Designing for children:
the finish line is just a small part of the story

How should digital products for kids be designed, so that they suit children’s cognitive, physical and emotional conditions? The answer lies in being able to distinguish the user experience of kids and adults, as well as considering how quickly children change when they grow.

Like adults, like children

Both kids and adults want to get benefits out of using the app: While adults do not even open the app when they see no purpose in using it, kids get excited very easily at first but then loose interest fast. So the aspect of utility is important for both kids and adults, albeit at a different stage of interaction with the app. The term utility here is meant broadly and can also be a sense of achievement or a good gameplay.

Additionally, app-users want to have consistency when it comes to animations, interactions, and styles – because, no matter the age, what is worse than buttons behaving differently from screen to screen? Finally, neither adults nor kids want to have surprises that frustrate their expectations. What they want instead are “Easter eggs”, something that exceeds the expectations and sends positive vibes to the users.

Challenge and feedback are crucial

Despite the similarities, kids have very different needs and abilities than adults. Thus, simplifying adult-content when creating an app for kids is not enough – the design should be compatible with the kids’ physical and cognitive abilities as well as their emotional needs. For example, kids love it when they can complete small, challenging tasks before immediately reaching the goal. That way, their progress and achievement with each step becomes visceral.

A second thing that is crucial for kid’s apps: interaction, interaction, interaction. The app needs to respond to every interaction a child produces – be it in the form of an animation or sound. What seems annoying for adults, is essential for kids, because kids are in need of constant and positive feedback.

The four stages of cognitive development

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For adults, the basic concepts of user experience stay the same no matter if the app is built for 30- or 40-year-olds. However, kids’ needs and abilities change constantly and rapidly, it is therefore vital that an app is tailored to the age of the children. In order to address different age segments of kids, it is helpful and recommended to combine future-oriented applications and non-digital tools. In the case of Finny, our financial literacy product, we will use a combination of a physical moneybox and a digtal mobile app.

In her interesting work “Design for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning”, Debra Gelman presents four stages of children’s cognitive development, which is based on the work of child psychologist Jean Piaget:

  • Sensorimotor stage (0-2 years)
  • Preoperational stage (2-6 years)
  • Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)
  • Formal operations stage (> 12 years)

In the sensorimotor stage, Gelman recommends no screen time such as TV or smartphones, since babies between the age of 0 and 2 are not well-equipped to handle that kind of stimulation. The preoperational stage, on the other hand, is a great stage to design for: Children between the age of 2 and 6 years show a lot of creativity and excitement. While kids are creative, they see things mostly from their perspective. It is therefore important to design an app with their perspective in mind.

In the concrete operational stage, kids think logically but have difficulties with abstract concepts. Abstract icons and symbols adults are familiar with won’t be usable for kids in this age. Finally, in the formal operations stage, kids and adults are very similar: Children develop deductive reasoning and planning skills as well as hypothesis-based reasoning. For example: “If I am saving 10 € every day, I will have saved everything I need in 2 months for buying my favourite skateboard.”

Our motto: Responsible playfulness

Kids trust more than adults, since they have less life-experience and life has not yet taught them to be careful. As a company making products that are used by kids, it is crucial to be responsible for whatever reaches them. And since parents are users too, we take them into consideration as well: parents should be in control and be able to persistently set some settings that kids cannot change, for example maximizing the volume so that the app won’t disturb their daily lives.

Even though we are sometimes still children at heart, we are not children anymore. It is thus crucial that the product is tested iteratively together with kids. Since kids are not skilled in verbally expressing themselves yet, the best is to observe them in their home environment, with toys and gadgets that they love to play with. This is why our main client circle will be families and we will test our feature ideas and designs in close collaboration with them. We might even ask the kids themselves to draw their own designs, which gives us more insights into their thinking. After all, the most exciting part of our journey is children’s ability to invent something new and the challenging task to adapt to their unlimited creativity. Or in the words of Debra Gelman:

“When you are designing for adults—even when designing games for adults—the goal is to help them cross the finish line. When you are designing for children, the finish line is just a small part of the story”

Debra Levin Gelman – Design for Kids_ Digital Products for Playing and Learning (2014, Rosenfeld)

Stay tuned with Fintune!

We are Fintune. We believe that financial literacy needs to be thought early on, to build good money habits and create excellent starting conditions for the next generation. In this time and age, money comes in many flavours and consumption opportunities are just one touch screen away. For this reason, Fintune designs digital products for kids in order to promote their skills, empathy, and creativity and prepare them for a self-determined life. In this blog series “Design Matters”, we want to share good ideas and background knowledge about designing educative, playful apps and digital products in general. Stay tuned!