As a mobile user experience designer, father and grad student, I’m in a unique position to observe how people interact with mobile touch devices and mobile apps. As a student, my projects were inspired by my boys and their negative mobile user experiences. These experiences hampered their fun and ability to learn which snowballed into my own negative experience as they constantly interrupted me for help.

Being a user experience designer for more than 10 years allowed me to use my research and analytical skills to observe how people of all ages learn, interact with and use mobile apps and connected devices in their daily lives. I regularly use methods of contextual research to discover people’s joys and frustrations with technology; interview stakeholders and customers; test ideas, interactions, and prototypes, and conduct usability testing.

What I discovered about children is not new. Children are painfully and hysterically honest and are experts at pointing out problems with the mobile apps they use. In this simplicity of thoughtless (or thoughtful) verbalization, we can learn a lot about what not to do within “adult” apps.

A Bull in a China Shop.
Children love learning and exploring through touch. Let’s just say their fingers do a lot of the initial heavy lifting when it comes to learning. Having two boys, I know this very well. It’s hard to keep anything nice in our home very long without it getting dirty, destroyed, broken or manhandled, including our mobile devices. Learning to use and navigate these devices and their apps, children touch randomly all over the screen, sometimes even screens that are not “touch screens”. Adults do the same thing, just take a look at any screen around you. Notice anything smudgy about it? This way of learning presents several user experience design challenges.

Being able to touch and learn requires touch targets big enough to make things happen. The first time. In many apps, including ages 4+ apps, touch areas are too small, not highlighted, or overtly called out. Sometimes blind touch is needed when creating an interactive plaything where exploration is required and surprise is integral to the experience. Imagine an adult using an app where these same problems exist. Adults have twice the finger size, may be shakier, and don’t want to be surprised by a popup. This common problem is compounded when you add in protective cases for devices where their edges prevent fingers from finding their targets.

PrestoBingo Shapes is a beautifully designed app and does a great job with audio cues but fails to provide visual cues when kids get stuck. Frustration sets in and “the end!”, this child closes the app.

 

Night & Day Studios My A-Z app for iPhone is sold as an experience for kids and adults. But much of the functionality is accessible to kids easily and can create problems when fingers roam.

Interactive elements get your attention. Variety in color, an outline, a jiggle, glow, shimmer or wiggle can do a lot to attract people to target areas.

When designing, always remember the age of the people you’re designing for. The littlest of fingers may not have the dexterity, control and precision to hit a small touch target. Pudgy and shaky fingers also need big touch target areas with a clear path and a larger touch areas than 44 pixels.

Don’t Make Me Read.
Some kids don’t know how to read yet, that’s obvious, and many more may not know the meaning of the words you’re using. When auditing children’s mobile apps you’ll find a lot of text to read. I’m not aware of too many 4-6 year-olds or kids with learning disabilities who know how to read and understand all those words.

Weekend Read’s App has a lot to say. If you have to explain an app this much, it’s probably not easy to use. Animations from CAPPTIVATE.co, March 19th, 2014

With adults, I’ve observed that even though they can, they don’t want to read. Like kids, adults like to jump right in and start exploring. So it makes sense to not make them read your 20 pages of instructions or sit through your awesomely designed “on-boarding” tour that you’re sure people will want to take.

So it makes sense, when talking to children or adults, to “keep it simple”. Very simple. Don’t get fancy and whatever your word count, cut it in half. Use visual and auditory cues to replace words children might not understand or read. In this context, it is extremely important for the learning process to be quick, simple and effective in order for your app to have “staying power”.

Recent contextual research with connected devices showed adults rarely take the tours apps provide or read printed instructions. If forced to read or watch them, frustration sets in and that is an experience we don’t want to provide. Many apps have tried to make the learning/onboarding experience fun with animations, transitions and nice images and graphics. But ultimately, people are too excited and time strapped to watch, stop and read. They want to learn by doing, making mistakes and touching everywhere on the screen.

Based on these wants, it makes sense to have help, tours and FAQs available but out of the way until they’re needed. “Need” being the keyword. When help is needed provide a clear path to “help” items. Provide simple and clear instructions and direction and when possible, use visuals to replace all those words. Layer your onboarding experience and take into consideration that the first layer is letting people figure it out.

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Ikea’s assembly instructions illustrate simple and clear visual instructions without words.

I’m Lost and Can’t Find My Way.
There’s a reason Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs to mark their trail. They had a great idea that didn’t work out but at least they tried. Some apps don’t even try. Not providing a way back and creating deep and complicated navigational structures get people lost fast. Getting lost is frustrating and leads to people feeling like they’re not in control.

Kids and adults should always know where they are. They should also easily know where to go and how to get there. Keep the navigation simple and content easily accessible at all times. When it comes to children’s apps, the simpler the better. Consider that no navigation may be the best solution. In every case, talk to the people that will be using your app. Observe and document how people navigate or want to navigate through your app. Talking to people is always a good idea.

Stop Tricking Me
Dark Patterns” involve types of user interface patterns that are created to trick people into buying, getting or signing up for something. “In-app” purchases are my least favorite of the dark patterns. They lurk and hide in almost every mobile game in the universe. These patterns seem innocuous, fit the existing user interface and compare fake money to real money. Where this gets tricky, especially to a kid who can’t read, is that this is just a screen with a bunch of mumbo jumbo on it. All they want to do, is continue playing but now they can’t and have to go to mom or dad or worse, touch the highlighted button “buy”.

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Most mobile games compare their points system to real money, much like this screenshot shows from Angry Birds Rio.

Before Apple settled a class-action lawsuit with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on minors making in-app purchases without parental consent, I fell victim to this egregious user experience and trickery. My 5-year-old came to a similar screen and asked me for help. I was interrupted and wanted to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. I didn’t read the alert box and inadvertently purchased $90 worth of shiny gold coins. Fortunately, I was able to convince Apple to refund my money, but for many families, this might go unnoticed or be too insignificant an amount to bother with.!

Knowing your audience’s abilities and what they are comfortable spending can help you make ethical choices for your games and business model. You can only know this if you talk to people. Assuming what people want is a dangerous answer, asking them is the real answer.

The Interrupting Cow
Knock, knock. Who’s there? Interrupting cow. Interrupting cow – Mooooooooo!

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RagDoll Blaster from BackFlip Studios.

Playing a mobile game, in the middle of an intense Pinterest session or conducting a usability test can be exhilarating. Except when you’re “in the zone” and you accidentally touch the part of the screen where the “menu” and or “settings” icon lives or your wife sends you an NSWF text or you’re suddenly interrupted by a message asking you to buy more “something” to continue.

Sometimes an icon associated with an interrupting menu is the only icon needed on the game screen where “home”, “pause” or “quit” is needed. Anything else is a nuisance to gameplay and a distraction from the icons needed for actual gameplay.

Getting your app in front of people and observing how they use it provides a wealth of information on where and when to place menu and settings elements. If you find yourself hitting things you don’t need, iOS offers a “Guided Access” feature. This feature allows you to circle areas of the screen to disable and is unique to every application.

Just as interrupting are native operating system notifications that appear when you’re “in the zone”. It’s important to know when your battery is down to 10% and save your work or game before your device crashes but 10% off from the Home Depot is just not that important when world domination is on the line. Recently when conducting a usability test, I failed to turn on “Do Not Disturb” and my wife sent me an NSFW text which the participant read out loud.

OS based notifications are controlled by the OS itself or the app specific to the notification. iOS offers a “Do Not Disturb” mode from the Control Center. Android also offers a “Do Not Disturb” feature similar to iOS and Windows Mobile offers Driving Mode where all notifications can be turned off except for emergency calls and alerts. In all cases, these features allow your device connectivity without the distractions that come with it.

Talking to People is a Good Idea
Bad mobile experiences can be easily prevented by talking to people. Children or adults, talk to your audience and ask what they want, what they read, and how they learn. You may not always like the answers but knowing what confuses them and where their pains and frustrations lie can save you from the hundreds of bad reviews, angry emails, and uncomfortable phone calls.

Testing your app extensively during visual design and iterating on the results helps smooth out wrinkles in the user interface before they become huge mistakes.

Together, research and testing is a powerful force that allow teams to make informed decisions based on the observations and insights of real people, not the assumptions of a team with personal agendas. Research and testing also allow for teams to understand and share the feelings of actual people using their app.