iPads, kids and design lessons for adults - Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer & Brian Pagán at EuroIA 2011

 by Martin Belam, 24 September 2011

I’m trying to keep up the pace with “live blogging” the sessions from EuroIA as soon as they finish today, but there was so much packed into Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer & Brian Pagán’s talk that I didn’t quite manage to write it up in the fifteen minute break that followed. It was fantastic though - and really great fun as well as useful. And please excuse an above average number of typos...

Download all of my EuroIA 2011 blog posts as one printable PDF or for iBooks

Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer & Brian Pagán - “Tablets and Kids: Creative Opportunities with Apps Empowering Children”

This talk was about how tablets are making children more important as consumers of digital content, but also explored the problem that content providers haven’t caught up with what they want. Kids love tablets, and they love them more than phones or computer. They are, firstly, more available - parents are much more likely to hand over a tablet rather than a work laptop or the much more personal phone. Tablets are also a very social family device. A diary study from when the iPad first came out showed that 44% of use was on the couch in a social setting with the family, and apparently 70% of iPad-owning parents let their kids use them. Or perhaps, more accurately, are forced to let their kids use them due to their relentless pestering. My two year old is not adverse to shouting “Daddy! Daddy! Angry Birds! Angry Birds!” at me whenever she sees the iPad in my hand.

Tablets are also significantly easier for kids to use than other computational devices. Firstly, because of the large screen-size, you don’t need the fine motor skills you require to work on the smaller smartphone screen. And, importantly, action and perception happen in the same place - it isn’t the same as the mouse/monitor paradigm where the child has to make the link between the mouse movement and the icon on the screen - it is more like the real world, and a child already understands how to move around objects.

There are barriers though, caused by bad UX. In app stores, for example, it isn’t clear to parents what the answer to their main questions about any app will be: “Will my child be able to use this?”, “Will they enjoy it?” and “Is the content suitable?”.

Design within apps is also an issue. Children under 6 can’t read reliably, and presenting choices with text lists and categories is not a good UI for children who can’t grasp the idea of hierarchies. They can also spend money by accident - Wouter and Brian showed an interface in a colouring app, where hitting random text items on a list gave the child a 90% chance of initiating a purchase dialogue - and a simple “Yes/No” set of options at that stage gives them a 50% chance of spending money. I’m also firmly convinced, from experience, that a lot of in-app ad click-throughs are generated by the unerring ability of children to spot them and tap them!

The talk went on to point out that we have all been designing for adults for a very long time, and have built up a body of assumptions based on our observations of user behaviour. As soon as we are designing for children, however, these assumptions are a hindrance. We need to re-examine our understanding of human factors to focus on young people, and even perhaps take part in participatory design sessions with them. They showed a video clip of a boy talking about how, if you were at home sick, you could still be in school lessons. His design solution, a hologram that could play football - “and of course he scores a hat-trick” the boy said - was impractical. However, what was valuable was that all the solutions the children were talking about were ways of recreating the social aspects of the school experience - they appeared to take it for granted that the lessons and educational components of the day would be delivered to them. This changed the focus of the project in question.

There were some tips on running user testing sessions with children. Under 3 and they do not have sufficient verbal capability. Between three and six, their answers can be unreliable (although I wasn’t entirely clear that this is much different with adult user testing session participants). You need to be careful about incentives - paying children seems somehow a bit weird. And you have to take care of privacy issues - the kids won’t bat an eyelid about being recorded, but their parents will almost certainly fret about where the recording might end up. And one final tip - keep the sexes apart. Below the age of 9 mixed gender groups hate each other - because “boys smell” and “girls are silly” and so on - and won’t do activities together. Above the age of 13, they are far too interested in each other, and you’ll have trouble keeping the sessions on track.

I was reminded of an anecdote that Hubert Anyżewski told about testing with children when I saw him present at the Polish IA Summit. My notes from that talk said:

“Their first attempts at developing the game fell completely flat when shown to children in testing sessions. They had, he said, made too many assumptions about children being childish and easily amused. Instead, research showed that even young children identified with characters like Hannah Montana and Ben 10. The game was accordingly recast away from the initial fairytale world it had been set in, and the avatars assumed by the children made more mature and aspirational. Doing user testing with 7 year olds isn’t without issues - after about 15 minutes of the session, most of the kids were bored and playing games under the table rather than paying attention to what was being asked of them.”

As part of the talk, Wouter & Brian showed a clip of a two month old playing with an iPad, and contrasted it with a clip of a two year old doing the same. Seen side-by-side, it was clear that the two month old wasn’t really interacting with the device in a meaningful way at all - but was reacting to stimuli and exploring their world with uncoordinated random movements, as they seem fond of doing at that age. The clips sparked a good exchange in the room and on Twitter about whether this idea that children this young were going to be learning to interact with a virtual environment at such a young age was a good thing, or whether it even represented a shift at all. Personally, my feeling is that these children will grow up with networked touch-screen devices as the background radiation of their lives, in the way that I did with the telephone and the TV.


I’ve still got a couple of sessions to write up, so I expect the blog posts to keep on coming...continuing with “Understanding the Nature of Resistance” from Alla Zollers.

This is one of a series of blog posts about EuroIA 2011 in Prague. You can download all of the blog posts as one printable PDF or for iBooks.

All your EuroIA 2011 slides are belong to us
“Designing today’s web” - Luke Wroblewski
“The IA of /Culture” - Martin Belam
“Navigating the Digital Spice Route” - Terry Ma
“Extending the Storytelling - Blending IA and Content Strategy” - Boon Sheridan
“Pervasive IA for the Sentient City” - Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati
iPads, kids and design lessons for adults - Wouter Sluis-Thiescheffer & Brian Pagán
“Understanding the Nature of Resistance” - Alla Zollers
“Does a Rich GUI Make the Bank Richer?” - Haakon Halvorsen & Kjetil Hansen
“Designing for Everyone, Anywhere, at Any Time” - Anna Dahlström
“Truth and Dare – Out of the Echo-Chamber, into the Fire” - My critique of Jason Mesut at EuroIA 2011
“The Rise and Fall...and Rise Again of Information Architecture” - Bob Royce
“Fill in the IA gap” - Mags Hanley

You might also be interested in:
All your IA Summit 2011 slides are belong to us
All your UPA 2011 slides are belong to us
All your EuroIA 2010 slides are belong to us


I believe, that this new tablet-technologie make our children lazy. As i grew up, i was outside to play soccer with my friends.
The kids in 2011 seem to be much lazyer and prefer to stay at home and play some videogames, or have to be online on facebook. I could imagine, that someday the kidz will be teached via conferece and didnt have to go to school anymore. The social intelligence would be less and it would be hard to find real friends or lovers.
In my opinion, would it be better not to buy the things, wich the comercials wants us to have. Sometimes ist just right to go outside, take the bike an ride somewhere.

Not the main focus of the article, but I never cease to be amazed by how Apple takes a category and makes their product synonymous with the category (ie the tablet). As much as I dislike Apple, they succeed for one simple reason: they take existing technology and simplify the user experience to the point that a 3-year old intuitively knows how to use it.

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