Designing immersive user experiences for children

Simon Krambousanos

29 April 2016

When you design the first app of its kind in Australia – and possibly the world – you’re inevitably faced with uncharted design territory.

This was the scenario facing us with “Okee in Medical Imaging” a revolutionary iOS and Android application built in collaboration with the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) in Melbourne.

By definition, designing apps for kids poses a number of challenges.

Girl using Okee app

So too does delivering an immersive and fun experience while also addressing the serious issue of reducing anxiety before a medical imaging procedure.

As with all projects we started with a discovery phase to learn as much about the environment and process as possible. This, along with our previous experience in game design, gave us a great start point.

We also tapped into best practice interaction design, but found empirical guidance to be slim.

We opted for a monthly user-testing cycle throughout the project with test groups comprising an equal split of girls and boys between the ages of four and eight.

We were lucky to have access to great facilities at the RCH with plenty of opportunity for observing extended game play via a one-way mirror and remote cameras.

James Cook & Charlie Pohl from Conduct at RCH

Our iterative testing played a pivotal role in the success of the project.

Here are some of our key findings:

1. Do not underestimate the audience

Never underestimate the cognitive and motor skills of four to eight-year olds!

Our initial game concepts were too simplistic. As a result ‘replayability’, and therefore education, suffered. We found the audience loved a challenge and simple games were not the way to go.

We began with a major focus on big clear buttons. We were amazed to find that even the youngest test participants were familiar with gesture-based interactions and the iPad accelerometer.

They became frustrated when they weren’t available for all the major interactions. We removed the chrome.

2. You are not the user

As Jakob Nielsen famously said, “One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that“you are not the user.” This is our mantra.

However we reviewed the prototype in the studio with our big adult hands. At the first test session the children couldn’t pinch and zoom fully.

It was an a-ha moment and a wake up call for us.

3. The approach to game play varies with age and gender

We quickly discovered that smaller children would place the iPad on the table or the ground and use their fingers to touch. Older children held the device more like an adult.

We also found that while young girls want to solve things young boys want to bash things!

We amended our game scenarios to support these varied contexts of use.

4. User ‘failure’ leads to insight

When we opened up time for free play and discovery it was very tempting to step in and assist the children when they failed a task.

Resisting this temptation allowed us to evaluate where failure motivated further attempts to complete tasks and where game design was simply not intuitive.

Girl using Okee app

5. Reward often

We learned quickly to match game interactions with the attention span of the children. We evolved short, snappy animations with sounds at key moments.

Ultimately, more starbursts equal more smiles.

Further reading

Our presentation on Okee in Medical Imaging at UX Australia 2015

Listen to podcast by True North –

facebook feedback – From RCH

joanna cowie: ‘My kids LOVE this app! Definitely helped prepare my four and a half year old for an MRI without general anaesthetic – he was so excited about it and happily told anyone who would listen! (Would be great for adults who were a little uneasy too) Thanks Okee!’

tania carstein: ‘My seven year old Son loves Okee and it made him understand all the tests he is going to have and his MRI Brain scan that’s coming up. He enjoys the games and enjoyed the information it gave him on his scans…It’s even a good laugh watching him practice holding his breath.’

next up The evolution of lean UX and design thinking

Paul Blake