A Dad’s Plea To Developers Of iPad Apps For Children

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I spend a lot of time buying and testing iPad apps for kids. To be more specific, I lovingly do this for a certain two-year-old girl who is currently on a very successful #OccupyiPad mission in my house. Through extensive observational research, I’ve discovered what works and doesn’t work for my daughter, so I’m going to shamelessly generalize my findings to all children and propose four essential guidelines for developers who work on iPad apps for children.

Affordance Is King

Most apps for children show a bunch of different things on the screen that you can touch to make stuff happen. Cows moo, windows open and close, honey pots need to be collected, etc. But most of these apps give no indication of which elements are interactive and which are not. This usually results in a frantic and frustrating game of whack-a-mole to find the elements that actually do something.

The solution is simple: affordance1. Give the elements in question a characteristic that indicates they are touchable. The Disney Puzzle Book2 apps do this really well. For example, in the Winnie the Pooh Puzzle Book3 app, the honey pots wiggle around to show the user that they need to touch them in order to collect them.

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Pagination Is A Primary Action

Pagination is so important to the enjoyment of most children’s apps, but it is often a quagmire. Almost every app does this differently. The most common methods of pagination are touch-based arrows and swipe-based gestures (indicated by a skeuomorphic curled-up page corner). Both of these interactions are valid solutions, but because swipes can be tricky for tiny fingers and the gestures usually require some precision, the arrow approach is much better for kids.

Also, the entire bottom part of the screen is a hot area and needs to be avoided. Kids constantly touch that part of the tablet by accident, which makes accidental pagination inevitable if the controls are placed there. I like how the Old MacDonald5 app implements pagination: clearly marked forward and backward arrows at the top of the screen.

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The Menu Is A Distant Secondary Action

Speaking of the bottom part of the screen: don’t put any interactive elements in the bottom part of the screen — especially menu actions, which are not important anyway once a child gets going with the app. The number of times I’ve had to stop the car to dismiss a random menu brought on by an accidental touch… well, it’s dangerous. The Mickey Mouse Puzzle Book7 app is a good example of this frustrating practice:

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PlayTales9 has a clever implementation of the menu action in many of its books. First, the menu button is placed in the top-right corner, out of accidental reach (although the top middle would be better, in keeping with the top-left and top-right pagination mentioned in the previous point).

More importantly, it uses a two-touch method to bring up the menu. The menu icon is semi-transparent in its normal state. One tap removes the transparency, and a second tap brings up the menu. Although not foolproof, it’s an excellent way to avoid accidental taps.

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If You Try To Trick My Kid Into Buying Stuff, You’re Dead To Me

I’m looking at you, Talking Tom Cat13. A lot of apps do this, but Talking Tom Cat is the absolute worst. The screen is a landmine of carefully placed icons that lead to accidental purchases — not to mention the random animated banner ads that are designed to draw attention away from the app itself. GoDaddy’s dark patterns14 that try to trick users into buying more domains are one thing, but if you try to use persuasive design15 on my young daughter, all bets are off. Your app will be deleted, and we’ll never do business again.

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Conclusion

Designing apps for children is extremely hard. Not only is quality, age-appropriate content hard to create, but designing the flow and interaction of these apps is made more difficult because designers must refrain from implementing advanced gestures, which would only confuse and frustrate kids (and, by extension, their parents). Yet all apps can and should adhere to certain basics. Hopefully, the four guidelines discussed here can become fixtures of all children’s apps.

(al, fi, il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affordance
  2. 2 http://www.disneybookapps.com/
  3. 3 http://www.disneybookapps.com/winnie.html
  4. 4 http://www.disneybookapps.com/winnie.html
  5. 5 http://www.duckduckmoosedesign.com/educational-iphone-itouch-apps-for-kids/old-macdonald/
  6. 6 http://www.duckduckmoosedesign.com/educational-iphone-itouch-apps-for-kids/old-macdonald/
  7. 7 http://www.disneybookapps.com/spookymickey.html
  8. 8 http://www.disneybookapps.com/spookymickey.html
  9. 9 http://www.myplaytales.com/en/
  10. 10 http://www.myplaytales.com/en/
  11. 11 http://www.myplaytales.com/en/
  12. 12 http://www.myplaytales.com/en/
  13. 13 http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/talking-tom-cat-2/id421997825?mt=8
  14. 14 http://wiki.darkpatterns.org/
  15. 15 http://www.cennydd.co.uk/2010/the-perils-of-persuasion/
  16. 16 http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/talking-tom-cat-2/id421997825?mt=8

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Rian is passionate about designing and building software that people love to use. After spending several years working in Silicon Valley and Cape Town, he is currently Product Design Director at Jive Software in Portland, OR. He also blogs and tweets regularly about user experience and product management.

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  1. 1

    Harriet Pellereau

    July 19, 2012 6:24 am

    Love this article. I wondered if you would be interested in checking out my little kids storybook Timmy Tickle – I found this post very inspiring when I was making the app (more details here: http://www.nimblebean.com). If you are, I will happily send you a promo code.
    Thanks!
    Harriet

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  2. 102

    My Ipad is my kids Ipad now :) .. right indeed we need to carefully monitor kids apps.

    One which I can recommend is Pic-A-Who Who which is an educational Ipad game that helps your child rapidly learn faces, shapes, animals and other objects by sight and sound. You put your own pictures inside amazing themes, then narrate them with your own voice , so basically you decide the content of the app!

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  3. 203

    Great thread. I was about to launch an educational game for kids in the age group 2-5 years old and my revenue model was to release the fully functioning game for free and have the option to add more content via in app purchases. The game includes a setting to disable in-app purchases which is set to disabled as default as is the music. The button to get to this settings screen is small and not designed to look like a button but should be recognisable by adults. So the default state of the game has no links to any in app purchases at all and only if the parent enabled this would they links appear.

    I have chosen the in-app purchase route thinking it would provide a better way of marketing the game. I am a one man developer and have spent a lot of time developing this game. I have read of people who have released games that are paid for only and had less than 100 downloads in 6 months and I can vouch that one of these games was very professional. I created a game for a client recently that was free with in-app purchases and they had several thousand downloads of the free game within a matter of weeks.

    So if I was to consider an alternative revenue model at this stage taking into account I have pretty much zero marketing budget, what would you suggest?

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    • 304

      After doing some reading on the subject, I see that another alternative is to release a “lite” version of the game and a full version. Problem with this model is my plan was to allow the parents to buy additional bundles via in app purchase. If you imagine a colouring app where you could buy a bundle of an additional X pictures via in app purchase, that is more or less the same idea. The lite/full version solution would not enable me to offer additional bundles in the same way.

      I want to make sure I get this right and don’t want to upset any parents so any advice at this stage is really appreciated.

      1
  4. 405

    Agreed. Thank you for the article. I have a five year old son and I understand the value of building an app with philosophy explained in the article.

    Article and comments by so many folks here makes me and others in the team feel like we are part of this growing community who wants to provide the best and safe iPad experience to our kids. Year back when we started working on our first iPad only Halloween game for the kids, ( hallowsthieves.com ) we were committed to provide best and safe experience for the kids. We designed and released app which is simple single screen game, has no ads or in-app purchase, no tracking of user activity or collection of usage data. I hope more developers take this route when they build iPad apps for kids.

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  5. 506

    There are a lot of things to watch out for when it comes to apps for kids. – the in-app purchases
    – banner ads from third parties
    – too frustrating an app for kids
    – stories that start friendly but become inappropriate for kids

    There are also lots of really great kids apps. To help parents figure out quickly which ones are best for their kids, I record videos of iPad apps along with a review.

    Here is one of the more ingenious iPad apps that brings out the artist in your kids: kidsbestipadapps.com/PlayART-by-Tapook.html

    No, it’s not my app…just my video and review of it.

    Thanks,
    Mitchell

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  6. 607

    I have always gotten so frustrated giving my toddler our iPhones or iPad. Thankfully, he never bought anything, but he was constantly clicking the home button and closing apps, opening apps that I didn’t want him to touch, or clicking on ads and stopping his game. It is hardly useful to keep him occupied when he can’t go more than a minute without needing assistance. I am also a therapist and work with kids with autism and aspergers. It is very hard to keep them focused, when they can just click out of an app. I heard there were some updates to iOS 6 under “Accessibility”, particulary the Guided Access Setting. I tried explaining this to some other parents I knew, as well as clients of parents. That was not so successful. Yesterday, I posted a tutorial on how to set up Guided Access in iOS 6 to keep kids from clicking out with the home button, hiking up the volume, and clicking on ads. Super useful at our house and with my clients. Feel free to check it out http://goo.gl/ceVSf

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  7. 708

    Thanks for the great article. As a developer and a father of a toddler, I completely agree. In kids games I detest ads, or any sort of trickery.

    I wonder if you (and others reading this) feel there is a place for in-app-purchases at all. I have a spelling app and would like to offer more words. The options are: in-app-purchases; or 2 different versions of the app (1 free, 1 paid).

    If we went with the in-app purchase method, it would be hidden behind a ‘double tap’ or ‘tap and hold’ non-descript menu item on the top of the home page (similar to the Play Tales game you mention), and their would be a setting to hide it completely.

    Maintaining trust with parents is very important to us. What do you, and others, think about the above in-app-purchase approach vs free/paid?

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  8. 809

    “Smart Toddler School Pro++” apple app– This all in one or kindergarten prep app provides everything about upper, lower case letters, numbers, colors, shapes, counting and provides good listening and learning. The child will have the opportunity to learn to write, counting, colors, and advanced shapes. My son learned while playing with it for hours and hours.

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  9. 910

    Thanks for all good advice! I have followed your guidelines for the development of Happy Draw Bug (my iPad game hobby project). Would be interesting to know what you think of it, there’s a game demo on the website:

    http://drawbug.wordpress.com/

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  10. 1011

    My 5 year old kid’d favorite app has lately been Jazzy World Tour. It teaches all about music and culture from around the world.

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/jazzy-world-tour-free-musical/id574909527?mt=8

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  11. 1112
  12. 1213

    Thanks for the great article.
    As an app developer for preschooler I know it’s very hard to get it right, and my team and I continually tweak our apps to improve them.
    Even though we do not exactly follow your first rule, I think you’d like what we have done with our CosmoCamp series of apps.
    I’d be happy to see what you think of them:
    cosmocamp.com

    Martin

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  13. 1314

    Hi Rian,

    I really liked you article and i wanted to ask you a question, I am developing a new drawing app for children aged 5-7.

    Our plan is to give 6 coloring pages for free and the rest are locked.

    I would like to know if you have any suggestions for us before executing the coloring pages’ inner pages interface? Do you have any examples of applications that do present a kids safety inner purchase flow?

    I appreciate your time and effort and will be very happy to read more about your thoughts regarding children’s applications.

    Best Regards,
    Lio

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  14. 1415

    Rian, please note that Donald Norman himself in his latest edition of The design of everyday things has stated that the design world is misusing the term affordance, which he himself made popular from his first edition. He has noted that the only affordance you can have with a glass surface is to touch it, I believe in his first or second chapter, and that a SIGNIFIER is what allows the user to understand what you mean as, “some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully”. I don’t mean to nitpick, but it’s good for individuals in the forefront of design to be… at the forefront of design :)

    https://blogs.aalto.fi/stratusreader/2012/03/06/norman-on-affordances-perceived-affordances-i-mean/

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  15. 1516

    Great article! Also,Talking Angela asked questions like “do you have a dog?” “Does your dog sleep in your room with you?” and “Does your dog bark at strangers?”

    Then there’s the question and response that led to the deletion: “Do you like talking to strangers?” (NO) “Why not? I was a stranger and now we’re best friends!”

    When you put it all together, ALL of the talking cats were deleted…

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  16. 1617

    Thanks for the article. Nice to see all the Afrikaans comments.
    I guess a lot of this boils down to user testing. Kiddies apps are a very interesting one. We are developing for kids, but selling to the parents How to maximise the sales while really making the app child friendly is difficult.

    Other thing I also found is that the kids sometimes hold the iPad in such a way that one of their fingers touches the screen. For a lot of apps, the other touches are then disregarded. Which results in the child asking the parent’s help.

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