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

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 Link

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 Book apps do this really well. For example, in the Winnie the Pooh Puzzle Book app, the honey pots wiggle around to show the user that they need to touch them in order to collect them.

Pagination Is A Primary Action Link

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 MacDonald2 app implements pagination: clearly marked forward and backward arrows at the top of the screen.


The Menu Is A Distant Secondary Action Link

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 Book app is a good example of this frustrating practice:

PlayTales4 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.




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

I’m looking at you, Talking Tom Cat8. 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 patterns9 that try to trick users into buying more domains are one thing, but if you try to use persuasive design10 on my young daughter, all bets are off. Your app will be deleted, and we’ll never do business again.


Conclusion Link

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 Link

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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 Manager at Postmark, working from Portland, OR. He also blogs and tweets regularly about user experience and product management.

  1. 1

    PaintByHand for iPad was designed for kids. It does have in-app purchases but no tricks.

  2. 2

    Simon de Turck

    March 12, 2012 7:41 am

    I would like to see a possibility for developers to shut-off notification center while the app is open. Perhaps linked to the statusbar being shown or not.

  3. 4

    Excellent article. I often think of the same things when watching my children use iPad applications.

    Moonbot Studios does a wonderful job with their applications — although they keep the swiping for pagination.

    I feel like there should be a law about the integrated buy-ups in the apps. Just imagine if nickelodeon commercials had a ‘purchase’ button on them — Congress would have flipped out already.

  4. 5

    Great read. Most of the points could also apply to user interface design in general on all platforms. There’s probably not much difference between the above case and me stabbing away at an application after accidentally bringing up a menu or swiping badly to trigger something unexpected.

    Regarding children’s applications, developers should look at the great hardware (technological or otherwise) toys available. Important buttons and dials are usually within clear, but not accidental, reach and the battery compartment, reset button or safety instructions are tucked away at the back.

    The part about hidden interactive elements reminds me of all those point and click adventure games that used to force you to move your mouse over the screen endlessly until the cursor changed. This problem is also often common on even great websites. I recently showed my boss the lovely site and one of the first things she did was try to click the present in the bottom right corner and look disappointed when it didn’t do anything.

  5. 6

    Thanks for this review! The in app buying stuff is really anoying and causes frustrations because they only can get as far as they don’t have to buy anything.

  6. 7

    Awesome article, and some of the tips I never would have figured out without a child user. Thank you!! P.S. I totally want to play the Pooh app.

  7. 8

    Thank you for this. My (two year old) daughter’s favourite app has a scroll bar for pagination at the bottom in addition to the arrows. The number of times I have to move it back to her page because she accidentally touched the wrong place drives me crazy.

    • 9

      I built one of such apps and took extra care to tuck away all menus and settings in a triple-clicked menu, so toddlers can’t access it.

      Interesting article and suggestions. I’ll have to incorporate a few of the ideas.

  8. 11

    I do this same thing for my children, but on my android devices. I agree on many points, especially the last….IntelliJoy is probably the best on android that I’ve found..they even make it so my kids can’t leave the application easily…without that feature, I sometimes find my kids adding 400 character contacts to my contact list. Anyway, good read and I’m glad to see other father’s fighting the good fight :)

  9. 12

    I concur with all of this. The purchase this stuff options kills me every time. I would like to see a free kids app store meant to be used by kids so they can add their own apps. Or allow a balance for kids to buy apps on their own.

    • 13

      My kids use their iPods and my iPad as well…I remember reading that iTunes and the App store allow the creation of “Allowances” for kids purchases, but know nothing more – might be worth checking that out.

      • 14

        I like the allowance idea. I also came across one app that actually allowed me to turn off the purchasing capability from the menu. Great headache and time saver for me and my daughter.

  10. 15

    Interesting. I also like to watch my kid using the iPad.
    While not exactly an app for kids, the most annoying ever is YouTube app with it’s bottom menu.

    • 16

      My four year old amazes me with the speed at which she sussed out the ipad when she was 3. Memory games, YouTube and even angry birds (tho she struggles to actually get very far) keep her entertained on car journeys. She even happily logs into it with the 4 digit passcode and finds what she wants to do/watch herself. It really must ne an intuitive interface with memorable icons etc… I am sure I would not have picked it up like that at 3 or 4 years old!

  11. 17

    A very good advice.

    I am puzzed about the purchases. I was under impression that parental controls will take care of this. And even without enabling them, I am forced to type in my password *all the time* when updating or purchasing something from the app store.

    Maybe your 2 year old has tips how to set up my iPad properly :)

    • 18

      Why on earth would you make purchases an option for anything designed for children under 10 or 12 years old? It makes no sense. I don’t give my kid a wad of cash when we go to Target. What parent would intend their young child to purchase their way through a game? The business model seems scammy as it is dependent on children spending money without understanding and the parent not noticing until the bill shows up later, and perhaps not getting around to disputing it. Or not being allowed to.

      I play games before I give them to my son, cause I know I’ll have to explain him and rescue him from dead ends. If purchase options or ads come up, then I delete, and if I have time, I write a review advising of the issue to help others not make the same mistaken purchase. Admittedly, these sorts of issues usually come up in free or supercheap games. There was a bit of a learning curve to being able to recognize what games are likely to be good despite being cheap or free, and which to skip. websites: MomswithApps and CoolMomPicks are good at vetting games.

  12. 19

    What an awesome post… I dont have children, because I’m still one. But this post is really good! It really focus on what needs to be improved.

    And by the way, try to trick kid… ¬¬’ that’s not good, absolutely not good!

  13. 20

    I agree completely. You nailed all the points that have frustrated me about the apps I buy for my boys.
    I am so tired having to help a “Daddy, it’s stuck!” problem only to find out that the dev put in a link somewhere easy that took them to the app store.

  14. 21

    Completely agree with all of these. Although pagination in swipe form is OK in my book because my kids are used to it from the main iOS screen as they page left/right for icons (apps) they like. I wouldn’t mind in-app purchases if there was a way in the settings to COMPLETELY remove them for my kids. They simply don’t know what they’re doing and have no idea they’re being tricked. I find that tasteless.

    I would add another: multi-touch support. My kid may have his thumb on the screen preventing them from touching a button or other action. Make sure that multi-touch is fully supported and a thumb won’t prevent action from taking place.

  15. 22

    Very well said. As the father of two young boys who enjoy their iPod Touches (and my iPad), I agree completely with your observations – especially the unscrupulous attempts to ‘upsell’ by some of these software vendors. Thanks for publishing this, I hope app companies and their developers are listening. Reputation is important.

  16. 23

    I have an almost-4 year old daughter who loves playing with daddy’s iPad and I can absolutely confirm everything written in this article. Great insights for developers building apps for children!

  17. 24

    I also have a 4yo girl that uses my iPad, and also has her own iPod. I agree with all of these, but ESPECIALLY the in-app purchasing. I don’t know how many times I have caught her about to buy something or already to the point of having to type in a password.

    Possible solution: if an app is for ages 12 and below, in-app purchasing should not be allowed. Period. I know some game developers will not like this, and maybe an < 8yo would be better, but nothing ticks me off than a developer trying to trick my child into purchasing something when they don't understand what they are doing. You are basically trying to steal from me by deceiving my child. These types of developers should be banned!!

  18. 25

    Great post! Would you mind sharing a list of apps you would recommend for a 2-3 year old?

  19. 26

    Very interesting, when designing and testing our app for children . Only activating the menu after tapping twice is a very good idea that never occurred to us, I’ll certainly consider that.

    We also found that children tend do push the home button (both on purpose and not) rather often. While every decent app should save state and be able to resume, for children apps it’s imperative.

  20. 27

    I’m still looking for a children’s iPad app that can read one word at a time (not the full sentence). Does anyone know of any? I have tried many including a Disney one but all of them read full stories which is not what I need.

    Correct comment on the “in app purchase” even though I’ve that completely turned off on my daughter’s iPad. She uses the iPad for communication mainly.

    • 28

      Sean, have you tried any of the Dr. Seuss books available on the iPad? The “read to me” option in them highlights the words as they are read.

      The Silly Sentences apps from Abitalk also have a section where the words in the sentences are read as they are touched.


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