How to design apps children love

Photo by Rebecca Lupton

BBC head of UX and design Jane Murison (above) reveals the best approaches for conceiving, designing and testing apps for children.

The BBC’s UX and design team is behind some of the UK’s best loved apps and websites for children. Based on programmes from the CBeebies channel for younger children and CBBC for older ones, the team has created apps including CBeebies Playtime and Storytime and Go CBBC.

A few weeks ago at a conference, I interviewed one of the department’s heads, Jane Murison, about her view that designers need to have the skills to do user research to test their designs – which helps them become better and happier designers. We didn’t have time for a wider discussion – so we caught up over Skype earlier this week to explore her thoughts on best practice for creating kids apps.

Jane has worked for the BBC for 13 years – starting as a usability engineer, then as an interaction designer, before becoming one of six heads of UX and design with a portfolio than includes children’s media, UX architecture and user research. As we spoke, she shared practical advice on designing and testing apps for the needs and abilities of children – as well as conceptual thoughts on what children’s apps should be and do.

As with creating experiences for adults, much of the success of a children’s app is about the emotions it evokes in those playing it. Jane says that the most important emotions to imbue are delight and a sense of control, as these increase engagement – which here we’ll define as the level of desire in a child to continue to continue to use the app (and come back to it again).

How to elicit delight can be difficult to explain as - while the core concept, mechanic or content of an app can be pleasurable - delight usually comes from small details outside of the core. Sometimes a key mechanic can be delightful the first time you encounter it – for example, when you use an optical illusion to get Princess Ida further in the opening level of Monument Valley – but after then it’s pleasurable rather than delightful.

One example Jane gives of delightful details in the BBC’s children’s apps is the loading screen in Storytime. Here users encounter a growing, flowing rainbow when they download a new book instead of a traditional progress bar. They’re essentially borrowing books from a lending library-type system – a concept initially created to help keep the size of the app down so parents wouldn’t delete it for taking up too much space when updates made new books available (as you can only download 12 at a time).

“There's the feel of a pop-up book, that just makes it a delightful experience,” says Jane. “I suspect the reason why they've had so many million downloads is because kids will actually just download it to enjoy the little rainbow loading.”

“Whether or not they read the book after is another matter,” she laughs. “But they enjoy that. And there’s also the fact that they've affected the world and created a list of stories that they chose.”

A sense of control, of ownership, is what divides apps from TV programmes – and is something that really appeals to children.

“In a world where any random person can walk into your room and tell you to tidy up, having a little space that is properly yours is pretty important,” says Jane. “I think there's a high value on being able to control your space when you're little.”

Enhancing the feeling of ownership through personalisation increases engagement too – especially when siblings or friends have a shared device (or access to one that adult is under the delusion actually belongs to them - a situation I know only too well).

On Playtime, children can create profiles with a choice of motifs or their own face on a balloon. It serves a practical purpose, but Jane's team discovered that children found the process of setting it up and using it to be fun, rather than the chore most adults find profile creation to be.

"If you've got siblings in the same house, you don't want them to have the same set of badges that they collect while they're in the experience," says Jane. "I was really pleasantly surprised about how much time they would spend interacting with [the profile process]. If you're an adult setting a profile or an avatar, you try to spend as little time as possible thinking about that before you get onto actually using the thing that you are forced to register for.

"With kids, it's actually a playful experience. They enjoy playing with it, and they'll go back to it again and change it and actually treat it in a blanket way as part of the game play."

Do kids apps have to be educational?

In a world where even the most basic plastic toy for babies has its supposed educational benfits plastered all over its packaging, there's often a sense that what a child can learn from an app is all that matters - and that play is much less important. But, as MIT's Seymour Papert is fond of pointing out, play is education - and can be one of the best forms of learning as children are highly engaged.

So it's refreshing to hear Jane say that for Storytime and Playtime, "our attitude is generally is that we're making content primarily for entertainment, but with nutritional elements inherent in it.

"There are commercial people in the same space who are trumpeting how educational their products are - and they're probably a lot less educational than [Storytime and Playtime]. I think the fact that we're very careful about what claims we make might be to our detriment.

"I can't see how you can say that Alphablocks isn't useful for teaching kids phonics when it's being researched, worked out, by educational experts who have been working with phonics for a long time - or how a painting app is going to help a small child with their fine motor skills."

For Jane - and she stresses that this is a personal belief rather than the BBC's - over-emphasising an app's educational ability plays on the "modern parenting shame" felt by a lot of people. She describes this as "a fear of not keeping their ends up with their child's development. But in actual fact, leaving the child alone and possible a little bit bored might be the best thing for the development of anything.

"I think if you leave enough interesting stuff in their way, and then enough space to go and discover it themselves, they're probably more likely to get something useful out of that than us ramming our educational value down their throat."

There is no such thing as the right age for an app

One of the first questions you ask yourself as parent when checking out a new app is 'is this suitable for my child?' - which is often simplified to 'is this right for a x-year-old?'. But trying to design an app for a specific age is impossible as almost all children are advanced in some areas and less developed in others - with everything from their genes to their socioeconomic background having an impact on this. Instead you've got to create apps that allow for a broad range of expierences and abilities.

"You might have one kid that learns to read really confidently at age five, and they're off in a corner with a chapter book at that point," says Jane. "Then you've got another kid that really doesn't get into that until they're seven or eight. Does that give you an indication of their level of intelligence or competence in life? Probably not.

"What that means for building an app is that you can't be too formulaic about it. You can't be too structured about it, because that's probably not going to work. If you can just provide a range [of content for different skill levels] and allow them to tailor their own experience, then that's going to be the most enriching one for them."

In the broadest sense, there are some accommodations you can make for different age ranges. Jane notes that for younger children you should avoid putting any buttons or other interactive controls at the edges of the screen - as youngsters will often touch these areas without meaning too as they grip the phone or tablet.

Keep em coming back for more

The hardest part of making an app successful is getting people to download it in the first place - so once you've acheived that you want to make the maximise the amount of time they spend with the app (and revenue if you're producing commercial apps with in-app purchases, as the BBC's children's apps are all completely free).

The two best ways to do this are by including 'free play' or creative elements, and to release regular updates.

Both Storytime and Playtime have been updated with additional content - with Playtime introducing the 'lending library' concept to limit the amount of space the app takes up. Substantial updates are released every six-to-nine months, with smaller seasonal updates such as the Christmas Countdown - an advent calendar with mini-games - released more frequently.

Sometimes an update can be as simple as reskinning a current feature to give it fresh or appeal - or appeal to a different audience by changing the characters or feel while keeping the core mechanic the same.

"The make-a-picture part of Playtime is extremely popular, and we'll [soon] re-skin that with a new set of stickers and stuff like that to do with [a different] programme," says Jane. "It's been Hey Duggie for a while, and before that it was something else - we had Swashbuckle in there for a while."

"[Make-a-picture] continues to be popular. It's not always got the highest usage, but it doesn't have a drop-off. It's obvious to us, that kind of open ended, creative interactive experiences are really, really successful [in the longer term]."

While it's obvious that games and tools that don't have a fixed beginning or end will have the longest appeal - if done well of course - but it's true that encourages children to revisit other parts of the app. It's also an ideal opportunity to let them know about new content that they can download (or their parents can purchase, if you're working on a commercial app).

How to test apps for children

The testing of apps and websites is a large part of Jane's job, and she says that testing apps on children - or user research, as she calls it - requires different approaches to testing apps aimed primarily at adults.

"You've got to design your research to work for a small person," says Jane, "and that means thinking quite carefully about how you can make the research itself a playful experience for them."

There's no one way to test apps for children - the age range of the intended audience makes a big difference to the methods you use. With older children - the audience for the Go CBBC app - Jane's team could use participatory design to see how kids responded to the app, essentially letting them redesign parts they didn't like so the team could understand how they saw what they wanted to do.

"We had to get across the idea that some of the stuff you were doing would take you to the internet, and some of the stuff would just keep you in the app," explains Jane. "We got them all to try to design [icons for] that. For a bunch of eight and ten year olds, that was a more enjoyable experience - and we actually used something actually quite similar to what one of the kids suggested.

"But it wasn't really about that. What we were trying to do was give them the opportunity to show what was going on in their head, what their mental model was in that situation. We made it fun, we allowed them to express themselves in a way which wasn't just talking to an adult, which is what a lot of research looks like for children."

Replicating the environment in which an app (or website) will be used is also important. This includes transforming testing areas, which traditionally have desks or high tables - to be physically suitable for children, but also creating a space where children can relax. Jane recommends moving desks and tables to the sides of rooms and putting bean bags in the middle

Testing areas - especially ones in buildings with big BBC logos on the side - can be intimidating to children, and this puts children in what Jane calls "teacher mode".

"Once you're in teacher mode," she says, "they're going to behave well. They're not going to tell you their opinion, they're going to tell you what they think you want to hear - and they're trying to get a merit point or a gold star. Trying to break them out of that is really important."

One of the best ways to do this, Jane has found, is to get children to try out apps and sites with a friend. Listening in on what children talk about with a friend when trying out an app can be more enlightening that asking questions yourself - as they behave more naturally and open up more to their friend.

A particularly effective technique is to ask a child to explain to a friend what they're doing in an app - as you can pick up insights into the mental model behind what they're doing.

Parental control

One of the trickiest areas to navigate when testing apps on children is often their parents. While having parents there during testing is essential - as chaperones and to accurately replicate how children use the app while supervised by their parent - you need to moderate their influence. Taking them out of the room to an observation area is a good way to reduce 'stress behaviours' - things that parents do that cause anxiety in children that causes them to change the way they act.

Unless you allow for it in how you conduct your testing, Jane finds that parents will often become defensive if anything their child does or says makes them seem like they're not 'getting it' - which can lead to them attempting to answer questions on behalf of the child.

"All of that doesn't help us to understand if the thing that we're making is working or not," says Jane. "Reassuring the parents and making them feel comfortable is probably as important as making sure the kid feels comfortable."

You have to make it clear to children that if their child isn't succeeding at using the app correctly, that's the fault of the app - not the child.

"We're researching a design; we're not testing a person," says Jane. "If we're doing our best work, we're trying to break the design. We should be handing out the gold stars to the kids when they do break it."

Jane says that communicating this to parents and children can be difficult, but they've developed some strategies that often work to get the children to saw what they really think and the adults to let them do it. Pretending that an unliked feature is a bug works well, as does anything that makes a child laugh. Drawing a scale from good to bad and getting them to put a picture on it to match how they rate a feature is a good way to encourage discussion.

"It's about facilitating the conversation to get more about of them, but not just living with the first answer that you hear," says Jane.

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