Designing for imprecise, impatient, incomplete or wrong

My 3.5 year old boy has been trying tens of kids learning apps for the past year since I got an iPad. Looking at him (and his friends/cousins) discover and interact with these apps has taught me a great deal about app accessibility for kids, and has been extremely useful as I progress towards releasing my first iOS app in the next few months.

While these apps are all about kids learning to use their young brains and small maladroit fingers, some seem intent on crushing their little players’ confidence and short temper. Let me share some examples:

Imprecise

When dragging an onscreen element to another location (imagine a piece of a puzzle), the correct landing zone (on which the item is supposed to be released) is too tight. A few things happen: when dropped, the item goes back to it original position although the kid had picked the right item, which in turn makes him doubt that he had picked the right item and try other solutions he knows are wrong only to be faced by another piece of puzzle going back to its original position.

Impatient

While the app delivers a voice instruction, any screen interaction is disabled, or the instructions overlay doesn’t disappear until a tiny corner X cross is tapped. It’s frustrating for kids that play with an app over and over and have learnt the instructions. They just repeatedly and vainly try to interact with the unresponsive app. Some apps actually let kids interact with the screen while delivering instructions, but should the kid make a mistake, proceed to deliver an error message over the instruction message, making for a messy soundscape. Some apps also play 10s congratulation animations, or worse, replay winning moves on screen, while the kid repeatedly taps the Next or Menu button or any button that looks like it could take him to the next challenge right now.

Incomplete

When trying to draw dot-to-dot pictures, the app doesn’t register that the finger has connected with the next dot unless the finger has gone over the exact location of the tiny numbered dot. The result is that either the drawing line stops right there, or the drawing continues till the drawing of the deformed rabbit looks complete but the app doesn’t congratulate the kid because of a few unactivated dots and just stops responding, leaving the kid puzzled and discouraged.

Wrong

The get it right or die trying penchant of most apps that just refuse to help kids along, even after repeat mistakes. This is so discouraging that the kid will rapidly move on to another app.

Instead, our apps should be designed to be forgiving while they gain in dexterity and skills:

  • Landing targets should be much wider than the items being dragged onto them (and similarly, tap zones should be bigger than the items to be tapped on)
  • We should let them interact with the content as soon as they see it
  • We should allow for a number of steps to be missed without stopping or ruining the whole experience
  • Any instruction message should disappear upon touch anywhere on the screen
  • We should let them skip to the next challenge immediately after completing one
  • Let’s give them a little hint when we detect repeat mistakes, hesitation or inaction, or even answer for them after multiple failed attempts to help them progress forward to the next step.

And let’s design for awkwardness too!
One app I saw Eliyo play, lets users compose school lunches for kids. They pick starters, main and dessert. Some of the items include shoes or little bugs that, when added to the menu, have a little teacher animation pop up and let out a loud: “Are you mad?!” or “Gross!” which invariably sends him into mad laughter.

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  1. stelt

     /  September 21, 2012

    On imprecise: This 38-year-old kid has thick fingers, which for many iPad applications means a problem.

  • Aka.me

    Based in Paris & Tokyo, Paul Baron is a senior product manager for hire. Ex-@AQworks. Co-founder of cultural platform Tokyo Art Beat.
    Service design, interaction design, startups, user research.
    Posts a few times a decade since 2003.

    Visit Aka.me for the full site.


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