Designing interactive products for children - how is it different?

by Philip Webb on 1 December 2010

Designing for an age-appropriate audience is key while designing children interactive products for 2 main reasons:

  1. Children go through many different stages in their cognitive development where they acquire new skill sets in areas such as literacy, mathematics, and their thought processes at different ages
  2. Children's fine motor skills also develop over time

These factors should be given prominence before, during, and after the design of children interactive products for different age groups.

Designing interactive products for children shouldn't be any different from any user-centred design process, but the methods for carrying out user research, the implementation of different design guidelines and evaluating the products need to cater for the young or little audience group. So how exactly are these methods different?

User research: understanding your audience

Interactive products for children are usually fun and educational, but how do we know exactly what children need? Common ways of gathering user requirements (e.g. interviews, conducting diary studies, surveys, and observational studies) don't necessarily apply to children given their limited language skills and attention span. Also, children might not necessarily know what they need. In this case, the following methods can be helpful:

Consult 'indirect' users such as parents and teachers. For example, by talking to parents and teachers, the designer might realise that what the child needs is not a game on solving multiplication problems per se, but also a better way to memorise the multiplication table.

Observing children in their natural environment such as during play or in a learning classroom might provide insight on the types of activities children enjoy and also how children interact with different products to inform the design solution.

Design guidelines for children interactive products

Some important guidelines to follow while designing for children include:

Design age-appropriate content

It's important to design user activities that match the cognitive development of the target audience group. A good example of age-appropriate content is BBC's Bitesize, an online study resource which categorises educational content based on the National Curriculum's key stages.

Understand children's mental models

It's important to remember that children don't have the same life experiences as adults hence don't have the same mental models when it comes to understanding the world around them. A good example is children's understanding of mathematical concepts. For example, young children might not visualise subtraction in terms of 2 - 1 = 1 but might understand a pictorial representation as showed below:

Demonstration of 3 apples, with 2 apples on left becoming 1 apple on the right

Use appropriate language

Again, due to children's developing language skills, it's important that the language used by interactive products is understandable by the product's target age group. This includes providing instructions in clear and simple languages and using words which are within children's vocabulary bank. It's also important to not rely on web conventions such as using terms like 'save' as it might confuse children who aren't familiar with such concepts.

Identify ergonomic constraints

As interactive products are usually delivered via platforms designed mainly for adult use, it's important to bear in mind the constraints children might face when interacting with these different devices. For example:

  • Don't use teeny-weeny font sizes: This rule applies to everyone, including children.
  • Use good colour contrast: Again, this rule applies to everyone, including children. In addition, as children respond better to colourful products, balancing these two requirements is a delicate task.
  • Use bigger keypad sizes for input devices: As young children don't necessarily have the fine motor skills required for making very precise and accurate target movements, it's important that input devices such as keyboards and touchscreens have keypads that are bigger than standard ones.
  • Point and click vs. drag and drop: Research has also showed that children tend to be able to perform point and click activities quicker and more accurately than drag and drop. With this in mind, designers should try to apply suitable interaction styles according to the target age group.

The guidelines above are by no means exhaustive but are important and mostly applicable to all types of design projects. Interested readers should refer to Hanna et al. (1998) and Gelderblom & Kotz� (2009) for more detailed guidelines for the design of technology for children.

Evaluation (usability testing with children)

Just like any other user-centred design process, evaluation is critical for finding out how users interact with a design so that it can be improved. However, it's important to bear in mind that methods appropriate for evaluating interactive products with adults don't necessarily work for children. For example, children with limited language skills might not provide much insight during traditional usability evaluation methods such as think-aloud or structured interviews. Also, children are more likely to give superficial responses while answering questions if they don't understand a question. They are also highly susceptible to suggestions and have a poorer recall for events from their memory.

Some ways to overcome this include:

  • Carry out the evaluation in the child's natural environment. Participatory observation is particularly useful in this context as it allows the evaluator to observe the child's behaviour without having to rely on recall of events
  • Avoid leading questions and specific terminology to prevent superficial responses
  • Use free-recall questions rather than specific questions to increase reliability (source: J.C. Read & K. Fine)
  • Interview other people (e.g. teachers and parents) who might be able to provide different insights on the child's interaction with an interactive product and other useful information (source: M. Scaife & Y. Rogers)
  • Make it fun!!


Designing for children requires careful planning depending on the nature of the project and the age-group of the children involved. Always determine the age-group of the target audience and use appropriate methods for conducting user research, implementing design guidelines and evaluating the designs. Lastly, a good designer must never forget the ethical considerations involved while designing for children and should exercise their limits accordingly.

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