8 Tips for Designing Apps for Babies and Toddlers

We have just released our first version of dragimals, a cute, fun app aimed at very small children.  As we built it, there were some big insights we’ve made about designing for this young market.  Here’s some things we’ve discovered so far.

1. Ability to touch in multiple places at once is essential

When little kids are moving items around on the screen, they often lean their hands on the bottom of the screen.  So, kids playing with our app on the iPad 1 grew frustrated very quickly, as that iPad doesn’t have multi-touch had much less responsive multi-touch:  no matter how much they touched an animal, it still wouldn’t move, because their hand had made contact on another part of the screen.  Apps for this market work better on later versions of the iPad and iPhone.

2. Controls should be at the top

Because of the ‘hand resting on screen’ issue, all controls needed to be at the top, and away from where they were accidentally touching most often.  We chose the top left to stop them accidentally switching scenes when trying to drag animals.  Reseting the scene is in the farthest spot away from their action paths.

3. Symbols instead of words

Babies can’t read.  It’s amazing how fast we forget that, and how often as interface designers we rely on words. So, ‘next’ or written instructions don’t work.  We worked hard to make our title page a mini tutorial on how to do things.  It’s not perfect, and many children and adults still tap on the speech bubbles instead of interacting to the thing they are pointing to.  It’s definitely an area for improvement! Baby apps should work hard to work without instruction.

4. Tapping should be restricted to controls

One of our interface components included tapping on the drawer to make it slide in.  But, we found this causes two forms of frustration amongst our target market:

  1. Babies especially would accidentally touch the drawer and all their animals would disappear causing alarm and frustration
  2. Other kids attempted to drag the drawer, and were frustrated that it didn’t work as anticipated

So, we then tested a ‘drag-only’ drawer, and the frustration was immediately gone.  Tapping seems okay so long as things don’t disappear.  So, tapping on an animal makes it animate and make noises, and that is just fine. This market isn’t like the adult market, whose fine motor skills enjoy the quick gestural solutions.  The children understood tapping on the arrows to move through scenes though.

5. Should be able to handle simultaneous animations

When we built our first version, we found the children able to get the animals frozen in their animated states, since they were touching and interacting with so many elements at a time.  We included an animation reset and allowed for multiple animations to occur.

6. Make ‘losing’ an object off screen harmless

Our 11-month old tester dragged lots of animals off the bottom of the screen.  He then had difficulty draggin them back into the scene.  So, we introduced a ‘bounce’ zone, when you drag a certain portion of the animal off the screen.  I actually enjoy watching the animals bounce now!

7. In-app purchases should be difficult to get to

We have not moved to in-app purchases or upgrades and opted for to ask parents to pay upfront.  Parents are always nervous about their child figuring out how to make purchases, and many apps offer free versions to get you to try them first.  If upgrading is easy to click on, babies could either buy something, or exit the game to enter in login details (a jarring experience for them), neither of which parents want.   If you’re going to have in-app purchases, we highly recommend making them outside the gameplay or app experience path.

8. Keep it simple

While we have many ideas for improving the app and making it even more interactive, our aim was that this first version would be non-frustrating, delightful and easy to use.  It is so easy to add in features that delight adults.  But, this market is just learning hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and more.  Just as playing blocks is a robust game with no aim but to practice these skills, we aim to help children develop.  As we move forward, we will continue to test and develop insights onto this very unique market.

We are currently running a competition on facebook to name the crab (my favourite of the animals)!
If you would like to join in, ‘Like’ us on facebook, and submit your idea for the crab’s name.  One random person will get a free version of Dragimals for their iPad, plus we will send some really cute animals stickers to them through the post! 🙂

App design

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