Developing mobile apps for children

Recently, an article claiming that Steve Jobs and other tech personalities are ‘low-tech parents’ has been doing the rounds on most publishing and social networking sites. While it has raised the never ending debate of how much time children should spend on computers and mobile devices, the undeniable truth is that as far as kids from the current and consequent generations are concerned, mobile devices are here to stay.

Parenting ethics apart, kids are naturally drawn to mobile devices and their capability to enthrall and entertain. No wonder then that the kiddie apps market has suddenly exploded with developers scrambling to cater to every tot’s whim. But here’s the tricky bit – if you thought that you could translate your experiences from creating apps for adults to developing apps for kids, you could be mistaken.

Here are some aspects that you will need to necessarily think about when attempting to develop a children’s app.

Objective of the app

When it comes to creating apps for little humans, the obvious approach is to go by what they want. But it is equally important to consider what the parents expect the app to do for their kids. Two very obvious goals are to provide entertainment and/or provide learning opportunities for the child. According to a study, 29% of kids downloaded apps for themselves and preferred those that had entertainment value above all. However, 58% of parents felt that the apps should impart some kind of knowledge to the children. So when listing out objectives for the app, you need to ensure that you keep both camps happy.

Affordance is crucial

Most onscreen elements in children’s apps give no clear indication of what is interactive and what isn’t. That is, the cues are not clear enough. Figuring it out can become very frustrating for the kids. Affordance has to be implemented very clearly to deliver a better experience. The most commonly used affordances in children’s game apps are outer glow, sway/shake, in-object animation and stretch/squish.

Choose the right action

If it’s a game that is being developed, it needs to involve actions that are appropriate for children and the ages they are at. Some commonly used actions are tap, drag & drop and swipe. Of the three, tap is the most intuitive action and perfectly suited for children of even very young ages. The other two actions require instruction and are ideally suited for older kids.


Along with affordances and actions, feedback is required to signal to the child that the action has been completed correctly or incorrectly. Feedback cues can be auditory, visual and tactile. Ideally, feedback should combine two or more of the cues.

Understanding hot spots on the screen

It is very important for designers and developers to take into consideration how children interact with the screen. For instance, they’re prone to unintentionally touching certain parts of the screen. Placing elements there might lead to accidental prompting of an action which will confuse the child.

Clarity in pagination

Pagination prompts or elements need to be placed in areas where the interaction will be deliberate. It also needs to be clear enough to the child that it is a way to move forward.

Prioritize elements onscreen

One important aspect that developers seem to fumble at is prioritizing elements in each screen. It is very important for the UI to be squeaky clean and minimalistic in children’s apps. Too many elements can confuse the child as well as create utter chaos when he/she is trying to play. No child wants to seek assistance from parents every other minute because some unwanted option has popped up.

Pushing sales too hard

Some developers believe that it is smart to push sales through kids’ apps at ‘strategic’ points of the app. This is a clear indication that the understanding of the audience is very poor. At such young ages, parents are keen on preserving their innocence and providing straightforward, enjoyable experiences for the kids. Being too ‘sales-y’  is guaranteed to drive both kids and parents away and leave you wondering what happened.

In-App Purchases

In-App Purchases, by themselves, drive an ethical wedge between the app publishing community and the users. The line is even more finer when it comes to kids apps. They are not the ones to pay but they are the easiest to lure. With most parents not very particular about setting restrictions on the devices, a kid can easily swipe her dad’s card dry. Easiest way to get an app uninstalled is by deceiving a user to pay. I’ve never kept an app for more than 10 minutes that surreptitiously inserts a payment hook into the app meant for my kid to play.

Ambiguity can lead to very sticky legal situations like this one. Not even technology giants are exempt from paying for such glaring errors.

Other UX considerations

Keeping in mind that the audience is unlike any other, developers of kids’ apps must study how they interact with mobile devices to get a better sense of what refinement is needed. For instance, children who are very young don’t need a home screen for the app and prefer apps that launch immediately. Also settings buttons are not critical for children and may at times be a hindrance in the experience. Bigger objects, easier tasks, apt colors are all considerations that must be part of a developer’s checklist when creating apps for kids.

While this list is not an exhaustive one, it is a starting point for those who wish to make their presence felt in the children’s app market. A keen understanding of the children who form the target audience as well as their parents is key to the entire process.


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