Designing for pre-school children close

David Hart
David Hart
In Musings, Codegent College
21st February 2013
Designing for pre-school children

In our work with the BBC and CBeebies in particular and the development of the successful Kizzu series of children’s apps, we’ve picked up a number of interesting insights into designing digital products for pre-school children. We’ve covered a few of them here.

Children are people. It may sounds obvious, but we’re not designing for a different species: young children have brains that are wired like adults. It’s just that their interpretation of information is different from adults. Part of this is because they can’t read and part of this is because they have a lot less experience and developing motor and cognitive skills. But the key principles of good digital design still apply.

Pre-school children can’t read. Just in case you didn’t know. OK, some might be able to read a bit, but by and large it is easier and quicker, and therefore more preferable for them, to rely on visual clues rather than words. Think about being 3 or 4 and you are just learning to read, you can spend a minute trying to spell out a word, or you can look at an icon or hear an audio description of a piece of navigation and get the same effect in a second. This doesn’t mean you can’t use words, just that the designs need to be understandable if suddenly all the words were removed.

Audio is especially good because not only does it help children understand what they are doing, it also reinforces the words that they are looking at, helping them to recognise the letters themselves.

Little fingers, but big buttons. You’d think that little ones would have an advantage over their fat-fingered parents, but this is mitigated by the fact that they are less accurate. Where we might deftly click a link in the right place on the screen, a 3 year old is more likely just to prod in the vague direction. And then to keep prodding until something happens. The solution? Buttons need to be bigger for younger children. Once they are at school, button size can come down a bit, but certainly for pre-school children on a website, they need to be more than 60px ideally.

There also needs to be a margin of error around the button, too. Somewhere in the region of 10px. So, having large buttons is good, but placing them right next to each other will cause problems for youngsters.

On the subject of little fingers… As a pre-school child you’ve only recently mastered walking and you’re bombarded with a million new things to learn all the time. So, being expected to be able to perform precise controls on a smartphone or tablet is possibly asking a bit too much.

Being able to touch, tap and drag is OK (our ABC and JiGi puzzles are testament to this), but anything more sophisticated such as pinch, flick or even tilt starts to be a bit daunting until they are a little older.

Make it obvious. Children like really clear visuals that make it pretty obvious what will happen when they click on it. So, showing half an image that fades to the side to suggest what might follow won’t cut it. It might look less elegant, but if clicking somewhere takes them to a Mr Tumble game, then you better have a picture of Mr Tumble on it.

Scrolling. Older children are quite comfortable with vertical scrolling, but for younger children this seems to be harder to conceptualise. Even though the notion of ‘the fold’ is one that is hard to define, it actually really matters to young children. If the fold runs through the middle of a video, a younger child would likely just watch the top half only, not realising that that they could scroll down a few pixels and watch the whole thing.

Go away, Mummy! You might read some of this and say, well it’s down to the parents to help the child if half the video is below the fold or whatever. And you’d be right. For very young children especially, they will need help getting set up and rescuing them if they get stuck. But have you ever tried to take an iPad off a two year old when they don’t want you to?

Designing an app for youngsters really does have to start from the perspective that they want to be as independent as possible. They might need your help, but they don’t want it.

Louder and sillier. So, we’re designing for people and all the rules about good design apply, but the thing with kids is that for it to appeal it needs to be the same but bigger, brighter, more colourful, louder and sillier than what their parents are looking at.

No need for subtlety when it comes to this audience. It has to be clear and not confusing by being overwhelming with lots of information, but that information can have the volume turned right up to Max. And if what you are doing makes them laugh then even better.

Because, what parent doesn’t love to see their child learning and having fun at the same time?