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Design with kids in mind: What does it mean?

Published: August 23, 2023

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We all look at the world through the lens of our own experiences and knowledge, forgetting that someone else might be looking at the same thing through totally different glasses. It’s unavoidable. Call it the curse of knowledge, or the lack of a nuanced theory of mind. Whatever you call it, as designers of kids’ media and educational technology, you should be aware of it and how it can lead you to produce bad content. Let’s not lose track of how important it is to design with kids in mind.

Designing from an adult-centric perspective

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The Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker writes about the curse of knowledge, defining it as a “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” This, of course, is intimately related to the idea of theory of mind, or “the understanding that others have intentions, desires, beliefs, perceptions, and emotions different from one’s own and that such intentions, desires, and so forth affect people’s actions and behaviors.” (American Psychological Association)

As anyone who’s taken Psych 101 likely knows, the magical age at which kids start to really develop the concept that other people can have different thoughts, perceptions, ideas, or knowledge than themselves is around four. Yet, as Pinker so astutely points out, many adults still struggle with the concept.

To design kids products with the perspectives, emotions, desires, and knowledge of an adult would be to completely ignore the unique and special ways that kids interact with their world.

To avoid my own curse of knowledge, I’ll (attempt to) make it crystal clear why this should be important to the adult developers of kids’ media and educational technology: In order to create the best possible kids’ media or tech products, it’s essential to design with kids in mind.

Given that we have yet to develop any kind of machine that can take us back in time, or execute some kind of mind-body transfer (think, Tom Hanks in Big), we’ll have to settle for the next best thing.

There’s been a lot written about the importance of and guidelines for designing with kids in mind, including from extremely well-respected organizations such as the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. I don’t pretend that I can do a better job at identifying the issues and processes. Instead, I’m offering here a simple summary, inspired by the greats, of what I consider to be a starting guide for designing with kids in mind. More in depth analysis forthcoming in future blog posts.

Design from a kid-centric perspective

Design with kids in mind

Design with kids in mind starts with play

All kids have the right to play (UN Rights of the Child, Article 31). And when you’re a kid, play = learning. (The equation still holds for adults, even if adults aren’t as skilled at remembering the value of play as kids are!)

So it follows that media and educational tech need to grow from a playful foundation. This doesn’t just apply to younger kids, who play naturally, with abandon and with no sense of self-consciousness. Older kids, tweens, and teens also have the right to play. For them, play may look less like being silly and more like experiences that bring joy, or that keep them engaged with others and with their world in a healthy way.

To reiterate, for everyone, regardless of age, allow for any kids product to be fun. Let them enjoy themselves.  Make space for improvisation and experimentation. Set it up so kids can try new things just to see what happens.

Keep your target age in mind

To design with kids in mind is to remember that content and usability have to match the knowledge base and capability of your target audience. A six-year-old will need a different experience than a 16-year-old. It sounds obvious. But remember the curse of knowledge? It’s more insidious than you might think. This is where testing with kids and including them in the design process can really make a big difference. Something that was obvious to your adult approach may just not cut it for kids.

Here are some basic things to consider regarding content and usability.

  • Does the content tap into what kids in the target range already know, and then try to expand on that? Is the information right for their level?
  • Is the challenge adjustable, and does it push most kids in the target range just a bit? On the other hand, is it too “baby-ish?”
  • Does it allow for feedback and flexibility?
  • Are there clear audio and / or visual instructions? What’s the reading level for the target audience and do the instructions make sense for them?
  • Is the experience user friendly, with buttons and menus that make sense?
  • Is the presentation visually pleasing? Does it have lots of images?

Ask yourself: Is it useful?

There are all sorts of products you could develop, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Thinking about making another ABC’s app? Maybe you have some amazingly innovative approach that’ll change the game. But, it’s worth taking a moment to ask yourself truthfully: Does this product really make a positive contribution? Here are some questions to ask yourself to help assess whether your product is truly useful:

  • Does it help kids in some way?
  • Is it enjoyable without being addictive or creating problems?
  • Does it teach them something useful?
  • Does it solve some sort of problem?
  • Is it a new, interesting way to think about something, or engage with some kind of learning content?
  • Does it add something to what’s already out there, or introduce something different?

It is essential to make it safe in order to design with kids in mind

It’s a wild world out there and there are lots of ways tech companies can take advantage of kids and their parents. Don’t be one of them. Let’s all make a commitment to keeping kids safe. Take a proactive approach towards making products that have systems built in to protect kids’ data and privacy. Be aware of kids’ wellbeing and avoid offering them yet another product that’s addictive or harmful in some way. And make sure there are robust safeguards in place that can prevent kids from being exposed to inappropriate or dangerous content or information.

Remember the parents!

Remember them? They’re probably the ones who will fork over the money for your product. So it’s really in your best interest to get them into it.

But there are a number of reasons why getting parents on board is also in the best interest of the kids. For example, learning potential increases for younger kids when parents are involved and engaged with them. Even for older kids, parents can help scaffold learning and expand experiences. Parent buy-in can make a big difference for kids of all ages, so is there a way to engage parents, help them know how to interact with their kids through your product, or help them understand the benefits of your product?

Final thoughts to design with kids in mind

The idea of designing with kids in mind may not feel all that revolutionary to some. Although it’s always helpful to be reminded of the importance of it, most responsible kids’ products developers already know at some level that being thoughtful and intentional about the design process is key. (There are, of course, less responsible developers who could use more than a gentle reminder!)

Food for thought, though, is how developers of products that aren’t made specifically for kids but that kids regularly use nonetheless can – and should – also keep kids’ interests in mind. This may become more and more important as tech continues to permeate our lives, and new advancements like generative AI introduce new questions about how it will all affect kids’ lives. There’s a lot to think about in this global, digital, mindful era!