There are lots of videos online of children struggling to use books because when they swipe them, nothing happens.
The subtext is that the next generation is growing up with touchscreen devices to the extent that paper books feel broken. It’s easy to think that touchscreens are a more natural medium for children than paper, but it’s not necessarily true.
Touchscreens certainly make computing more approachable and accessible to children (see Intel’s guide to developing apps for children for inspriration.) They can only use a keyboard when they can understand the symbols on the keys, and even then can only do so fluently with a lot of practice.
The mouse is easier to use, but still requires good motor skills to move a pointer from one place to another accurately. By comparison, it’s relatively easy to tap on (or close to) something on the screen.
So much depends on how well designed an app is, though, and to this end Sesame Street has published some interesting research about its experience with creating apps for tablets.
Sesame Workshop claims that the TV show we all loved as children has been “the most thoroughly researched and tested television show ever produced”, and Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point reveals the lengths they went to make sure their TV lessons were engaging and memorable for young children. Now, they’ve brought that expertise to the development of children’s apps.
There are some recommendations that stem from the physical nature of the tablet device. It’s heavy and bulky if you’re only three years old, so it’s difficult to tilt or shake, for example. Pre-schoolers often rest their hands on the bottom of the tablet, so this isn’t a good place to put buttons because they’re likely to be triggered accidentally.
From my own experience playing with apps with younger family members, I know that children can struggle with some gestures. They’re most comfortable tapping things, very firmly.
Sesame Workshop points out that it’s important for children to get immediate feedback, so it’s a good idea to register the tap when the user touches the screen, rather than when they lift their finger. Multitouch gestures are difficult for children to master, even simple ones like the pinch, so it’s a good idea to use simple gestures and create bright, eye-catching buttons to enable navigation around the app.
A responsible app developer will clearly ringfence the parts of the app that aren’t suitable for young fingers to stray into, too. The Guardian reported recently that children are running up huge bills in in-app purchases, and one of my friends had exactly that experience when her son didn’t understand the implications of downloading additional content.
App developers who want to succeed in creating games for younger people need to make sure that they partner with parents to give children great entertainment and educational experiences, which means making sure that parents are in control of purchasing.
Sesame Workshop recommends having a “baby gate”, which requires an additional confirmation before entering the store. I believe developers need to make sure this baby gate is robust and not just an attempt to look responsible: perhaps we could have a simple sum here (like a Captcha) that is easy for a parent to solve, but extremely difficult for a young child to accidentally tap their way through.
It adds a little hassle to the purchasing process, but parents will only allow apps they trust to be used by their children.
A developer’s goal should be to sell great content to well-informed parents, and to have absolute confidence that every purchase was intentional.
Over the coming months, I expect we’ll see more Ultrabook devices enter the home. With the combination of a touchscreen and keyboard input, they’re the ideal family computer, especially the hybrid designs that enable the keyboard to be removed or folded away, so the device can be used as a tablet by younger family members (or anyone else for that matter).
We might even see a new class of apps emerge that take young people from their first touch experiences through to using the keyboard and mouse, all on the same device but with different input options becoming available as the child improves in dexterity and literacy.
What other factors do you think are important in designing apps for children?
This blog post is written by Softtalkblog, and is sponsored by the Intel Developer Zone, which helps you to develop, market and sell software and apps for prominent platforms and emerging technologies powered by Intel Architecture.