Raj Pathmanathan
Creativity, education, insight, digital
10 mins

Whomever your digital product is for, the golden rule is always the same: know your audience.

Pre-schoolers are a particularly special audience. Not just because they are amazing - but because of where they are in terms of development. They’re no longer babies, but not yet in classrooms. They can’t read, yet they can recognise words. They are starting to follow simple instruction, but with limited memory and concentration.

Pre-schoolers are at what Jean Piaget called the pre-operational stage of cognitive development - the most wondrous time - and perhaps what we might think of as “real childhood”. They are unhindered by reality. Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are very, very real and very, very important. This stage begins at roughly two years of age and transitions into the concrete operational stage at around seven.

A solid understanding the cognitive development of this unique audience is perhaps the best way to begin building digital products for them.

Here’s 11 of the principles we apply that we’ve learned from our creative and technical work on some of the biggest pre-school brands; including Peppa Pig, PJ Masks and Ben and Holly.

1. Encourage, empower, enlighten

The first seconds of a child’s experience of a digital product are the most important. They will either engage because they are empowered or they will pull away.

All children need a sense of control from their digital experiences. Encourage interactions they understand and empower them to make choices that enlighten them. Once they get the buzz of success, they’ll be hungry for more!

2. Deliver cause & response

Pre-schoolers are sponges and need feedback on everything they do - whether looking at parents for approval, or pressing a physical button on a toy to see what happens. And it’s the same for digital products.

Pre-schoolers expect visual, audio, or haptic rewards when interacting with digital products. The trick is to make sure that our interactive elements are intuitively obvious for these little users.

3. Again, again, again

Repetition is one of the principles of learning - repetition of words, actions, stories and nursery rhymes are daily occurrences in life. It provides the practice that children need to master new skills.

Avoiding any unexpected behaviour in their digital experience is key There’s nothing wrong with establishing a mechanic and repeating time and again...perhaps adding a little twist to it every now and then to build their understanding. And sometimes it’s worth pleasantly surprising them by doing the complete opposite.

4. Differentiation, extension and enrichment

All children are different. Differentiating the same experience for various groups of children is really important and REALLY tricky.

Design must consider the vast range of abilities. Open-ended play allows for differentiation by outcome. Extension and enrichment activities that can be unlocked once mastery is achieved keep even the most able toddler learning and progressing. In other words, a good app evolves with the child.

5. They can’t read..but can recognise words

Most children can recognise some word and icons, the most prominent being the word “Play” and the icon for play. Without established literacy skills, all primary instructions need to be shown through voice overs and visual indicators. We don't need to completely remove text from products, as this can help grown-ups navigate when a child is stuck - but never lead with text for UI.

6. Never forget the grown-ups...especially 1st time UX

The first digital experiences of a pre-schooler will often be with a grown-up. Once the grown-up is confident that the product can be used by the child, then you can expect it to be a child-only experience.

Having text and UI hints for the grown-ups - especially during the 1st time experience - can create an easier and more confident experience for them. And more trust in your product and its benefits for the most important person in their lives.

7. The meaning of colour

The effective use of colour is one of the most important aspects of creating a memorable experience for children. Pre-schoolers can recognise primary colours and preference colours that are highly contrasting - not necessarily just the brightest ones.

Children quickly come to understand the meaning of colours - green means go and red means danger - don’t be afraid to choose colour for meaning rather than aesthetics.

8. Consistent UI

Children need structure, so a consistent UI interpreted well on different devices is vital to success of your product.

Establishing a visual hierarchy quickly and cleanly is important to differentiate the different types of UI - be it a navigation to another screen, or an action on the same screen. This can be achieved through sizing, colours, strokes, and subtle animations.

9. Let them start over

Simple navigation sounds, well, simple. But simple to you isn’t necessarily simple to them. When it all gets too much, pre-schoolers like to rub things out and start again. Having ‘home buttons’ that allow a child to return to a familiar space does the job perfectly.

10. The neverending story

One of the most important need-states for all children is the need for Independent Exploration. Children want to explore and discover, and digital products offer a (hopefully) safe environment to do just this.

Creating paths through products that deliver a sense of complete open-endedness is a sure way to ensure repeat sessions, time and time again.

11. Keep them wanting more

An established and well-known principle for all gaming is that early success is important. It keeps you coming back for more.

Products should be designed to include surprises and new features that a child can stumble upon. Simple easter eggs and highly sensorial events within the product have a way of keeping the child wanting to explore more.

Of course there’s a thousand other tips, tricks and rules to making great pre-school digital content, and we love talking to people about theirs. So get in touch to add any to the list, or to chat about how we can help you deliver this in your content and digital products.

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