How young minds influenced us to be better software engineers

By Nick Russell

Understanding how your end user thinks and interacts is crucial to delivering the best piece of work possible to a client. So, earlier this year when we were handed a brief with the primary user being experts of technology, we knew we had a challenge on our hands.

We were tasked with the development of a web and mobile companion app for a children’s television show, with the primary users being 7–10 year olds: these children, born in the digital age, acquire a familiarity with technology from the get-go. Though the brief was broad for this project, there were three key objectives we needed to accomplish for the client, all being centred around the young users:

  • It needed to be fun and simple enough for a child to use,
  • Children who were using it, should feel engaged and want to come back,
  • The online platform needed to provide a consistent stream of user-generated content for the production team, to provide back to the daily TV show.
  • Ultimately, we needed to make something that was fun and simple, while also appealing to a child’s inquisitive nature, all the while delivering useful content to the production team.

By guiding the young users through the app in a way that felt as though they were discovering something new, the brief was met, and the users still feel engaged with the app almost a year on. During this project, we discovered new things too — here are our top three.

1. Knowing how the target user will use your app is essential for its success.

We know that kids are inquisitive and distracted. They aimlessly (though, often with force and purpose) swipe an active screen while hammering their fingers at colourful buttons and icons. They are constantly searching for interaction which rewards their limbic systems and swiftly become frustrated when something doesn’t behave as they expect.

As adults, we typically decide on a problem and then seek out a solution, while a child wants to discover what is possible, without really thinking about what the outcome might be. During this project, it meant as Software Engineers, we had to think like kids in order create software which would actively guide the young user to the solution. (Okay, thinking like children wasn’t a particularly hard task for our team).

Understanding how your user will use your application is the number one key requirement for its success.

2. Expect the user to do the unexpected

A common problem faced when developing software is that how you expect the user to behave in a given scenario is often vastly different from reality. This is especially evident with children, as their choices are often random and sporadic.

In the early stages of development for this project, focus groups were carried out with children of various ages and technology strengths so we could observe how they would interact with what we had made. What we found was surprising and unexpected (which should have been expected, given the unexpectedness of kids).

Demographic factors including the age gap between 7–10 year olds, technology in the home, amount of technology used at school, and even the decile of the schools tested affected user behaviour. For some children, the user interface was fine, but for others it was unusable as they were unable to read the phrases — or, they simply didn’t read them, but instead tried to problem solve by tapping and swiping. This was a major learning for us — we found that it is vitally important to not only have an understanding of your main demographic, but also subgroups within that demographic.

3. User behaviour translates to technical implementation

There were three main aspects which were used to guide our young users to interact. Movement, colour and consistency. If something is colourful, moves and they’ve seen it act like that before, they will tap, click, swipe and hammer it, and expect it to do what it did the last time. By using these three aspects, we could subconsciously teach the young users how to interact the way the app suggested they should.

These principles were therefore considered and implemented when handling any navigation to new sections of the app. By using consistent colours and animations across all navigation elements, we were able to quickly teach kids how to navigate without any conscious explanation.

Thinking like a digital native

When we kicked off this project, we had our clear objectives in mind, and a clear plan to achieve them. What we hadn’t anticipated were the invaluable lessons children were able to teach us about software engineering, and how their way of using technology would further shape the objectives and brief.

This reinforced the idea that everything from design & user interface, to technical infrastructure and implementation comes down to your end user. You need to have a good understanding of who your end users are, so you can have a great understanding of the platform you plan to provide them with — even if it means swiping, tapping and shaking your technology until it works*.

(*not recommended).

Article by Nick Russell