Small fingers, big insights: Mobile app design and preschoolers

By now, to say that tablets and mobile apps are popular among young kids is superfluous, akin to saying they like sweets. Yet new research out of UK-based Dubit sheds some light on the surprising digital competencies of under-fives and how app makers can best target this demo.
July 16, 2015

By David Kleeman, SVP global trends at Dubit

By now, to say that tablets and mobile apps are popular among young children is superfluous, akin to saying they like sweets. A new study, however, shares rich detail of the surprising digital competencies among kids under five, as well as how mobile media use is shaped by – and shapes – kids’ daily routines and emotional states.

The report was conducted by the University of Sheffield, development studio and consultancy Dubit, the University of Edinburgh, CBeebies, production company Foundling Bird, and Monteney Primary School in Sheffield. It is primarily aimed at app developers to encourage reflection about the design choices and play patterns that they employ.

Study elements

The research involved three stages:

  1. An online survey of 2,000 parents with kids ages zero to five who have tablet access;
  2. Five home visits each with six families, interviewing parents and filming the children using tablets (some parents also collected video using smartphones and/or a child-size Go-Pro chest-cam);
  3. Videotaping four- and five-year-olds from the first phases playing with their favorite apps.


Swipe, tap, drag and draw – early digital competency

We’ve all seen videos of children trying to swipe a book like a touchscreen, or have heard parents brag about their preschooler’s ability to access and play favorite apps. This study isolates discrete gestures and functions within those capacities.


Findings show that the easiest unassisted task across all ages is swiping to turn pages or move through scenes. With assistance, older kids (three to five) are almost equally capable of finer motor abilities like dragging an item, tapping the screen, or tracing a shape, while younger children (zero to two) are less adept. These younger children are also not yet able to undertake basic tablet functions like unlocking the device and changing volume. Meanwhile, pinching or expanding fingers to re-size objects is challenging for all.

When it comes to genres, all ages find learning and creativity apps easiest; perhaps these are the most likely to be designed with developmentally-appropriate practice (DAP) in mind.

Not surprisingly, kids have more trouble with games, as the study reveals even very young children try to play their parents’ casual games (for example, Candy Crush). This suggests a market opening for games with similar mechanics, but with simpler challenges and open-ended play.


Emotional scheduling

The schedule is dead; long live the schedule. It’s another truism that today’s children watch or play what they want, when they want it. The ethnographies in this study, however, reveal patterns that Dubit researchers refer to as “emotional scheduling,” which is tied to availability, location, family needs and moods.

On a typical weekday, there’s a spike in tablet use between the hours of 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.



This may reflect older children returning from preschool or daycare, the desire for afternoon down time, or parents’ need to prepare supper. Weekends show more even use across the day.

Time of day also influences where kids use a tablet, what app genres they choose, adult co-play and parent motivation in permitting digital playtime.

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Daylong, most use takes place in the living¬†or sitting room, but bedroom time spikes in the evening. Clearly, parents are seeking creative play and learning during the day, but distraction and quiet time in early mornings and afternoon “tea time.” (4 p.m. -6 p.m. is the only period when gaming dominates.)


Supporting play and creativity

Beyond competencies and habits, the study focuses on factors that support or undermine play and creativity. In this regard, this work is a useful complement to the recent Hirsh-Pasek et. al. rubric for evaluation of apps’ educational value built around four pillars: “minds on” active involvement, engagement, meaningful experience and social interaction.

This report also recommends focus, clearly articulated purpose, embedded critical thinking and problem-solving, links to experiences in the offline world, and opportunities for co-play. It also delves into detail about interface features that can promote clarity in play and navigation, such as consistency in type of touch required, big targets for small fingers, aural or visual support in early screens, as well as ways for parents either to level the app or to turn off advanced features.



Given the pace of early child development, age ranges of zero to two and three to five are very broad for DAP. Many developers already level apps so they can grow more complex as the child ages, and they finely target their content and interfaces. This can pose a challenge to achieving a sustainable audience, but it is also critical not to frustrate young users.

Mobile media will never be “appointment viewing,” but the findings around emotional scheduling suggest that developers do need to consider the when and where of app use. A wind-down e-book will be very different in tone, design, interactivity and description from a game designed for active, physical play.

The full report includes details of parents’ and kids’ favorite app genres, more on what elements parents respect and kids love, and insights into unpleasant experiences for (a small minority of) parents.

Further, this is just the first report from this data. This fall, a report for parents will suggest best practices in choosing and using media with babies and toddlers.



About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.



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