How to make apps that kids will love

If you film birds in the park, it’s unlikely the result will resemble a David Attenborough documentary. The same is true of kids’ apps – we could all have a go at making one (they seem so simple, right?), but it takes time, focus and expertise to make a good one.

 

I’ve been working in digital media for over 20 years and kids’ games for the last 11 years. In that time, I’ve watched children migrate from their parent’s desktop computer to touchscreens. 44% of UK children aged under 15 now own their own tablets (including 16% of 3-4 year olds), and a staggering 39% of five to ten year olds own their own mobile phones, often handed down by their parents.

As part of my work, I test apps and games with kids and I’ve noticed that children want different things from apps as they grow older.

What do children want from apps?

Let’s look at the characteristics of apps for different age groups and think about what changes for kids at each stage.

Great apps for pre-schoolers

Characteristics of great apps for this age group are:

  • Easy to use activities that don’t require parental help – kids have tablets because parents are trying to get the meal cooked or the washing up or shopping done; they don’t want to have to learn your app. Keep it simple.
  • Recognisable characters – parents take charge of downloading pre-school apps: “My child loves Peppa Pig or Thomas the Tank engine, so I’ll search for those”. Brands create a fast route to content in a crowded world.
  • Sound effects and voice over – these help the child know what to do and to get feedback on what they’re doing.
  • Humour – make them laugh! You can do this by adding funny character expressions and making something unexpected or ‘naughty’ (throwing custard pies) happen.

I love the Sago Mini Babies app from Sago Mini (iOS, Android). Kids are invited to fling food into the cat’s mouth (they love the mess and funny faces that ensue), get the bird to unwrap the birthday present and then watch the balloons float out of the present. It’s humorous and easy to use and I’ve seen kids laugh out loud when playing it.

Great apps for five to seven year olds

  • Real-world interactions – kids enjoy open-ended games where they can play at being grown-ups. Toca Boca has this down to a tee. Hair cutting anyone? Play guitar in a band? Work in a hospital? You can do it with Toca Boca games (iOS, Android).
  • Simple gaming mechanics – this age group gets competitive and kids want to start beating their highest score. Games are repetitive, addictive and simple to keep kids coming back for more (think Angry Birds and Doodle Jump).
  • Creative play – hello Minecraft! An evergreen favourite of kids – they can build their own worlds, alone or with friends. Roblox is popular with children this age and older. Digital art tools are also a favourite of this age.
In Minecraft, kids can create characters and build worlds with friends In Minecraft, kids can create characters and build worlds with friends

Great apps for tweens (9 to 12 year olds)

  • Social lite – tweens start to connect with friends via games and online activities which might include messaging in a private network. Activities are likely to include making something for peers to see and ‘like’ e.g. Musical.ly – an app that allows children to mime along to a snippet of a song, add effects and create a relatively professional looking video for their friends to see.
  • Simple gaming mechanics – games don’t go away. Children this age still love to play simple games like Crossy Road.

Great apps for teens (13+)

  • Full social capabilities – teens want to talk to their friends and share their lives and interests. Instagram, Snapchat and Spotify are popular. Facebook use amongst this age group is less popular and in decline. Teens are more likely to use Snapchat stories (upload photos/videos that sit there for 24 hours) and Instagram to broadcast their lives.
  • Practical information – bus timetables and food delivery services.
  • Special interest niche information – Apps such as Fantasy Football, Anime cartoons and photography reflect the user’s hobbies and interests.

Layered on top of all these apps is YouTube. Kids are absorbed in the land of digital video from a very early age and YouTube is ubiquitous at every age group.

How do I make apps for kids?

Finally, if you’re thinking of making an app for kids, here are my tips for adhering to a process to creates apps with the qualities outlined above:

  • User testing – get a prototype up and running early and test it with the target age group. Watch what users do, not just what they say. If they are laughing, make more of that feature and add more.
  • Know your audience – think about what your users do offline as well as online. Kids like to recognise their world.
  • Design – pitching the design at the right level is a skill. If you get it wrong and make it look too young, even four-year-olds will tell you, “It’s for babies”.
  • Remember the parents – it’s a dual audience; parents feel bad about their kids having screen time, and less bad if their kids are learning something.
  • Don’t underestimate kids’ digital skills – even babies can press buttons and they are delighted when this causes a reaction, such as a sound effect or a picture reveal. Children are sophisticated digital users and from an early age they understand concepts such as logins (avoid them if you can) and WiFi – especially if they can’t get it!

And as a gift to all you parents out there, I’m going to recommend Photomath (iOS, Android). One day your child’s math’s homework might get too hard for you and this app will be your friend. You’re welcome!

Becky is a freelance producer and UX consultant specialising in children’s media. She has been fortunate enough to work on some of the industry’s biggest brands, including Peppa Pig, Sesame Street’s Elmo’s World, Horrible Histories Gory Games and Teletubbies. She is currently working on projects for the Sky Kids app and the Science Museum.

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