Designing Apps and Games for Kids (The Right Way)
In this 2014 GDC Next panel presentation, ChoreMonster's Paul Armstrong and Alex Bowman, Ubooly's Carly Gloge, and THUP Games's Jim Nichols explain how to design useful, entertaining games and apps for children (and also not just for children).
1.Build a brand
- A parent will look for something they recognise like an Elmo or Disney character. They're also looking for something that isn't necessarily the stock standard mainstream, but familiarity helps.
2.Build a reputation
Often when parents browse apps they have an idea of what they're looking for, but they're actually looking for something that they've seen a kid play or heard about from another parent, something that’s been reviewed well.
Parents like applications to be both fun and educational (noting that this is all too often a check-box for apps, without real substance), as well as age-appropriate
Potential hidden payments send off alarm bells. Parents prefer the full offering upfront. This is tricky because you may need to release a freemium LITE version to build brand awareness, but you need to do a lot of research into the kinds of features people will pay for.
e.g. following the Monkey preschool lunchbox app with a dress-up app…
it was really cute and had a lot of fun things for kids to do, but the parents didn't like it in general, because it was sort of a violation of the contract we had started with lunchbox, it wasn't educational, too much of a change too soon. The kids really liked it. But parents didn't – particularly not when they had the choice between a more overtly educational app versus one that was simply about play.
During the first six months, we only watched children playing with our app once a month. Initially only a couple people would observe, but it became clear that developers were only loosely interpreting the results. When the entire team started watching the actual footage on a regular, fortnightly basis we found that they took it to heart when they saw something not work and would go fix it. This made our whole path a lot clearer.
Initially we thought we would offer subscriptions beside a limited free service, but we over-valued our offering. We thought the limited service would inspire kids to ask for subscription. As it turned out parents got annoyed that we did not give their kids a good experience. We made assumptions without doing a lot of research. Again, we were just four people or three people, just working on small surveys that weren’t well rounded enough.
I've heard so many app developers say, Oh, we did a survey and people said they'd spend $6 a month on this…but I rarely ever see that play out. You need to look at the landscape of what people are willing to pay out there. If you're in a marketplace, where everyone's offering it for free, you're not going to have any luck trying to offer it for a pay. People generally won’t pay very much for children’s apps. … And BTW, often it turns out that main revenue generators (the people buying in-app purchases) are actually older audiences - which is a design challenge if you're making a children's app.
You're competing with a lot of like toy companies now and for them it's all about brand awareness. They're hoping that the kids will engage with the apps, they don't need to make any money on it. So you have to have a different strategy.
Originally, we sold coins for use in the app. It was actually Apple that pushed us away from that. They don't like the idea of kids kind of being consumers in games. So then we changed it, where now we sell educational packs to parents, and our conversion rate went from 2% to 8%.
- Don’t facilitate the play sessions – just watch how the kids engage with it through their own initiative. Don’t step in and touch the screen for the kid.
- You need someone to go in there that doesn't really have a lot of knowledge. Sometimes it's a parent, sometimes it's a play therapist that can help kids feel comfortable and won’t step in unless the kids were like really frustrated. If the parent is around, they're going to be protective, but that may also be realistic.
- If your app will be used at home, that's where you test.
- Rather than hire external research companies, it is generally better for the team to get in front of kids and watch them engage with the app. Creators can’t rely on their own expectations, or intuitions as audiences often surprise creators.
How have audiences surprised you?
-I didn’t realise how much people hate reading…they skip over everything that explains how the app works …(so now) we keep it to one sentence…and keep everything flying through.
-I didn’t realise how protective a parent would be e.g. some parents refused to allow rewards in the app...educating them on the value of that reward became essential, like what the point values mean and how players gain points. There are so many things that we need to get across to a parent, but people are busy. (To counteract this these creators added a commanding voice-over at the start, followed by a fun and engaging question).
-At the same time children don't like to just sit around and wait to have something explained, so you have to design for the mechanics and play to be sort of obvious or intuitive for them.
How to be educational and entertaining, with creative pricing models.
-For school age children educational aspects are best kept optional and playful
-Education is already a kind of game-play for pre-school children so that can become core game design.
- Children often want to see things that look like they were drawn by a kid.
- Children will just touch and be like, oh, it does this. Do all you can to reward that.
- Children may also not have a lot of life experience, but they don’t like to experience themselves as being limited. They have an ego and they want to do things and so when they want to move into your game their expectation is that they're going to be able to do well in it and maybe they'll learn something for from it.
- So you always need to have hooks that allow them to move and be empowered and be able to experience the game. They can get stuck but the solution can reference back to something that might have already happened earlier in the game.
- Overly abstract or complex interfaces or interfaces that are just really complicated
- Over offering the core gameplay, like adding a bunch of bells and whistles that don't really have to do with the main experience so they become distracting.
- Remember, children like primary colours. They can’t see the whole rainbow…so the tradition that everything has to be glossy and bevelled and shadowed and noise is not helpful in this context. Neither are gimmicky fonts and typefaces.
- Products that are integrated into a kid's life in a more organic way – to offset screen time, but also heighten the benefits of connectivity…something that has a lot of the sort of same sort of stickiness that TV used to have.
- Apps that graduate with kids… growing up with them and and kind of staying with them, so there’s brand allegiance and a lot of physical products.
- Engaging grandparents and extended family members. 40% of our customers were grandparents. Grandparents are tech savvy, and they know their grandchildren are already playing with mobile devices. They just don't know how to engage. So if you can create an opportunity, I think there's some interesting things you can do there.
- Channels…a bit like what's happening with Netflix, these channel opportunities offer a more holistic approach. Something's going to have to eventually break in with the individual app purchase world.
Armstrong, Paul, Alex Bowman, Carly Gloge, and Jim Nichols. 2014. DESIGNING APPS AND GAMES FOR KIDS (THE RIGHT WAY). edited by GDC. U.S.: YouTube.
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The USW Audience of the Future research team is compiling a summary collection of recent research in the field of immersive, and enhanced reality media