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Use Touchscreens for Younger Kids

Touch-based devices are the best choice for products aimed to children 3 to 5 years old.

Touching an interface is the most natural way of interacting with a device.When we use a keyboard, a mouse, a trackpad, a joypad, or any other input peripheral that lives separately from where the output is displayed, we have a mediated interaction; we act on one device and we get the result on another.When we use a touchscreen instead, the input and output live in the same space. I tap on a button and I can see it reacting under my finger (remember:feedback!); I don’t rely on a cursor moved by a thing resting on my desk to click on a button displayed on a screen a few inches away from where I move my finger.

It’s easy to understand how touch interactions are friendlier for children and how they require less cognitive load. The interface mimicking the physics of real world makes the interaction simple and clear to understand. They are not just simple to perform; they are also intuitive to discover and easy to remember.

In products designed for children, we should limit touch interactions to the most natural and simple ones: tap, swipe, drag.

In my experience, dragging is already a little too advanced for very young kids.In the first version of an educational game I designed, kids moved the character by dragging it around the screen. During tests we noticed how this dragging action required too much finesse in the arm’s movement for younger children, so we let the character move automatically where the kid tapped. Older children could still drag it around to enjoy a smoother experience and get abetter sense of control over the character, but younger users could easily move it around and enjoy the product as well. It’s a good idea to provide, when possible, more than one option to perform actions. Each kid will decide how they want to interact with the product, in the way they find more comfortable.

In products designed for adults, we have witnessed the genesis of a crazy amount of new touch interactions in the past few years. Starting with multi-touch gestures we got to the point where users are supposed to master five-finger pinches, four-finger swipes, up to crazy things like squeezing the phone or using knuckles to knock or draw circles on the screen (these are real examples).

These newer gestures can’t be considered “natural” as they are not the digital translation of a real-life action; the reason for their creation is just that we ran out of natural gestures and we needed to come up with new ones to add more functionalities and shortcuts avoiding conflicts (a gesture being associated to more than one result). But these artificial (as opposite of natural)gestures are more difficult to remember and to master. The lack of a real-life counterpart makes them harder to discover and less memorable; users need to memorize them and remember what we associate to each one of them.Swiping up with three fingers to call the multitasking screen, there’s nothingwe do in real life that resembles this gesture and its result; therefore, it’s something we have to learn and remember how to use when we need it.

The price for these added functionalities is a more complex user experience and more cognitive load for the users.

We can’t ask young children to learn and perform gestures outside the ones we classify as natural. And even among them we have to carefully evaluate if they can perform them considering the physical development of the younger users (remember the difference between fine and gross motor skills).

Unintentional Touches

Young children can tap on a touchscreen in a very natural way, but they are not aware of a simple limitation of this technology: if you touch more than one area, the device doesn’t know which touch was intentional and which was not. I’ve observed this happening a lot with my 2-year-old daughter. When holding the screen, they often touch along the edge, so the device registers that as a tap, and, as a consequence, the intentional tapping does not respond, causing frustration and confusion.

We can solve this problem in different ways, each one with pros and cons:

  • By implementing a palm-rejection algorithm. Similar to what many digital art apps have, to let users rest the side of their hand on the screen while drawing. This assuming the accidental touch is not with just one finger
  • By defining a safe area around the edges where the app doesn’t detect any touch. And this, of course, works only if such unintentional touches are within the safe area.
  • By using some sort of timed touch detection. The app rejects touches when held for too long. Also this solution makes sense for unintentional touches caused by how the kid holds the device, not for accidental taps.

I don’t consider this a major problem, but when designing touch-based interfaces for kids that are very young, it’s something I would consider and eventually test.

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