4 years ago I co-founded a company called Duck Duck Moose with the simple mission to create high-quality, interactive experiences for children. The App Store was still a nascent platform and there was a dearth of well designed apps for kids. This was (way) back in the day when we spent more time polishing fingerprints off iPhones than we did using them. Although it seemed hard to believe at the time, after watching kids playing with iPhones it was evident that the proliferation of these devices would lead to a disruption in early childhood education. Our mission has evolved beyond just creating good interactive experiences for kids to thinking about how we can transform early childhood education by reaching children earlier and in a more immersive way than was ever possible before.
Our first app, Wheels on the Bus was inspired by the traditional pop-up books with movable parts. Every aspect of that first app was thoughtfully designed to be intuitive for the youngest of users. The illustration is colorful and punchy, the interactions are simple to avoid over stimulation and the targets are big to accommodate users with less developed fine motor skills. Since we started the company in 2008, we have designed and built 16 top-selling apps that vary in target age from 1.5 to 7. Every Duck Duck Moose app has earned and sustained top rankings in the iTunes and Android stores, and they have received dozens of awards, including Parents’ Choice awards for 14 titles, 13 Children’s Technology Review Editor’s Choice Awards, and a KAPi award for the “Best Children’s App” at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show.
Our secret sauce at Duck Duck Moose continues to be forming non-hierarchical design teams with a broad range of skills. This allows product teams to approach product design from a multitude of different perspectives which makes the team output much stronger. We very much embrace the IDEO design methodologies for brainstorming and human-centered design as part of our process. We iterate rapidly, and most importantly, we test with children. No matter how much we have thought around and through a design challenge we are always humbled by what we discover while testing with children.
At a high level these are principles that I encourage my team to think about when designing for kids:
Encourage wild exploration
When designing for children we look to support and encourage highly exploratory behavior. Children learn by trying and doing. An overly scripted play experience can hamper creativity and learning. The youngest users explore the most fearlessly, touching everything and anything. They give strong visual queues when they like and don’t like an experience.
In our open-ended creative apps like Draw & Tell, Princess Fairytale Maker, and Superhero Comic Book Maker we allow kids to record their voice, string scenes together draw and manipulate stickers to create stories. The experience is very unscripted by design to allow for creativity and exploration. There is no sequencing; a child can choose to do some parts and not others depending on his or her desired outcome.
Design age-appropriate UI mechanisms and interactions
Motor skills, cognitive development, attention span, visual-spatial abilities et al vary wildly in younger kids. When designing for children it is important to account for the fine-grained distinctions between age groups and design a satisfying experience for that specific group.
Apps that engage younger users like Old Mac Donald have very a very simple mechanism for navigation and 2 to 4 large interactive elements that are child-directed which helps to avoid over stimulation and encourage the development of fine motor skills. In apps that appeal to older children like Park Math we use creative navigational elements like touching a roller skating bear to switch between scenes or selecting a kite containing an icon to play a different activity.
Make it engaging
Children have a notoriously short attention span (as anyone with a toddler knows) so interactions have to be engaging. This means that the design team needs to focus on all aspects of the app including visual development, animation, and game play. This is easier said than done since children’s preferences and skill levels are constantly in flux which means that as a designer you are always trying to hit a moving target. The best apps are designed with graduated interaction — a set of challenges which when best applied is adaptive to an individual child’s ability.
We utilize adaptive gameplay in our curriculum-based apps. In Duck Duck Moose Reading we track a child’s progress through the curriculum and display it in a parent reporting screen that shows which letter sounds a child has mastered. As a child masters the letter sounds for consonants we weave in long vowels and short vowels as well as harder phonics-based activities to ensure that kids who are just learning don’t become frustrated.
The graphics, animation and game play are designed to engage 4-6 year olds.
Break the rules a bit
Young children don’t have a mental model for common interaction patterns which frees the designer up to try things that more closely align with real-world interaction. As designers, this allows us to be much more creative about the ways that we incorporate UI elements. These days we have evolved to incorporating interactive elements (like buttons or navigation) much more into the visual landscape of the design itself. Children have no problem finding these elements, often times it is the parents who get stuck.
In our Itsy Bitsy Spider app the child navigates through the experience using a spider. In kid testing this mechanism was immediately apparent to children who naturally assumed that the only way to navigate in an app with a song about a spider is to use the spider. parent on the other hand, started blankly at the screen before asking what they should do next. We added a “poke me” sign to the spider to help parents from getting stuck.
View it from a child’s point of view
One of the most important things a designer can do to create a successful experience is to cultivate empathy for the user. At Duck Duck Moose, we are highly cognizant of the fact that our users are very different than us and this knowledge is something that permeates every phase of our design process. To develop empathy we ask the team to spend time with children in classrooms and one-on-one. We often engage children in co-design to help us refine artwork, design or narrative.
Emphasis on user control
We design child-directed experiences. Children want to transform, manipulate and explore. Good design for children supports all three.
All Duck Duck Moose apps are child-directed. In More Trucks, for example, children can choose which activity they would like to play. They can use the crane to stack up items in any way they wish and knock them down with a wrecking ball. All 4 activities allow for lots of open-ended play that put the child in the driver’s seat.
Test. Test. Test.
Test early and test often. Early prototypes are very successful at ferreting out unforeseen interaction issues that could cause major issues downstream in the design cycle. A critical part of testing with children is observation. Younger children are usually less adept at articulating the things they find frustrating, but an observant tester can infer a lot from the way the child interacts with the product.
Never settle for good enough
The Ed Tech market is evolving and children are getting more sophisticated about the quality of the experiences they expect. As the largest independent developer of children’s educational apps we continually work to create better and better experiences. The secret to being a good designer is actually no secret, it is just the inability to ever reach a level of satisfaction with anything that you have done in the past.
What are some of the things that have made your design teams successful? How do you cultivate a sense of empathy for a user who is very different from yourself?
photo by Pink Shebert Photography