Apps: Standing Out From The Crowd

It was a pleasure to speak on the panel Apps: Standing Out From the Crowd today at the Children’s Media Conference. Here’s a summary of the session from CMC:

Report – Apps: Standing Out from the Crowd

Credit: Children’s Media Conference

I’ve also included below a summary of my presentation:

I’m Lucy Gill, I’m a freelance UX consultant specialising in children’s apps and other digital kids products.

I recently set-up Digills Consulting to focus on providing advice and user research for those developing kids digital products.

Back in 2013 I created what became the Good App Guide which I brought into Fundamentally Children alongside the Good Toy Guide and remained a Director there until May this year. I’ve literally reviewed hundreds of kids apps and supported the development of a range of leading kids products including the McDonalds Happy Studio app that I’ll mention shortly.

We all want our apps to inspire this much attention!

Becky has already explained how important it is for them to be fun/engaging – my job is to convince you of the fundamental importance of user experience.

Few people consciously buy an app BECAUSE it’s usable but it’s pretty certain that:

  • if they can’t figure out how to use it
  • struggle to find their way around
  • miss key features
  • or in any way find the app frustrating

(All UX issues of course) they won’t play it, recommend it or give it a good review.

I’ve reviewed well over 300 apps before and during my time at GAppG and by far the biggest reason for apps to fail was due to poor UX.

I’m going to show you a video that demonstrates a few typical UX issues with children’s Apps before going on to explain what you should do to optimise UX.

No offence intended to any of the examples shown. In fact, I’ve specifically chosen brands that have many fabulous apps – but few people get it right every time!

Clip 1: Why won’t it work?

This experience is very typical. The issue is with affordance / mental models. In this case the child assumes as it’s a bus that it will drive away at some point. She expects it to drive off to the right or if it’s just arrived people should get off.

If certain aspects don’t function (e.g. a bus can’t drive, some aspects can’t be selected) provide very clear, limited calls to action for the things that do work. Otherwise basically everything that looks functional needs to be. It’s why Toca Boca, Sago Mini, My Playhome (and normally Dr. Panda) are so popular – normally everything works.

Clip 2: Is that all it does?

Anyone watching noticed those arrows? Or the stethoscope he missed early on lying next to the body?

I see this sort of thing all the time and it can be devastating for an app. If the UX fails to allow the children to understand how to play or the scope of the game / features the chances are they won’t enjoy it for long. This play actually went on for about 4 minutes before I helped which is unusually patient for this age group.

Another example is Hairy words (an otherwise fabulous app), the little Hairy’s you get to save once you’ve correctly spelt out some high frequency words need to be tapped in mid air to make them jump, otherwise they plummet to their death. However, there is nothing on screen to tell the user this in the version I tested. This issue alone took a seriously educational and fun app from highly recommended to a borderline pass on the Good App Guide. 

Other apps take the approach of long tutorials, or rely on help sections but contextual help is much more natural and effective – take a look at clip 3 for a Toca Boca example.

Clip 3: Good example: Providing natural, contextual in-line help sounds easy but it is far more difficult than you might first imagine. It needs to be done whilst allowing free exploration and avoiding it feeling too step-by-step which disengages children (and their imaginations). Subtle contextual clues as shown in the Toca Tailor clip work well. Verbal and written prompts can also work in some circumstances too depending on various factors like the child’s age. You’d be amazed how many times I’ve reviewed apps which expected a 4 year old to read instructions…

The key message here is to put the challenge in the gameplay NOT in the usability.

Happy Studio by McDonald’s is a great example of how user testing can be vital. When the first prototype was tested we noticed that children assumed the main game ‘Be an artist’ was the only game, they failed to notice the faded icons on either side. The design team added in a fabulous little animation on loading which spins the carousel of games and the problem was solved in beautifully elegant and fun way.

Here are some other typical UX issues:

Tapping everywhere: Children like to tap – in fact the younger the child the more likely they are to tap everything in sight just to see what happens. If settings are too easy to access this can lead to disaster. It’s amazing how often you find children trying to play in a foreign language! Of course if adverts and in-app purchasing are too available this can lead to even more of a problem. Parent gates should be used sensibly, not just to comply with Apple’s guidelines but they need to protect features that little fingers should not find. They also need to be age appropriate – simple instructions (like hold for 3 seconds or what’s 2+2) don’t work well once a child can read and add. 

Play label: Be careful of use of language even in basic labels like ‘Play’. Apps aimed at pre-schoolers need symbols and clear visual calls to action that don’t rely on reading skills.

Too long: I often find that the basic gameplay flow is too long for younger children or that, the opposite is true, the gameplay is too engaging and becoming addictive. This is well worth testing with play testing to get the balance right and include natural age appropriate end points.

Flow: Apps also often feel disjointed to children. Apps that offer lots of options but no natural flow or progression route can fail to inspire them. Equally, if they are forced down one prescribed route this can be a problem. For example, if a game is made up of a set of mini-games children may prefer one game to another and should be able to choose to play one more than the other, but some flow between the mini-games to encourage each to be played is also worth considering. User testing will allow the right balance to be investigated.

Barriers: Beware of adding unnecessary barriers. For example, sometimes registration or setting up profiles can add real value but if they are a barrier to first use (and require a parent to complete) they can prevent onboarding being completed. 

Here is my final summary:

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