Written on Tuesday,
August 28th, 2012
at 02:34PM

It was old and musty inside the withered cardboard box. It still carried the smell of my parents basement — a mix of mothballs and mildew. Inside it where the remnants of my childhood; old photos, some withering t-shirts with sweat-stained armpits and a few worn toys. As my mother was moving into an assisted living facility with help from on the go moving, the nearly forgotten artifacts of my kid-dome had to find a new home. My 11 year old son came into the basement and asked me what was in the box. After looking through some old photos, and making fun of my hair and clothing (I had to explain to him that those were headphones, not my hair) he saw one toy and made him curious:

“What the heck is this?” (holding up brown plastic device)

“Oh that? That’s a game device.”

“You mean like my Didj?”

“Well, not that cool. This could only play one thing game, football. You where the bold red line, you’d press the arrows to move side to side and forward and avoid getting stopped by those other red lines, and if you got a touchdown it would make lots of beep sounds and then you’d have to click the K/P button to make the extra point. It was awesome.”

(blinks with horror and what I sense is pity) “No offense dad, but that is really lame.”

“Yeah, well your face is lame” (Yeah, not my best fatherly moment, but he injured my nostalgic sense of awe) 

There’s nothing shocking or revealing about the fact that our kids find our old technology laughable. From Pong to Atari 2600 or an Apple IIe, our childhood diversions in light of today’s Xbox 360, iPad and GameBoy seem like relics of the past — Morse code or the telegram. Yet when it comes to designing for kids, we still implement relics. In the name of intuitiveness or accommodating some agreed upon predictable behavior pattern, we continually design interaction around visual relics, out-dated hierarchy and navigation. When it comes to designing for children, the rules have changed and so must the design.

If your target audience is young (and by young, I mean 4 years old to about 12 years old), with little to no interaction in the digital space (aside from perhaps games; which are a completely different set of standards that what one would expect in a “production” system) the rules are different — if there are any rules. Aside from force-feeding our traditional sense of interaction, hierarchy and “logic” upon kids, there is an opportunity to think differently and uniquely in this space. We have the great fortunate to develop  products and services with a new pattern of interaction.

I believe the average adult user has an unspoken sense of fear when it comes to exploration with a digital interface. What if we click something and delete important information? What if we somehow tell the world something we don’t want them to know about ourselves? Or worse, what if we somehow let leak our personal information like bank account information or a social security number? What if we accidentally download a virus, or buy a service they don’t want? Adults are burdened with the experience of life, a healthy (and not always unwarranted) sense of distrust for technology (or more importantly the intentions of the holders of that technology)kids are not. Children (often) have no pessimism or fear when it comes to engaging a digital interface. Exploration is natural. Consequences are temporary. Yet when we design for children, we project our own experiences into how we expect them to understand their environment, and at worst we pander to an adult vision of what we think children do.

Having three kids has in no way given me a full range of expertise with how most children tend to interact with digital systems; but it has given me some insight, enough to expand upon and take educated guesses. Here are some of my observations.

Dispense The Common

My son was 2 years old when he picked up my iPhone. He immediately knew to touch that giant screen. His fingers moved from corner to corner, swiping, touching, pointing and poking. Every touch had a reaction; just like anything else in his life. When we were kids, we sat a chair, held a mouse and watched an arrow move on a TV screen and had to click buttons to make an action happen. Our world of interaction is a dinosaur. Kids will be immersed in a world of touch screens, personalized and specialized apps which vastly alters their experiences and expectations from our own. Designers (or Developers, Art Directors, UI Specialists, UX Experts, et al) have to think from a new foundation when dealing with the next generation of users.

Reward Exploration

This new foundation of digital interaction is more immersive and engaging than our older foundations. The connection of the brain to the hand to the screen is more immediate than our brain to hand to mouse to screen methods. This allows interaction to be so much more exploratory and rewarding. With a lack of fear to consequences, it becomes necessary to reward discovery, and thus allow of new levels of interaction that compliment not just the medium but also the audience.

Show Don’t Tell

Obviously we want to teach our children to read, but not every child will want to read. What’s more interesting to look at: a comic or novel? A newspaper or a magazine? A leger or an infographic? I’m not proposing we raise a generation of illiterate children, but that the most effective way to education and engage is first through visuals.

Navigation As A Map

We’re so ingrained with navigation being individual entities that represent a single “page” of information, seeing beyond this way of designing is foreign (if not seen as “wrong” or “bad”). The immersive effect of touch interaction allows for a new, exploratory way of getting from one point to another. With the ability to swipe, pinch, touch, tilt or shake to cause a reaction, there seems unlimited potential for exciting methods to transform and reshape the traditional ways we approach interaction.


There are many companies already embracing new methods of interaction, my challenge to you (and me) is to bypass the traditional — to let nostalgia be nostalgia — and help shape the future.

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