Designing for Kids: Part Two
In this two-part blog, project leaders from across our studios share their experiences of designing digital product for kids. In part one, we tackled the big picture – asking ourselves what should the digital products we make for kids look like? What should we use for inspiration and how can we keep them challenging? Here in part two our designers, coaches and product leads share their top five user-testing tips to help get your project off to a flying start.
Getting the Most out of UX Testing
In part one, we explored what can we do as digital designers and makers to create experiences that give a child that ‘my finger is magic’ feeling. Now we go back to the beginning – looking at what we can do in the earliest stages of a project to help create a finished product that is meaningful and magical.
As we explored in part one, we need digital experiences for kids to be intuitive – and what we think is intuitive as adults is definitely not the same for kids. As much as adult designers need to discover their inner child, there is still no substitute for co-designing and user-testing with kids.
Alongside user-testing, we also focus on observing learning and play. Together they help ensure that, throughout production, the product is pitched to match both children’s imaginations and their capacity for learning.
Here are the five key things that our teams focus on to get the most out of the sessions.
1. Give Feedback
Kids don’t just need feedback when something goes wrong – digital experiences aimed at children need to feedback on interactions as you go through not just at a point of success or failure. The same goes for user-testing.
Many apps used by adults are functional ones – banking, messaging, searching, shopping and so on. It makes sense that these interactions are as seamless as possible. You want to log on, get what you need and leave – imagine if paying your bills every month involved navigating a series of bouncy animations… very frustrating.
Children’s apps have more scope to introduce interactions that feedback as you go through, especially where there isn’t a cut-and-dried end goal. With games, educational apps and even platforms for children's content, there needs to be space for experimentation and exploration to help them learn how to use the app as they go, as well as keep them challenged. “That can be a reason why feedback on all sorts of things is important for kids.” Emma, a team coach from ustwo Nordics, explains that “often they don't care about any particular goal, so every step of the journey needs to be engaging – it needs to be fun, challenging or intriguing in some way. Otherwise they won't stick around.”
Just as the principle of giving feedback applies to the product, it also applies to testing with kids. If children don’t get the feedback they need to make sense of something themselves, they turn to grown-ups – asking why things happen, what to do next or even what the point is. During the making of the Sky Kids app for example, the team noticed how frustrated kids got when they pressed the play button on the lo-fi prototypes they were testing but a video didn’t play. It was hard for them to suspend disbelief and carry on with exploring the prototype – they wanted to know why it wasn’t working.
This sort of response makes it clear that there is not enough affirmation and feedback to keep kids engaged. Emma’s take on this is that “we want the kids to feel empowered to be creative and explore, and not occupied by wondering what’s expected of them.”
2. Take Digital Away
Practicing co-design and observing non-digital play at the very first stages of a project will make sure your finished digital product is informed by the way that kids really play and learn. The cognitive and experiential gulf between children and adults means that observation, testing and co-design is key to creating a product that meets their needs – and they actually want to use.
Inspired by this James’ team took digital devices out of the equation for the very earliest stages of development for the Sky Kids app. “We asked the children to design things they wanted using all sorts of creative materials, from Play-Doh, stickers, glue, colouring, pens, paints, fabrics and coloured paper. We were rewarded with a rich tapestry of ideas and characters that helped us see the designs through the eyes of children.”
Similarly Jay, a Design Lead at ustwo London, explains “Just letting kids play around gives us some of our best ideas. We’ve asked them to draw stuff and come up with stories for things and characters – their minds are brilliant.” This is doubly important, he points out, as adults we often try and “rein in” our ideas – designing in tandem with kids like this encourages us to push them further.
This is also a helpful step in making sure the tenets of traditional play – like exploration, imagination, freedom – are all built into the foundations of the digital experience.
3. Account for Age Ranges
Kids develop really fast. A product targeting 4-year-olds is going to be completely inappropriate for a 7 year old – too easy, too slow, too ‘babyish’. You need to be precise about what ages you are targeting or thinking about adapting features to target a broader age range.
This is something ustwo Nordics PlayLab team noticed when creating experiment BlipShop – a digital experience that aims to give playing shop a digital makeover by introducing scanners rather than traditional cash-registers. The youngest testers, who were around 3 years old, were too easily distracted by the new environment and found the scanning mechanic a bit too abstract.
The four to six-year-olds on the other hand, have had a lot of fun playing BlipShop. They started scanning and paying for items with little to no introduction. They quickly memorized the pricing of the different items in the store and some scanned all of the items in the store to find out their prices, to make sure they had all the information.
Just as the capabilities of the product need to be varied depending on age, so does the way you go about testing. As an example, the way a child expresses likes and dislikes can vary vastly by their age. James notes that “a younger child won’t necessarily express the feeling of ‘hate’, although whilst conducting research from ages 3 - 12 we discovered children tend not to shy away from expressing their true feelings, openly.”
Whilst observing preschoolers (3-5) we would judge the length of engagement, facial expressions that indicate delight, boredom or frustration. At this age of their cognitive development, the children express enjoyment through discovery, repetition and demonstrating their achievements to others. When a child would tap areas of the app and see no response they would lose interest, trying other areas to swipe or tapping with more force. With older kids shrugging their shoulders, saying, ‘It should do this, why doesn’t it?’.
9-12 years would react negatively to designs that they deemed ‘too babyish’, this was even more apparent when being influenced from their peers, and those who had older siblings.”
4. Make Testing Feel Safe
Making testing feel safe is integral for both the comfort of the children you're working with and the quality of your results.
Lots of things can contribute towards a positive testing atmosphere. Adele – a project manager from the New York studio – suggests creating a bright, comfy environment, keeping it informal with snacks and making sure recording devices and cameras are placed unobtrusively.
Another way that to make testing more comfortable is by testing in groups of two or three – we’ve found that kids often share more openly with their peers compared to a bunch of grown-ups with clipboards.
However, James warns, testing with groups of children has its own challenges which need to be considered before you plan your testing “when conducting studies with a group of children simultaneously, behaviour can become considerably more boisterous or introverted, where children are less likely to actively participate.”
5. Be Aware of Influences
Whilst making the child feel comfortable and safe during testing, you also need to be aware of how other factors may be influencing their behaviour. Some major things to consider include the time of day testing is conducted as well as who else is in the room.
It's often necessary to conduct research sessions in the afternoon because of the school and work commitments of participants and their guardians – this can mean sessions running on into the evening. James says it's not uncommon to see dwindling energy levels that result in “a reduction in engagement and feedback.” Keep this front of mind as you plan your sessions – make them as streamlined as possible and consider conducting testing during school holidays if you can fit it in with your project timeline.
Another thing to consider is who else is in the room, Adele says it’s important to keep familiar adults around to make the kids comfortable – but the tricky thing is you want to avoid them influencing their responses: “we wanted to hear what the kids thought, not what they thought their parents wanted to hear!”
James explains that the influence that familiar adults like parents, caretakers and teachers can have isn’t always explicit. “Whilst testing with children it’s more important to be aware that even the most subtle of influences can affect results of the research. Children look to see they have answered questions correctly, and will quickly respond to facial expressions and body language. When a parent/carer is present the child often looks for reassurance and guidance. This may lead the parent to interject and direct the outcome of the research.”
We hope these points are a useful starting point for your project, if you have questions or are interested in making a digital experience for children – reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you missed it, you can also go back and read part one on what makes a meaningful digital experience for kids here.
ABOUT ADELE MAJOR, EMMA NORDUNG, JAY CHAN, JAMES GRIFFIN AND CAMILLA DAHLE
Our contributors to this post – Adele, Emma, Jay, James and Camilla – are a group of Product Leads, Designers and Coaches from across our global studios who all have experience of making digital products for kids.