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Design for Kids: An interview with Debra Levin Gelman

Gerry Gaffney Interaction design, Uncategorized 1 Comment

Download (mp3: 22.7MB, 47:14) Getting onto the floor for user research. Measuring PTR (Parental Threshold for the Revolting.) And designing products that engage, educate and entertain kids.

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience Podcast. Today’s guest is director of experience design at EPAM Empathy Lab. She writes, researches, and designs interactive media for children. She’s worked with clients including PBS kids, Scholastic and Craylola. She has a Master’s in Interaction Design and Technology from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

I wanted to talk to her today about her excellent book, Design for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning. Debra Levin Gelman, welcome to the User Experience Podcast.

Debra Levin Gelman:

Thank you, Gerry. I’m thrilled to be here.

Gerry:

Let’s start by going off topic immediately. Can I ask you, what’s the difference between playing and learning?

Debra:

Oh, that’s a great question and the difference is much, much finer than we thought. For kids, especially kids under the age of 12, playing is learning and learning is playing. Everything that they do is an insight into the world around them and it keeps them on their toes and helps them figure out how to navigate things like society and relationships and even the physical objects that make up their world.

So when we think about playing and we think about learning, the distinction between the two is very blurry and I think that as an organisation, as an industry, we need to be a little bit more aware of that so that when we’re designing for kids we can blur those lines a little bit more and make the experiences tap into how kids prefer to interact with experiences, both online and off.

Gerry:

I think kids have a lot more fun learning at schools nowadays than they did certainly when I was a kid.

Debra:

They really do. It’s funny that you say that because… my daughter’s going to be starting kindergarten in the fall and we went in to take a look at the school and it looks nothing like the school that I went to in the mid to late seventies. The classrooms were set up to be much more experiential. The activities seemed to be a lot more hands on. Sure, they still had desks and the typical supplies that you would see in a classroom but the set-up allowed for a lot more interaction and a lot more hands on work and along with that comes renewed attitude about school and learning and what it means to learn. And I remember when I was young having a pretty hard time getting myself motivated to go to school and learn every day and because in today’s more modern schools that line again is blurring, kids see it as part of the whole overall experience of learning and playing and they’re excited about school and they’re excited about learning and the whole thing just feels a lot more seamless and integrated and cool to them.

Gerry:

I think there’s a challenge for a lot of parents because they see their kids on the tablet or the iPad or the computer or whatever and they think, oh they’re not studying, they’re not learning.

Debra:

Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have a lot of concerns about that in fact. You know we all, there’s that question that keeps coming up: How much screen time is too much screen time? And obviously you don’t want kids to be in front of a screen, be it an iPad or a television or computer hours upon hours upon hours. I think in the United States kids under the age of 12 are averaging about seven hours a day in front of a screen. That’s a lot of time, right?

So, I think that when we think about playing, when we think about learning we can’t really limit ourselves to the digital realm and as parents we have to encourage kids to of course get outside and play, right? And interact with humans and play with their friends and do all the things that kids do and did before the onset of digital technology.

But I also believe that adults should be outside playing more too and I think that we still owe it to the children that we design for to create exemplary experiences for them because at the end of the day, literally at the end of the day and it’s dark out and it’s time for bed, there needs to be some down time and kids are l looking for interesting things to keep their minds engaged. Kids’ minds are always moving, they’re always on the go; they’re always looking for new things to explore and having the world available to them via a tablet or via, you know, the internet is pretty compelling and I think parents could do with being a little bit more liberal in terms of how their kids interact with these technologies.

Gerry:

I think it’s come across a little bit but why do you like working with kids?

Debra:

Well [laughs], what I like best about working with kids is just the sheer unpredictability of the experience. No two kids are alike, just as no two adults are alike, and what you get when working with children is this changing cognitive sense. So working with a 2-year-old, and I know we’re probably going to talk about this in a little bit, but working with a 2-year-old versus working with a 4-year-old can be completely different and you have to always be on your toes and you have to always be familiar with the latest cultural references and understand what the ‘hot’ thing is currently for kids of that age group, just so you can speak their language because the second you let your guard down and show that you might not be familiar with the things that are such a big part of their world, they will start distrusting you.

So I think it’s again that constant awareness, that constant being on your toes and that constant unpredictability and change that are present in kids pretty much until they’re young teenagers.

Gerry:

Now in your book you wrote that “there are still far too many mediocre experiences for kids out there, thrown together with little to no regard for how children learn and play”. That’s kind of sad; why is that so?

Debra:

You know I think it’s the same reason we have so many mediocre experiences for adult audience, right? We assume we know what they want and what will motivate them and what will excite them and we design based on those assumptions and one of my favourite examples when we talk about kids and designing for kids and why the experiences are so mediocre is because I think designers have gotten lazy, right?

So, we know that kids like action and we know that kids like animation and we know that kids have short attention spans. So let’s just make everything on the screen jump around and let’s use 47 million different colours and let’s make the navigation animate and every single element on screen do something when it’s tapped or when it’s clicked. And that in many ways is a cop out. I think kids require very careful, very thoughtful, very deliberate interactions and I think sometimes we don’t consider that. We just think about what’s going to be the most exciting, the most absorbing. And it’s true for television too. If you watch a children’s cartoon, very few of them have any kind of cohesive theme or narrative. It’s all just a, you know, bunch of insanity. And that’s fun for a short time but I think what we see happening is that kids lose interest very quickly in a particular program or in a particular game or app or site if that kind of thought and that kind of care isn’t put into it, just as adults will move on to new things if the value proposition is lower than what they would have expected too.

So we really need to be more calculated and more thoughtful in terms of what we design, why we design it and how we go about doing that to make sure that it’s going to appeal to these kids and to make sure we give them the credit they deserve in terms of their cognitive, emotional, physical development.

Gerry:

Now I must admit I wish that I had read this book a few years ago when I was actually working with kids because there was quite a bit of pressure on the designers to minimise the number of age bands that we’d cater for. You propose two-year bands, for example, 2-4 years old, 4-6 and so on. Now I know it’s a big question but could you take a little bit of time to talk us through each of these age groups, how they differ and how to design for them?

Debra:

Sure, sure and it’s a situation I’ve been in many times myself. We had a client come to us and say, “Hey, I want to build a site for kids ages 6-12”. That’s a huge range, right? And no matter what you say and no matter how convincing you are, you’re not going to convince a client to shell out the money to build completely separate apps for each two-year band. It’s just not financially possible, it’s not practical and I understand that. So before I talk about the different age groups I would like to say that if you do find yourself in that situation again, or for other designers who may find themselves in that situation, the most important thing to do is to try to get the client to narrow down a particular sweet spot.

For example, if you’re designing a site for kids 6 to 11, are you targeting more on the younger side, are you looking towards, are you looking to be most successful for an audience of 6- and 7-year- olds? Or are you skewing a little bit older and you want something that kids are going to be able to grow into? And if you don’t get that adoption of the 6s and 7s, can you target a little bit of an older audience? And even if they can’t say yes, I want to target 9-year-olds and everybody else will come along with, at least you get a better sense of the goals of the site or the app and it will help your framing in terms of who you’re designing for.

Gerry:

Mind you there is a danger that the older kids will then use that terrible word to describe the site or the app.

Debra:

Yes, absolutely.

Gerry:

What’s the terrible word?

Debra:

The terrible word is ‘babyish’ and yeah that’s pretty much the kiss of death when you’re designing something for kids. Even if they don’t say babyish, if they say something like, “Oh, you know my little sister would really love this game,” or “Oh, this is a great game but I think it’s much better for kids who are in first grade, not in third grade, like me.” So, you have, there are a lot of warning signs to look for and that is absolutely true, Gerry. You do run into that risk when you are designing for such a large spectrum of kids. The problem is if you start skewing towards the older side and the little ones feel as though they don’t have enough to go on, you end up with a much narrower audience and you end up almost placing yourself out of the market for those younger kids because they won’t feel like it’s a part of their world and even if you’re skewing a little bit, if you’re skewing a little bit older then it won’t even, it’s not something that they will have understood or been able to think about and that’s something they’ll be less likely to adopt.

So what you would want to do is, in this kind of a situation, is see if you can build levels in. And it’s tricky because it’s not as cut and dry as saying, “Oh, click over here” or “tap this area if you’re 2-4”. Self-selection doesn’t work with kids. So you have to lead them through the experience and even with the older kids, if it feels babyish, as long as they know that there’s something to strive for, that hey there’s levels here. I’m on the lowest smallest level. I’m going to be able to get right through this level and move on. As long as they know they have something to move on to they will feel as though there’s something for them in the experience and they’ll be less likely to abandon.

But it’s a tricky and a risky proposition. Guaranteed.

Gerry:

I did ask you about the different bands, 2 to 4 and so on, but let’s go off-script again and say, okay what about the 0 to 2s?

Debra:

Yes, so there’s lots of different schools of thought on the needs of 0-2s as they relate to digital experiences. My school of thought is there’s so much, a kid who’s 18 months old doesn’t necessarily need to be in front of a screen, right? They’re still trying to figure out how the world works and what their identity is as a human in relation to that of their parents and the children around them and there’s so much for them to discover. I think it’s premature to put a child under the age of 2 in front of a screen, any type of screen, and I tend to be a little bit more rigid and conservative in this area than some other folks and you certainly see plenty of quality games and apps for kids in that age group. But in my mind it’s not necessary and I don’t address it in the book simply because, again, kids in this very early stage are still developing schemata for discovering the world around them and learning what it means to be a person and something a little bit more static and something that’s primarily happening on a screen is not necessarily the best way to do that.

And obviously there are times when if the child’s going to be in front of a TV that’s on and you can’t help that but ideally you kind of, you keep them away from that experience until they’re a little bit older.

Gerry:

I heard somebody refer to it as the square babysitter.

Debra:

[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. It is very absorbing and very interesting and exciting to see all that stuff happening on the screen but again I think that if at all possible parents should find a way to be a little bit more involved at that, and throughout the child’s life obviously, but at that very young age finding other things to keep the child stimulated. It’s tricky because again when you’re 18 months old every activity lasts about a millisecond and then you’re ready to move on to something else, right? You’ve got such a short attention span so you shake the rattle, you put the rattle down and you’re on to something else. So I get it but I do think that it’s important for parents to think of other ways to keep kids entertained, either toys or other physical objects or, you know, even just walking around and looking at things around them and looking in the mirror and figuring it all out.

So that’s where I net-out on that situation.

Gerry:

Okay so to get to the bands that we are interested in let’s start with the 2 to 4s.

Debra:

Yes, so 2 to 4s are awesome. They can’t read, obviously, so we can’t fall into the trap that we sometimes fall into when designing for adults where we can put in instructions or explanatory text. Everything has to make sense on its own and of itself. Again, we were talking a little bit earlier Gerry about the use of colour and sound. Everything can’t just be haphazard on the screen for 2 to 4-year-olds and that does seem to be the instinct that many designers have. Everything has to have a purpose. So when you’re picking colours for 2 to 4-year-olds again limit your colour palette to about five or six bright bold colours and use them to communicate a message so that everything that’s clickable, this is an over simplified example, but if everything that’s clickable is red the child will quickly be able to figure that out.

Navigation; kids are, between the ages of 2 to 4 are only able to associate a single action to an item on a screen. So if you roll over or you mouse over or you tap a navigation item and it has a roll-over state or it does something interactive, the child’s going to think that that’s the only purpose of that item. They’re not going to realise they can then click on it and do something else. So it’s important to assign a single interaction type to each of those objects. And then when you think about audio, kids who are young, while they like noise and funny sounds, they like it to have a purpose and a meaning. So it’s important to create a pretty tight audio inventory for a game or app that you’re designing and make sure that you use sounds consistently and appropriately so that kids know, so that it helps teach kids how to use the experience.

So that pretty much sums up 2 to 4s. 4 to 6s are a little bit adventurous. They’ll click on everything to see what it does. They have no fear and they enjoy, they’re able to, unlike the 2 to 4s where every action has to exist very simply, 4 to 6s can actually put together more complicated scenarios in their mind. So for a 2 to 4year-old if the task is tap on all the red squares, a task for 4 to 6s might be tap on all the red squares and all the green triangles. They’re able to make that cognitive leap that there’s more than one thing that they’re supposed to do and they’re also able to classify objects and items a little more, a little better I should say than the 2 to 4s. So that’s really important. That’s what sums that up for them.

Another thing that 4-6s are not going to do even if they are reading, they’re probably not going to be reading any type of instructional text that you put there so you’re going to want to teach as they go and provide contextual help in the form of audio instructions or video or if you need to use a little bit of text you can.

6 to 8-year-olds are very interesting. They kind of break the mould a little bit. They will read every word and every piece of instruction that you put on the screen because they are starting to realise that people around them are forming judgements about them, whereas the 2 to 4s and the 4 to 6s could care less. They are starting to see that if they do something in school somebody will notice it, comment on their behaviour. So they’re very nervous about being judged even if being judged is only in the form of an inanimate tablet or computer, they are very interested in getting everything right at the outset. So they will read all instructions and they will be very, be a little bit more tenuous when they are interacting with a system so that they’re not making any mistakes. So you have to be upfront with your instructions, make them really clear. These kids are reading but they’re reading slowly so use appropriately short words and phrases but get them that information that they need quickly. Levelling up is also very important for our 6 to 8-year-olds because again, like we talked about earlier Gerry, that whole notion of babyish is very worrisome to them. They don’t want to be seen as younger than they are. So if they have an opportunity to use a system that gives them opportunities to level up or to advance, maybe it’s a game or an app that their older brother or sister are using, giving them some levels and some opportunities to move up in that is very important.

They also really like to save and share things and show their friends and their relatives some of the interesting things that they’ve been doing. So giving them the opportunity to do that, to create and to save is important because, unlike the younger kids, these kids are able to understand that if they create something online and then they leave that site or if they create something within an app and then close that app then it’s still there and they can go back to it and see it again.

And these kids can just spend a lot of time with their creations. So having the ability to either post them in a gallery or share them in an offline situation is really important.

Gerry:

I was just going to say you reminded me there when my younger kid was in that age bracket he played some game the name which escapes me but he was stuck at a particular level and couldn’t get past it and the level of frustration that he experienced and expressed indeed was enormous.

Debra:

Yeah, oh absolutely. They put a lot, the kids in this age group put a lot of pressure on themselves to get it right and to do the right thing and to be able to get to that next level and if they can’t it can be very distressing to them.

6 to 8 year-olds are my favourite group to design for so I could go on about them for another hour. But we’ll move on to our 8 to 10-year-olds. Our 8 to 10-year-olds are more similar to our 4 to 6-year-olds than they are to the group right below them in that they’ll just try anything. They’ve got this attitude that is, they’re very comfortable with technology and their attitude is one of I will try it, let me have it, bring it on, I can tackle it, I can take it, I can do it. And kids in this age group are starting to find that they may even know more about technology than their parents or than their teachers and this makes them feel uber confident and uber excited to use whatever tool they can get their hands on. And they tend to be a little bit less careful and a little bit more trusting and a little bit more reckless. Not in a bad way but they will jump in with both feet and not even look to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing or what type of site they’re on. It can a little bit dangerous when you think of sites like Facebook which is, as you probably are aware, waning in popularity among kids. But these kids will find themselves on Instagram or on other sites that are intended for more mature or adult audiences with no regard to what’s going on.

So we have to be a little bit responsible when we’re designing for them but they are looking to push the envelope and test the limits. They will make up crazy user names if they’re required to sign into something and they will start fibbing about their age and about where they live. I remember I did a usability test with a little girl who was 12 and I think she put that she was 13, she put some age that would have made no difference if she had put her true age or this age in, maybe it was a year older or two years older. And I asked her why she did it and she said “because I can and because they won’t know the difference.” And that’s a very seductive, very powerful concept for kids in this age group. Again, that’s something that you have to be aware of when you’re designing for this audience.

When we talk about our 10 to 12-year-olds, these guys are pretty close to being cognitive adults. I want to make it clear that cognitive is not the same as actual adults. It means that they have all the reasoning, deductive and inductive, logic and reasoning skills that an adult has but they’re certainly not in any way mature enough to be treated as an adult. They still need special experiences tailored to their needs and these are experiences that may appeal to adult audiences as well but these kids need to feel as though, that someone understands them and that they can relate in a personal level to the experience that’s being provided.

So one thing that’s really interesting about 10 to 12-year-olds is they love being able to specialise. They love, they are starting to really self-identify. So kids of this age group, you’ll hear them say things like, “I’m an artist,” or “I write poetry,” or “I’m not very good at writing stories but I love science.” They really find their niche at this age and really use that as something to hang their hat on in terms of self-identification.

So if you can create experiences for them that allow them to tap into that, that’s very powerful. So, instead of creating a catch-all game, you might want to create a game that really targets kids who are interested in art and creation or maybe a game that really targets kids who are interested in science. So that’s an opportunity there that you start seeing more and more of when kids get older but that’s a key aspect of designing for kids of that age as well.

I think that’s all the bands there, Gerry.

Gerry:

Yeah, I think you’ve covered them all. Now you don’t in the book go into the sort of the 13s and up. Was that a very deliberate choice?

Debra:

It was, it was. I think that you know that could be another book unto itself. Designing for teenagers is really tricky because there’s a lot of distrust there. I think it just comes with the territory and even though these kids again are cognitively adults, they still don’t quite have the full ability to determine the implications of their actions. So that’s where you see a lot of teenagers engaging in risky behaviours because they’re not quite, they don’t quite see what’s going to happen if they act in a certain way. So, you know, you see kids drinking alcohol or kids using recreational drugs just simply because they don’t understand what impact that could have on their health or their life. They just can’t see that. So when you’re designing for them, especially you see so many “social” quote-unquote games and apps out there you have to be a little bit careful because these kids don’t understand the impact of giving personal information out online or sharing their password with somebody that they might not know that well. So you have to put in provisions for that group so that they know that there’s issues there.

It’s really hard to do but again, like I said, that could be a book unto itself. I think where the difficulty comes in is that these kids aren’t necessarily using age appropriate apps. They’re really using apps and games and sites that are more targeted for adult audiences and that becomes a tricky proposition again when designing sites that are targeted towards adults, figuring out how kids may be using these and what that means.

Gerry:

Yeah and it’s a funny situation for parents and carers too because I guess in many ways the kids are more competent and capable than we give them credit for but, on the other hand, there are a lot of dangers out there that they’re not equipped to cope with.

Debra:

Exactly, exactly right. And the best thing that a parent can do in that situation is to be as trusting as possible but as vigilant as possible too. So you know you can use whatever site you want but, maybe not whatever site you want, but I’m not going to stand over your shoulder while you are on the computer or on your tablet but let’s talk about it and if anything seems weird, let me know right away. I’m not going to be mad at you but we need to talk about it and I need to be able, I need to be able to protect you is what it comes to. So it’s fostering that trust, that trust factor becomes very important as it relates to technology for teenagers and their parents but it has to be based on the realities of the situation. There’s not a lot of creepy people out there but there are some creepy people out there and we want to make sure that you’re safe, that’s all that it comes down to.

Gerry:

Indeed. I remember my older boy who’s now, you know, a fully grown web developer. Years and years ago I was warning him about chat rooms at the time saying you have to be careful because people might not be who they pretend they are and he said, “Yeah, that’s why you use chat rooms.” And I thought, “Okay, no need to worry about that anymore.”

Debra:

[Laughs.] He had that figured out, yeah. But that’s a hard realisation to come to, you know. I remember the first time I used a chat room I was in college at the time and I remember thinking, being just blown away by the technology and what exactly we were able to do and say and it’s really mind blowing. But that whole idea of anonymity is very seductive to kids as well as adults and I think making children aware of that, not in a scary, freaky way, but in a more of a “hey, this is reality that you have to be aware of” way is pretty important.

Gerry:

Debra what are the four stages of designing for kids? Aren’t they just the same as those that we use for designing for adults?

Debra:

They’re very similar, yes. And the reason I called them out distinctly in the book is because I wanted to impress upon readers that many of these steps, most of these steps are things they already know how to do. We already do them in many cases with our adult audiences but there are many nuances in each step that it’s important to be aware of simply because kids are different than adults and they do have different needs.

There are four steps, four phases in designing for kids. There’s “absorb”, “analyse”, “architect” and “assess”. And “absorb”, which is our first stage is the one with the most, the largest number of differences. So when you’re doing observational research with adults you try to get as contextual as possible. You go to the place where they’ll be using the app. You try to understand what their motivations are; what their limitations are in terms of the physical, the emotional and you really pay attention to those things. That’s really important when you’re working with kids too. But you have to make yourself part of that context. That’s where the absorption comes in.

So if you’re doing any type of research with kids before you start a design project and let’s just saying you’re working with 2 to 4-year-olds, you’re not just watching them play, you’re on the floor with them becoming part of the experience. Otherwise you’re not really going to get a feel for what it is that they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And you certainly can’t ask them, because they’re not going to have the language skills to be able to explain to you, “Well, I was bored of playing with this train so I came over here to draw a picture.” They’re not. You’re going to have to just watch what they do and get into the situation with them and see what triggers there are that prompt the changes and what it is that they’re doing. And ask follow up questions if you can. You might not get a very satisfactory answer but you really need to get inside their heads to understand not only their behaviour and their attitudes but what’s driving them, what’s motivating them and what’s causing them to think about things in the way that they do.

So that’s where that difference, that’s where the biggest difference I think is in the process between designing for kids and designing for adults. When you’re doing observational studies with adults you’re not going to be involved in the user’s behaviour in any way. You’re going to be primarily observing, maybe asking probative questions. With kids it’s different. You’re actually, you become part of the research experience itself.

Gerry:

Which is great fun, right?

Debra:

Oh my gosh it’s great. It’s crazy. [Laughs.] It’s great. It’s wonderful and there’s always some surprise that you’re going to encounter. My favourite is when kids do something completely unexpected with the objects around them. So if you’re doing a play study with kids, let’s say from 4 to 6, they may not, maybe let’s say with little girls that are between 4 and 6, they’re not going to take cars and drive them around like a little boy would. They’re going to assign a personality to those cars and have the cars have conversations with each other and act like a human would or any type of pretend play. So they’re going to associate personalities to the inanimate objects, whereas boys will just tend to race them around and play with them in the true sense. So it’s really interesting and then conversely if you give boys, and this is again a generalisation, Gerry, I’m not meaning to pigeonhole or stereotype, this is just what we see, if you give boys dolls, they’ll play with them initially like a baby doll. They’ll rock them and do what, you know, what normally children do with dolls but they may even start using the dolls as aeroplanes and race them around and pretend that they’re in a flight competition and give them, associate inanimate tendencies to these obviously inanimate objects but objects that have faces. They will tend to give a little bit more, associate attributes to those objects that are more associated with racing and competition etc.

Gerry:

Yeah and it may be my cynical nature but when both my kids were younger I always felt that boys would tend to weaponise everything.

Debra:

Yes, yes, you know it’s funny that you mention that because we’re seeing a trend away from that and I don’t know if it’s because parents are a little bit more cautious in terms of letting their kids play with toy weapons. I don’t think any study has come out conclusively determining that playing with weapons makes children violent by any stretch of the imagination but you do tend to see a little bit more caution on the part of parents. So I’m seeing a little bit less of that in the absorption sessions that I have with kids and I’m seeing less, you know, bang, bang, shoot them up, sword play and more subtle antagonism, if you will. [Laughter.] Yeah, that’s absolutely true, absolutely true.

And then when we’re talking about the “analyse” step, you have to look at things a little bit differently than you would for an adult audience. When you’re doing work with adults and you’ve done your observational study phase and you start figuring out the user flows and the mental models and the expectations, you pretty much know what you’re doing. When you’re working with kids you don’t know what you’re necessarily looking for and it’s harder to find some of those patterns. So like I talk a little bit about in the book, doing some pretty deep affinity diagraming is important, laying out the flows, understanding when the kids switched to other activities from the one that they were previously working on is really important because it helps you figure out the cadence and the approach that you’re going to want to take when you’re designing these games for these kids.

Gerry:

And indeed you describe a few vignettes in the book and you talk about kids playing with something or doing something during your absorption sessions and then draw out what, I guess what the implications are from those observations.

Debra:

Yes and its tricky and you don’t always get it right. In fact you sometimes find yourself guessing, even after conducting all those absorption sessions when you’re wondering, you know, why did he switch this up here? Why did he move from the train to the car? Is it because he, if he was bored that’s fine but what was causing him to be bored and what was going through his mind? And it’s hard to do that. With adults they can usually explain to you; “I don’t find what I need here so I’m moving on to something else.” These kids are like “Oh I’m done with this train. I’m going to throw it over here and I’m going to go pick something else up and then I might go back to the train.” But you don’t understand the why always as well so that’s when it becomes important during the “analyse” phase to put together multiple scenarios. Was he bored? Did he see something that caught his eye that he wanted to play with more? Did he… the possibilities are endless, but looking at those behaviours and looking for those patterns gets really important and really tricky then in that phase.

And then what you do is when you move into the “architect” phase, when you’re actually just designing and building your app or your game or your site you have to pull all of those data points into the experience. I think we sometimes get a little complacent when we’re designing experiences for adults that even though we’ve done the research and even though we’ve put together the flows we may hear something from our technology lead or a developer “We can’t really do it exactly the way you want to do it” and we’re quick to say “Oh, okay. Let’s just figure out another way to do it” or we understand what these users’ mental models are so we can accommodate the needs of the technology maybe at the expense of the user. You can’t do that with kids because they don’t have those mental models yet, so you have to make sure that whatever it is your architecting and building specifically relates to what you’ve seen and what you’ve believed to be happening in those situations and why.

And very like with adults an important step is the final step which is “assess”. That’s our testing phase and my recommendation is to run through this cycle of steps a couple of times; at least the “analyse”, “architect” and “assess” because when you get your data from your usability testing during the “assess” stage you’re going to find a lot of surprises, you’re going to find that the site or the game or the app doesn’t work as you’ve intended. The kids are not responding the way you anticipated and you may have to go back, you may have to do some more research but you certainly are going to have to analyse what you saw again and maybe do some re-architecting before you reassess it to understand what you could be doing better and what could be giving kids more incentive and more positive experiences with your design.

Gerry:

In the book, Deb, you talk about participatory design with kids. One of the objections that one occasionally hears about participatory design in general is that end users just don’t know how to design stuff. Isn’t that particularly true with kids?

Debra:

Absolutely, absolutely. And not only is it particularly true of kids but kids will also get particularly upset when the final product comes out and they don’t see their particular design or what they’ve produced during the session. So what I like to do during participatory design sessions is have them design something that’s a little bit removed from what it is you’re designing because what you’re trying to do is get an idea from them of what they feel is fun or interesting or understanding different ways to manifest the experience that you’re creating. So when you go into these participatory design sessions it’s important to say, “Hey, you know what? We’re designing something. We’re not sure what yet. We need you to help us get there. So we’re going to think about other opportunities for design and think about, we want to understand the way you think about things but please note that whatever it is that you design today is not probably going to make it into any type of final experience.”

I did a participatory design session with kids where I asked them to sketch some ideas for a new game or a new app for an iPad and the kids, two of the kids were very disappointed that we weren’t going to be actually coding and developing an app that day, that it was just a sketching activity. So, it’s really important to be clear with the expectations up front of what the session is and how the output is going to be used. But it also can be helpful when you’re doing participatory design with kids to take it out of the digital realm and have them design something that’s completely unrelated. So maybe you have them design an amusement park or maybe you have them design a board game; something that will allow you to get an understanding of the motivations and again the mental model without making them feel as though what they’re creating is going to be part of an actual digital product.

Gerry:

Yeah I find they get very invested in the whole design process and I’ve fallen into that trap of not making it clear enough to the participants that, hey, this is just a step along the way.

Debra:

Yeah, I’ve been there too. I’ve been there too and it’s tricky and what also is tricky is the kids will most likely want to take home whatever it is they’ve created. [Laughs.] So you have to get in there with a pretty good camera to make sure you capture everything because it’s no fun for a kid to create something and then have not have the opportunity to then bring it home and share it with their family or their friends.

Gerry:

Deb, tell us about PTR.

Debra:

[Laughs.] So PTR is an expression that I coined after having a conversation with a parent who was describing with some dismay an experience she had with an app that just, she felt was just disgusting. PTR stands for the Parental Threshold for the Revolting. And what it refers to is the phenomenon that parents experience when they see something that is completely off putting to them. There’s a great example, and by the way, Gerry, I loved the picture that you sent to me of, I guess that’s your younger son?

Gerry:

[Laughter.] Yes, it is. We might use that as the cover for this podcast episode.

Debra:

I would love that. That would be fabulous. It’s a picture, your son had written in in the sand “poop” and it looked like there was a hashtag in front of it which I thought was hilarious too.

Gerry:

It was. It was specifically “hashtag poop” actually.

Debra:

Oh, good, okay, which is just a great example of just kids of that age group, right? But when kids get to a certain age, it’s usually around 6, maybe a little bit younger, they love disgusting things, whether it’s, you know, diarrhoea or, you know, mucus or just whatever disgusting things you can think of, these kids are loving it, dead bugs, whatever it is and they gravitate sometimes to games or apps that have this disgusting factor to them and their parents, most parents in fact who will look at these games and say “No way am I going to download that for you. I am not paying 99 cents for you to put this on my iPhone. It’s disgusting.” And when ends up happening is that you have a product that really appeals to your intended audience it doesn’t appeal to your intended consumer, which is the parent.

So parental threshold for the revolting is a way to determine what a parent will accept and what a parent will not. I tend to find that kids between the ages of 6 and 8 have the most tolerant parents with the highest PTR, of the highest threshold and the younger kids; really the 2-4-year-olds parents have the lowest threshold so there’s not a lot of openness when it comes to disgusting elements in sites or apps. One mother I was talking to has three daughters and she said she saw some of the most unbelievable things and she just refused to download them simply because she found them so distasteful.

So you have to make sure even though you want to appeal to kids that you appeal to parents as well and even though you don’t have to create the just sunshine and balloons app but you have to make sure that if you do have anything that might be considered disgusting that you vet it with some parents first to make sure that they’ll be amenable to purchasing whatever it is that you’re designing. And it’s tricky to find out what that PTR is because you can’t just come out and say, “Hey, do you think this is gross?” Because they’ll say, “No, no, I’m cool. I don’t think that’s gross. I think that’s fine.” And then when push comes to shove they’ll be like, “No way. I’m not, I’m not getting that.”

So you know, ask them about the other apps that they let their kids play with, ask them what their thoughts are in terms of some of the books their kids read and try to eke out that threshold from those conversations.

Gerry:

Now Deb I’m sure that many UX designers, I’m tempted to say as they grow up, would love to work with kids or develop products and services for kids and certainly in my limited experience it’s been, the most fun I’ve had has been working with kids. Do you have any general advice for people who might have, for example, read your book and been hooked and thought, “I want to work in this field?” How do they start?

Debra:

Sure, sure. You mean in terms of technique or in terms of actually getting a job or a contract where they’re designing for kids?

Gerry:

Well, I was thinking in terms of technique and I guess mental preparation but sure if you’ve got any advice about how to get a job in the field that would be useful as well.

Debra:

Sure, absolutely. I actually was hoping that you were asking the former because I have a lot of ideas around how to get the mental, getting your mind primed, I guess, for designing for kids.

You need to forget everything you think you know about design or design research and you have to start afresh every time. I feel as though as designers for adults we do get influenced by what’s already out there and you’ll hear of new disruptive experiences and people doing interesting things but all of those experiences are rooted in what we know to be adults’ mental models of how they prefer to accomplish tasks or how they see the world around them.

With kids it’s different because they don’t have those mental models, as we discussed earlier, so the key is not to be influenced by what’s out there. You do have to assess the state of the industry but always look ahead. You always have to be two steps ahead because kids are a little bit fickle and if you have just another “me too” experience they’re not going to be interested in it unless there’s something really powerful and really engaging. So you know you’ve got Club Penguin which really dominates the market in terms of virtual worlds and there have been many sites that have tried to copy that approach and have failed because they don’t have, they’re tacking onto something that may or may not work for them in that context.

So you need to be different, you need to be different enough, you need to have a strong value proposition and you need to have a purpose. So you can’t just be “hey this is some crazy fun thing.” It has to be “hey this is going to be fun because it’s going to let you do A, B, C and D.” So the value proposition has to be strong enough and you have to get an understanding of A. what kids like currently and where they see themselves down the line. And you have to always be one step ahead of the technology as well. So it’s tricky. And this is different from adults who tend to want to get in to an experience and have it map to their expectations, and who already understand how things work. Kids are still figuring out their mental models and they need your help to help them get there.

Gerry:

To the other part of the question, the bit that you didn’t want; how do people get into the field? [Laughter.]

Debra:

That’s a trickier one. You know, there’s pockets of industry across the world where people are doing stuff for kids. What my recommendation would be would be to look at university job sites, especially universities who have an active child development program. Frequently they’re looking for researchers or designers to help get something, to help a professor get a product off the ground. I don’t know if there’s a lot of money in that but it does help you get your feet wet in doing this kind of design. In fact that’s how I got started when I was in graduate school, I worked with a PhD student in coming up with a site geared towards kids and even though again it didn’t pay very much I was able to try out some of these techniques and work with actual kids.

What you might also want to do is if you’ve got friends with kids, or family members with kids, work with them, sketch ideas with them and start playing around with some of the interactions so that if you wanted to build your own site or app for kids of that age group you would have a little bit of background in doing so and you kind of get some of that absorption work done ahead of time if you wanted to create your own thing and put it out there. So those are my suggestions.

It’s always nice to look at what other folks are doing in terms of interactive media or non-interactive media. So if you wanted to look for a job near a television studio you’ll sometimes find that companies are looking for companion apps or sites to complement their television programs. Or even if you live near, want to relocate near a large toy company, sometimes you’ll find that they have interactive divisions at their headquarters as well looking for opportunities to continue to monetise the physical products that they build.

Gerry:

And indeed people might get inspiration or ideas from reading the case studies and the examples that you’ve included in the book. Look, I know we’ve run well over time, I’ve very much enjoyed talking to you, Deb.

Debra’s book is called Design for Kids: Digital Products for Playing and Learning. You can get a 20% discount for this by using the code UXPOD on the Rosenfeld Media site.

But I’d highly recommend the book for anyone who’s got any interest in designing for kids or in fact anyone in UX who’s got a kid themselves, there’s just, it was such a fun read, so entertaining and well researched and well written. Debra Levin Gelman thanks for joining me today on the User Experience Podcast.

Debra:

Thank you, Gerry, it was a pleasure. I had a blast.

Gerry GaffneyDesign for Kids: An interview with Debra Levin Gelman

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