Tim Fidgeon

Why children love tablet PCs – Usability implications

7 November 2011
Author: Tim Fidgeon

Tablet PCs’ easy method of interaction is central to their attraction for children. Tablet PC experiences designed for children should promote: user control (including levels of difficulty and repetition), a wide variety of experiences and regular touch-interactions.

Children love tablet PCs

A recent study found that amongst 6 – 12 year old children, tablet PCs are the ‘most wanted’ electronic gift in the US.1 Another study showed that 3.6 million tablet PCs have been sold in the UK since they became available in April 2010.2

While these figures do not directly indicate the adoption of tablet PCs by children, it does show that tablet PCs are increasingly entering into the mainstream. The increasing adoption of tablet PCs is part of a wider trend. Between the ages of 8 to 18 years old, children now spend 300% more time using a computer than 10 years ago.3

All of the above studies, alongside plenty of anecdotal evidence, strongly suggest that tablet PCs are entering the mainstream and will become a part of an increasing number of children’s lives.

If we accept that children seem to love tablet PCs, it may be interesting to consider ‘why’? Trying to answer this question is not only interesting for its own sake – it may also help us to identify how to better design for children on tablet PCs.

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Psychology – behind children’s love for tablet PCs

Although no-one can say that they fully understand the psychological attraction of tablet PCs for children, there do seem to be some factors of tablet PCs’ design which accord well with children’s general preferences.4 Amongst these are:

  • Control
    Children like to be able to feel that they are in control over their environment and experiences. Tablet PCs offer easy interaction and immediate feedback, which helps fulfil these needs.
  • Variety
    Children typically have rather short attention spans. A tablet PC is a device that can offer a wealth of features, games and experiences. This diversity of content may well help keep children interested in tablet PCs.
  • Repetition 
    Most parents will tell you that children love watching the same film over and over again. Or perhaps they like singing the same song over and over again. Tablet PCs are capable of offering a large degree of repetition and predictability for children.
  • Interactivity
    Most Children prefer the activity of ‘play’ to the more passive experience of consumption (hence their often singing along to certain cartoons and films). The tablet PC offers children the opportunity to do both.
  • Mimicking adults
    Children will often try to mimic the behaviour they observe in adults. As such, it is only to be expected that a child’s interest will be aroused if they see a parent using a tablet PC.

Not all of the factors mentioned will, of course, apply to all children’s relationships with tablet PCs. We do, however, believe that they can help us understand important aspects of children’s attraction to tablet PCs.

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Touch – children love touching tablet PCs

Tablet PCs fulfil a very basic human pleasure – that associated with touch. We have observed many adults habitually touching their tablet PCs during usability testing sessions, even when they are not actually interacting with its functionality. We would suggest at least two major reasons why children love to touch tablet PCs:

  • Pleasure of touch
    Children love touching, grabbing and playing with almost object (as any parent will tell you!). Tablet PCs’ design encourages and rewards this behaviour.
  • Simplicity of interaction
    Tablet PCs have a gloriously simple method of interaction. The user does not have to learn how to use any complicated devices – such as a keyboard and mouse – that require significant hand/eye coordination. All users have to do is touch the relevant part of the screen. We would suggest that this makes tablets PCs more accessible (and attractive) to many children.

It seems an obvious statement, but their use of ‘touch’ is a defining characteristic of tablet PCs which many children seem to find immensely attractive. As such, any consideration of the tablet PC usability for children should take this into account.

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Usability tips for children and tablet PCs

We would recommend that the factors which make tablet PCs attractive to children are emphasised when designing for children on tablet PCs. In our experience, this increases children’s engagement and enjoyment of a tablet PC experience. Here are some factors that we would recommend designers consider when creating experiences for children on tablet PCs:

  • Levels of difficulty
    Allowing children to set a task’s level of difficulty can be very beneficial. Not only does it promote their feeling ‘in control’ of the experience, but it also reduces the risk of children getting bored by tasks that are too easy and/or abandoning tasks which are too difficult.
  • Diverse activities and experiences
    Tablet PC experiences should offer children a choice between a wealth of different activities. In our experience, this helps counteract children’s short attention spans and maintains their interest.
  • Repetition
    Offering the ability to repeat the same (or very similar) experiences over and over again on a tablet PC is likely to prove popular with children (if not their parents!). We recommend giving children the option to engage in repetitive tasks on a tablet PC, but not forcing them to.
  • Encouraging touch & interaction
    We would recommend that any tablet PC design targeted at children encourage them to touch and interact with the tablet PC more than when one might, for example, design for adult audiences.
  • Mimicking adults
    Some of the best designs for children on tablet PCs encourage them to mimic adults’ real-world behaviour. Such behaviour does not have to be based on traditional tablet PC tasks, it could be representation of other real-world tasks (such as ‘taking the dog for a walk’, for example).

These guidelines are not, of course, all-inclusive – but they do represent some useful issues to consider when designing for children on tablet PCs. It is interesting to note that none of these guidelines contradict the general guidelines for designing web experiences for children – they simply add extra elements with regards to tablet PCs.

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Summary – children and tablet PCs

We recommend that tablet PC experiences designed for children should encourage regular touch-interactions. Tablet PCs’ interaction model is their defining characteristic and seems particularly attractive to children.

We also recommend that children’s tablet PC experiences should offer user control over levels of difficulty and repetition. They should also offer a wide variety of experiences, in order to keep children engaged and prevent them becoming bored.

References

1 Kids in the U.S. Eyeing Big-Ticket Tech This Holiday Season

2 Kantar Worldpanel ComTech: Tablet sales rocket from their launch pad

3 Kaiser Family Foundation

4 Adults are from Earth; Children are from the Moon Designing for Children: A Complex Challenge

About the author – usability for tablet PCs and iPads

This article was written by usability and online copywriting expert Tim Fidgeon, who works with Spotless Interactive – a leading usability consultancy. Spotless Interactive are experts in the field of mobile and tablet usability testing.

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