things to avoid when you embark on your first project for kids …
1 Don’t take what parents tell you in research sessions at face value
When conducting one-on-one interviews, it’s hard to avoid asking leading questions or to filter out the complimentary things that many participants say.
Rob Fitzpatrick laid out the danger of this clearly in his book, The Mom Test, which is required reading for anyone conducting their own research. In essence, participants tell us what we want to hear, and we help them do it!
But the problem is amplified when speaking with parents at a research session. Even the most honest parent wishes to present the best possible version of their kids or their parenting skills.
For example, parents are apt to play down how long they allow their kids to use digital devices each day – “I only let them on the tablet for an hour a week on Saturdays.” Or what they let their kids watch – “Only Cbeebies, never YouTube”.
This utopian depiction of the family’s digital life extends to how much they care about data privacy, attitudes toward online safety and that crucial question – at what point does a parent stop caring about what their child is watching or playing, because he or she simply needs a break?
Of course, parents can’t be blamed or criticised for this lack of candour. Parenting is the hardest of jobs, one often conducted in a haze of exhaustion and peer pressure. Not surprisingly, their memory of the past is often shaped by an idealised vision of the future.
Our challenge is to sift out a more realistic picture from these sessions, and back it up with real-world data whenever possible. For example, rather than asking generic questions about device usage, discuss instead the family’s daily routine, every day from Monday to Sunday.
Can they keep a detailed diary for the week before your interview? The picture that emerges might be surprising, for both you and the parent!
2. Don’t test with low-fidelity prototypes
As I mentioned earlier, testing with kids is hard. You can’t simply rock up to Old Street Tube station and pull kids aside for a spot survey or to tap around your prototype in exchange for some sweeties – not if you don’t want to get arrested at any rate.
The list of challenges is lengthy – finding a suitable location requiring minimal travel for the families, making arrangements for very specific times of the day, keeping parents happy with coffee (or wine!), to name but a few.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is working out what exactly to test with the children. In my experience, non- or barely-functioning prototypes do not work for kids.
They will not appreciate your beautifully constructed InVision clickthrough. Your wireframe-y screens have non-functioning buttons – the kids will get frustrated as they jab these incessantly.
The buttons that do work, the ones you so desperately want them to tap, will remain untouched. Your prototype has no sound, or animation, or perhaps even lacks colour – in other words, your prototype is boring. And boring is a big no-no for kids. And if the kids are bored and unhappy, so will the parents be sooner or later.
How valid are your conclusions from such a dispiriting session?
Our challenge is to create a new type of MVP – a Minimum Viable Prototype. For kids’ apps, in my opinion, this needs to be a thin but fully functioning slice of the overall experience, as close as possible to the final product.
The creation of such a prototype is no small task and the effort involved needs to be factored in early, but its critical to avoid frustrating and unhelpful user research further down the line.
3. Don’t age down your design
When creating an app for kids, the temptation is to create something that you believe is exactly right for your target age group. Or, if unsure of the age of your users, to take the ‘safe’ option and age your design down. But the simple fact is that kids grow up very quickly, and the target age groups for kids can be incredibly granular.
Apple’s App Store stipulates age bands which seem narrow (5 and under, 6–8, or 9–11) but which in my opinion are too broad, particularly for apps aimed at pre-schoolers.
So if your app intends to retain its users for any length of time, it’s a good idea to take into account their growing up – becoming able to recognise or read words, having an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world outside their own home, being ever more confident with using digital devices.
The issue is exacerbated by the fact that your target audience does not live their physical or digital lives in a bubble. They are constantly influenced by their older siblings, watching what they watch, often playing what they play.
And the young child is not blind to what their parents or other adults do on their smartphones or tablets – constantly messaging, taking selfies, streaming videos and so on – and so grows an implicit expectation that their apps will mirror these functions to some degree.
4. Don’t forget about the parents
The single biggest challenge when creating an app for kids is that, unfortunately, they aren’t the ones paying for it. You really have two sets of users that often have wildly differing expectations of the product, and certainly very different usage patterns.
The parents are almost always the ones initiating the download from the app store, perhaps searching for something educational or a safe video app, or clicking through from an enticing ad or acting on a recommendation from another parent.
Thus, search keywords, ad copy and imagery, app store descriptions and screenshots are all vital to making it easy for the adult to discover your app, get the gist of what it’s about and tap the download button.
But that’s just the first challenge. From experience, it’s a safe assumption that the very first use of the app will be done by either the parent on their own or together with the child.
Your app experience will have to perform the delicate balancing act of immediately capturing the child’s attention while reassuring parents that this was worth the time and effort and (if it was a paid app) the money.
Including messaging explicitly aimed at the parent along with the associations implicitly conveyed by a high-quality experience go a long way to addressing the issue.
If your app contains an in-app payment or subscription – behind a secure PIN or age gate of course – the challenge is doubled. How do you convey to the parent that certain features or content may not be available without payment?
They may not be using the app at the time, and it’s against ethical and advertising codes to put a pushy sales message in front of the child user. Designing with the parent in mind, almost as much as the child, from the start will help you to arrive at a UX solution that addresses this problem in a way that is not awkward or ugly.
We’ve really just scratched the surface of the challenges product leaders face when creating app for kids.
So is it worth it?
The delight in a child’s eyes when they fall in love with your app, a parent’s expression of pride as they watch their child conquer yet another technological milestone – those are the magic moments a product leader lives for.
Mahesh is a veteran producer of digital entertainment products for families, with twenty years of experience delivering interactive television, mobile services and apps around the world. He was Head of Poduct for market leading pre-school kids app Hopster, and is currently Chief Product Officer at Azoomee.
Azoomee is a BAFTA-nominated digital entertainment service for primary school-aged children. It provides children with the best TV shows, games, audiobooks and a creative art studio in one safe app available on any mobile device.
We interviewed Mahesh in our product leaders interview series “A Few Minutes With“, which you can watch here:Looking for a new role?