The next big thing is already available in your local toy aisle

I had this realization long ago that all new technologies seem to first surface as a lower-key version that exists mostly as a toy.
If you think about the great innovations of our recent history, you may think of things like the internet, computers, or smart phones. But, before you could buy an iPad, you could buy touchscreen toys made for kids. Sure, they were low resolution and didn’t have very sophisticated software, but it was still a portable computer with a touchscreen OS running various apps.

The personal computer itself was an innovation that sprung forth from the ashes of the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, and those were just an evolution of pong. So in the beginning, the entire reason for the technology revolution, the modern personal computer, was born as a game.

I’m not saying that the invention of pong is what enabled the computer revolution to happen. I think it would’ve happened regardless. But what’s interesting is that this great technology we have today gave us a hint that it was coming with the growth of digital arcade games in the late 70s. Apple was releasing the first personal computers right around this time. Most people didn’t know what a computer was needed for. However, everyone seemed to know what the arcades were for. Gaming is fun! There was a ton of exposure to computer technology through digital arcades.

So when you’re sitting around thinking about what’s on the horizon in the technology field, consider looking at the new high-tech toys first. They may shed a shimmer of light on what someone else somewhere is using that same technology for.

Browsing amazon, I can quickly find a few toys that may be hinting at greater things to come:
Sifteo Cubes Intelligent Game System
Sphero iOS and Android controlled ball with 20+ Apps for gameplay

I leave you with this snippet from Paul Graham’s post about ideation:

“Just as trying to think up startup ideas tends to produce bad ones, working on things that could be dismissed as “toys” often produces good ones. When something is described as a toy, that means it has everything an idea needs except being important. It’s cool; users love it; it just doesn’t matter. But if you’re living in the future and you build something cool that users love, it may matter more than outsiders think. Microcomputers seemed like toys when Apple and Microsoft started working on them. I’m old enough to remember that era; the usual term for people with their own microcomputers was “hobbyists.” BackRub seemed like an inconsequential science project. The Facebook was just a way for undergrads to stalk one another.”
http://www.paulgraham.com/startupideas.html

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Designing mobile apps for children

Mobile apps designed for children are becoming very popular as a result of the intuitive design of the iOS and Android touch screen operating systems. Never before has software been so accessible for pre schoolers, and elementary school students. However, there are some things that you should take careful consideration of when designing apps for this audience.

I want to share with you all a great resource put out by Sesame Street Workshop that details the best practices, and problems that crop in designing for children. You can find the original PDF by Sesame Street at the end of this post. I will summarize a few points here that I felt were important to discuss in the success of a children’s app.


Using Familiar Faces

The document points to using familiar faces to “guide” children to what it is they need to do. The guides are instructors, teaching the child to use the app in real time through audio narration. The use of familiar characters creates a stronger bond between the child and the app, and leads to increased comprehension of what to do.

It’s easy for Sesame Street to make use of familiar faces, they have a host of great characters to choose from. But, you don’t need to be a big company with lots of popular characters to present familiar faces to your audience. It’s not hard to find familiar faces in the world of public domain. Many of Disney’s best hits are based on public domain. Some examples include Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and many other famous stories with characters we see time and again. It’s also very popular to hook in to famous cultural or mythological figures such as Hercules, Zeus, or even Saint Nicholas.

Experience Design

Start of with instructions from a voice over, and try to avoid text. Ultimately you want to assume that the child can not read, so make use of video and audio indicators of how to proceed in the app. If you are quizzing the user on some content, or presenting a game, you should be careful to not be too negative when wrong answer selections occur. You want to be motivating the child and give them hints as they continue to answer. Finally you want the app to proceed without a correct answer by simply instructing them exactly what they need to do.

It’s also important to children that they know they did the right thing. Go nuts with the rewards, maybe even as crazy as those guys over at Peggle. Seriously, these are some dramatic “Yeah! you did it!” effects and music here. There is nothing wrong with being extremely over the top with rewards in any app, and especially in a children’s app. Great in-game rewards is motivating and exciting.

Interactivity

The most intuitive input gesture for children is a simple tap. However, typically children rest their arms or hands on the edges of the screen. So, it is important to allow for taps to occur, even when they are touching other components of the screen. I would suggest creating “dead zones” where touches will be ignored around the bottom of the screen. Focus touch interactions for the top half of the iPad, and toward the center.

Children have trouble with most complicated gestures, such as “flicking” objects around the screen with momentum, using tilt or shake controls, double tapping, and anything involving multi-touch. Ideally you want to focus on the most intuitive input mechanisms, which is the tap, drawing, or dragging of objects around. Be careful with dragging though, children tend to lift their finger as they drag around the screen. For this reason it’s important to implement a dragging routine that allows for hiccups along the path where the user may lift their finger for a moment during a drag.

Visual Cues

It is important to provide visual clues for any goals in the app, at any given time. Touchable objects should be highlighted or glow, and actions should be delineated with a path or animation of what gestures to use. If a child should drag a character or object along a path, you could create an animation of the path while highlighting the object that needs to be moved to make it clear what they are to do.

Intentionality

Keep in mind that children will accidentally press on lower parts of the screen. So, when implementing features that make major changes to the state of the app, for example quitting, saving photos, and especially any social features, you want to take special care to make sure these actions can not be accidentally done by the child. Usually these interactions are going to be performed by a parents. This is a good opportunity to take advantage of the fact that children are not very good with certain types of gestures.

One way to do this is to have the parent’s controls be hidden away in a menu that requires a multi-touch gesture to open. For example, you could have a menu on the right side of the screen that can be dragged out on to the screen to be made visible, and then a ‘slide to unlock’ display could be used that times out if the gesture is not completed within a few seconds.

So there you have it, my thoughts on this great report by Sesame Street. I hope all of you out there working on children’s apps can make something a little better as a result of this information being available. If you need some help with your app, this kind of thing is right up my alley and I am available for hire, so get in touch!

Original PDF from Sesame Street:
Sesame Street – Best Practices: Designing Touch Tablet Experiences for Preschoolers

 

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