As technology becomes more advanced, interactive devices find their path into our everyday lives. Education is one of the most recent fields where new and interactive devices such as the iPad are being introduced. When interactive systems are used to teach children, it is essential to make sure that these systems are easy to learn and easy to use. They must not create a barrier between the child and the information to be accessed.
On touch screen interfaces, interaction happens through direct contact between the hand and the interface. Especially for kids this offers great perspectives, as children naturally tend to touch things they want to interact with. However, due to the young age of interactive learning systems, little research has been done on how children interact with mobile devices.
Child Specific Interface Design Guidelines
In order to design intuitive interfaces, it is important to be familiar with the perspective users, their abilities, limitations, and different approaches of use. Designers are not typical users, especially when looking at interfaces for children. The limited ability to put themselves in the position of children makes it very difficult for designers to understand what is intuitive for children and what is not.
Specific Interface Guidelines for child applications could forestall this problem. These guidelines should be based on actual user research with children to ensure that they consider and reflect children’s physical, cognitive, and social abilities as well as limitations. In an initial research study, I set a first step towards user-friendly touch-interfaces for children based on empirical data.
The research question
Does the position of navigation buttons influence the intuitive operation of iPad applications for children between seven and nine years of age?
Based on a literature review, the following hypotheses were defined:
H1: Because children from Western cultures focus their attention more on top locations than on bottom locations; navigation buttons that are positioned at the top of the screen will be more intuitive than at the bottom.
H2: Navigation buttons that are positioned in the far corners of the screen are more salient on the mental timeline and therefore more intuitive than navigation buttons that are positioned close together.
For a literature review on the topic and more info about the hypotheses, please download the full report.
What did the study look like?
In a 2 by 2 factor between subject experiment with 84 children (Mage = 7.7), I investigated how the vertical position (top vs. bottom) and the horizontal distance (close vs. distant) of navigation buttons influence the (1) time children need to tab different navigation buttons (next, back, home) and (2) the degree to which children perceive navigation buttons as intuitive. In addition to the experiment, children were also asked both open and closed interview questions.
4 different positions of the navigation buttons were tested in this study.
For more info about the research design, please download the full report.
What did the results look like?
Results show that children perceive navigation buttons that are positioned at the bottom of the screen and distant from each other as most intuitive.
Navigation buttons as they were used on the study.
Children significantly preferred the first version with the buttons positioned at the bottom of the screen and distant from each other above all other versions. Version three with the buttons at the top and distant from each other was furthermore preferred above the two versions with the buttons positioned close together.
Bottom position was preferred
Navigation buttons as they were used on the study.
1. Easy to reach Children justified their perception of the button positions with different arguments. They explained that buttons that are placed at the bottom are closer by and therefore easier to reach. Buttons placed on the top of the screen on the other hand were described as difficult to reach, or at least not without effort.
2. Less salient Another argument the children put forward for placing the buttons at the bottom was that navigation buttons are not as important. As predicted in the first hypothesis, buttons at the top of the screen were described as more salient. However, for most children navigation buttons were not supposed to be salient and therefore preferred at the bottom of the screen. The bottom of the screen was perceived as less important than the top of the screen.
Distant position was preferred
Children answered interview questions by choosing one out of four smiley faces presenting different emotional expressions.
1. Distant position was more in line with a mental timeline Further, children preferred navigation buttons to be positioned distant from each other. This perception supports the second hypothesis, which is based on the assumption of a left-past right-future, horizontal spatial metaphor.
2. Distant positions required a more salient gesture The action of tabbing the distant buttons was perceived as more salient and therefore supported the concept of going back or further. These findings were in line with the idea that gesture is a concrete concept for time and therefore helps us to understand this abstract phenomenon.
- Despite the assumption that children during middle childhood understand conceptual metaphors, during a pilot study it became clear that children between seven and nine years of age did not associate arrows with navigation options.
- Children (between 7 and 9 years) did not associate the house icon with the home screen. Neither were they familiar with the concept of the home screen.
- Children in middle childhood adapt quickly to new concepts. There was a significant learning effect from the beginning to the end of the study.
- Difficulties with the navigation buttons affect the perceived difficulty of the app.
- The suggested button size for adults, according to the Official User Interface Guidelines by Apple is 44 x 44 pixel. The results show that children between seven and nine years of age have an average tab accuracy of 75 pixels, suggesting an optimal button size of 150 x 150 pixel.
- Children with more gaming experience with a computer had significantly lower tab accuracy. Even for ‘digital natives’, there is a difference between operating a mouse and interacting directly with a touch screen that needs to be learned.
For more details on this research, please download the full report.
There is still a lot of room for further research about how children in middle childhood, but also in other age groups, interact with the iPad, or other touch interfaces. We still need to learn a lot to make sure we design and build intuitive interactions for kids.
My goal is to gather many many more insights and make them available as public Interface Guidelines for child applications. Let’s bring together our thoughts and insights and design interactions that are easy to learn and easy to use for kids (<12 years of age).
Do you want to contribute ideas, feedback, or research? I can’t wait to hear from you!