What can we learn from children about UX and design?

by Philip Webb on 25 November 2011

In a recent article in the Guardian about toddlers’ relationship with touchscreen technology, I was struck by some interesting aspects of children’s behaviour and attitudes.

Children aren’t afraid to experiment and they’ll interact with the technology in ways that the designers can’t predict. During user testing of a Three Blind Mice app, after chopping off the tails of the mice, children immediately tried to put the tails back on. Designers hadn’t foreseen this feature and amended the app straight away!

This demonstrates perfectly the point of usability testing.

  • As designers we necessarily have adifferent perspective to the designs we come up with. We try to live in the shoes of potential customers but ultimately we’ll be too close to the designs to ever know exactly how users will perceive them.
  • No design, however well-informed by user research, will be perfect. One of the joys and given facts of usability testing is that it always throws up surprises. For example, I conducted some usability testing of a site that offered health information some of which was for sale. Users consistently failed to use a main navigation ‘Shop’ link to purchase information – they noticed it but didn’t want to use it. The designers were surprised that their customers didn’t want a separate shop area on the site. Instead, they wanted to find the information first, then buy it from wherever they ended up in the site.

Adults tend to be dazzled by the novelty of hi-tech solutions, but children just take it for granted.The latest technology is no newer to young children than anything else they’ve come across. The article makes the point that we are running to stand still – our expectations change as technology becomes ever more advanced. Tablets and smart phones are essentially just hi-tech toys. We’re wowed by the potential, by the sheer eye-candy newness of them but that quickly wears off.

Once the gloss has gone, the apps and features that persist are the ones that solve a tangible problem or that provide enduring fun. As designers we are seduced by what the technology is capable of and are all too quick to produce applications just because we can. An iPhone app that takes as input a number of people round a dinner table and outputs an overlay of a pie chart shape to show where a pizza should be cut into equal slices isn’t usable because you need two hands free to cut the pizza! As a throwaway gimmick it works because we are wowed by what a smart phone with a camera can be made to do but it’s not useful in the long run.

Children are interested in blinking lights and listening to funny noises for the same reasons adults are because as humans we can’t help responding to stimuli, but children don’t make a fundamental distinction between the 2d world of touchscreen devices and the 3d world of real-world objects.

Very young toddlers are likely to be attracted to an app that features a purple hippo that repeats everything you say and laughs when tickled. But they’ll also try to grab the hippo and are disappointed when their fingers bump against the screen. Footage of young children using swiping gestures they’ve just learned from playing with an iPad on non-interactive magazines are bound to make some of us feel like dinosaurs!


But in truth, they’re still working out the difference between the 2d and 3d worlds – they might be disappointed that magazines don’t respond to touch (yet!) but they’re just trying to master the environment at large and of course that’s mainly 3d. Pop-up books have more appeal because they happen in the real world, even if to adults they seem unsophisticated.

It can be argued that a lot of digital design happens independently of the offline processes it’s meant to support. As a result, websites and mobile apps often seem to operate in a silo, and have weak or unreliable relationships with the real world. Since user experiences are increasingly multi-channel with both online and offline customer touch points, successful design can’t really be conducted in a digital vacuum.

User experiences have to be considered in a holistic way with the customer placed centre stage – users care only that their aims are satisfied, not whether the interactions are digital or non-digital. The interactions are just the means that justify the end.

Perhaps designers can get into the right holistic mindset if they take their lead from children who make little distinction between online interactions (2d) and offline interactions (3d)! After all, with technology advances in augmented reality and the internet connection of real-world objects, the online and offline worlds are set to merge ever closer anyway.

Perhaps future generations of toddlers will reach out to grab the digital laughing hippo, and this time they’ll succeed!

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