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Decoding the Digital Kid: Instructions on giving children instructions

When it comes to designing children's interactive media, former US President Harry Truman might have been on to something when he said, 'I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.' Unfortunately, too many of the products I review were designed by people who've forgotten this free advice.
July 27, 2009

When it comes to designing children’s interactive media, former US President Harry Truman might have been on to something when he said, ‘I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.’ Unfortunately, too many of the products I review were designed by people who’ve forgotten this free advice.

In countless kids apps, the first few screens are filled with introductions, non-descript login icons, or other control-sapping hoops. Instructions aren’t inherently bad things. On the contrary, when it comes to assembling a bicycle or baking a cake, they can be lifesavers. But when it comes to interactive products for young children, excessive instructions can just gunk up the works.

In fact, interactive product designers should take their cues from decidedly non-digital but skilled instruction givers – the people who design children’s rides for amusement parks. The Big Rigs ride, found at the Waldameer Amusement Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, is a good example. While standing in line at a nearby roller coaster, I noticed a chorus of goose-like honks pealing through the park at five-minute intervals. Curious about the noise, I wandered over and watched a batch of eager kids climbing into a train of double-decker truck cabs. Each truck was equipped with two steering wheels and two horns with rubber squeeze bulbs.

There were no instructions or helpful early childhood educators waiting with a mini-orientation. However, instantly, the children started busily exploring the controls with wide eyes and busy hands. Most tested the steering wheel first. Kids over age four seemed to know it wasn’t functional, but quickly learned the air horn was no fake. A squeeze made the sharp goose-like honk. Better yet, if you squeezed harder, you got a louder sound. And if you squeezed it several times, several honks followed. And nobody said stop! Soon, another chorus of honks filled the air, as each child signified their understanding of the task: ‘I’m an active learner, I’m alive, this is my space, and I’m in control.’

Contrast this with the WordGirl maze game (http://pbskids.org/wordgirl/index.html#/games/game_4/). The activity would be better if it just showed a maze and didn’t assume children need to be told to use the arrow keys – something they probably picked up from Webkinz long ago. Besides, if they can read that much text, they probably don’t need practice matching words, right? To make matters worse, the same instructions are parroted at each level.

The dos and don’ts
There are many types of interactive media, so there’s no one way to give instructions. That said, here are some general dos and don’ts for incorporating directions into a children’s interactive media product:

* Don’t incorporate directions.

* If you do, keep ‘em Twitter-sized, and remember that children have limited buffers. ‘Click to start’ is better than a mini- lecture on the QWERTY keyboard.

* Do embed the instructions in the activity, but get children busy doing something like popping balloons or spinning a steering wheel first. If nothing is happening, then provide an ‘over the shoulder’ instruction, such as ‘Try the arrow keys to move.’ If you front-load kids, they just tune out.

* Don’t parrot. In a sorting game, it’s okay to state ‘Sort the shapes’ the first few times. But after the third prompt, disable the feature.

* Don’t assume ignorance as the default condition of the end user. The world’s most successful interface, Google, has no instructions, yet it is used successfully by millions of children every day, including preschoolers who aren’t supposed to know how to type or read. Google replaces prompts with white space.

* Make every first level a tutorial, but don’t call it a tutorial.

* Support the traditional ‘I read the instructions’ type of person by including a complete set of text-based instructions (e.g., the user’s manual) in the help icon on the first screen – it’s fine to lecture here.

* Kid test. The younger the children, the more they differ from one another. If your interface works consistently for 20 kids, you’re likely to get similar outcomes with 200,000.

Finally, remember that all of us, no matter how old we are, want to honk the horn.

Dr. Warren Buckleitner is the editor of the Children’s Technology Review, which provides an insider’s view on children’s interactive media products. You can reach him at warren@

childrenssoftware.com or for more information, check out www.childrenstechnology.com.

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