Games Design

Designing With Kids, For Kids

4 minUTE read

How fish in a bottle crafts engaging content by involving kids in the design process.

We place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of listening to kids when designing content for them. This seems pretty obvious, right? But it’s easy to see why designers have shied away from directly engaging with kids. Working with kids and actually understanding what they love is hard to do.

One option is to employ a group of kids as an advisory panel. When we talk to clients about user testing they’re often pleased at how seriously we treat it. There’s no point just paying lip-service to user testing: to us it’s an invaluable part of the design process and the outcomes can be surprising.

Understanding what kids like

If you stop for a minute and think back to when you were a kid, you’ll be able draw on a cloud of nostalgia to a point. But to really find out what makes kids tick, you have to go and talk to them. With the kid’s media landscape going through its own industrial revolution, the only way to really see if your ideas work is to take them to the harshest critics in the land.

Whether it’s Minecraft, Pokemon Go, Fortnite, or TikTok, understanding what kids are into is essential. As well as games and social media it’s important to know what programmes they’re watching, whether it’s on traditional broadcast channels like CBBC, Nickelodeon or Disney, or the SVODs (Subscription Video on Demand) like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Kids will reference a plethora of content so it’s important to know what they’re talking about, and to be able to reference examples back at them to show them you understand.

Children using tablets and phones on a sofa

Kids today grow up with access to much more technology than previous generations

A great ice breaker at the start of any session is to first ask kids what they’re watching on TV and what games they’re playing. This helps to check any assumptions you may have already made about what media they’re consuming. It also gives the kids an opportunity to start talking about content and thinking about why they may like something. Having a show aimed at a certain age group doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re watching it. With social apps such as Tik Tok, Instagram or WhatsApp, we all know that government guidelines say they are not suitable for anyone under the age of 13. But in reality, anyone with kids will know that the peer pressure to use such platforms can start as early as 9. It shouldn’t be surprising to know that our experience shows that such apps are prevalent with kids from the age of 10.

Having a plan

It’s important to have a very detailed plan when you walk into a classroom of kids. Have a key set of questions, while at the same time be willing to deviate and go with the flow of the conversation. When we plan, we talk to the teachers to see what length of session would fit best into their day. Ideally, we’ll have a group of kids for 30 mins, so based on a class size of 30 we can see two groups of 15 kids in the hour. Older kids (age 7-11) can handle a longer session, while younger kids (age 2-6) need a shorter session due to their attention span.

With limited time, we need to be crystal clear about what we’re looking to test. Recently we visited a school to test our brand-new game for CBBC, Worst Witch: The Enchanted Stones. Aimed at 6-7-year olds, this 3D web game features both single player and multiplayer modes so there’s quite a lot to it for a browser game. Testing time was short so our focus had to be on these key questions:

  • Is the on-boarding clear enough?
  • Do kids understand both of the core game mechanics?
  • Can kids play the game together?
  • Is the game too hard?

As always, we were surprised by the outcome. Throughout development we’d been convinced that the game was too slow and easy so there were many conversations about making it harder. What we actually found was that the game was in fact too hard for this age group (6-7 year olds). The game uses gesture recognition whereby kids draw shapes on the screen to cast a spell. We tested on mobiles, tablets and desktop and found that on mobiles and tablets, kids needed a little longer to draw the shapes.

We carried out this user testing session during the beta phase of development because much of the onboarding (tutorials) were in place and ready for us to test with the kids.

A game screenshot
A game screenshot

Prompts appear for kids to draw shapes on the screen and cast the spells

This was a big find – had we have launched with the game set at its current difficulty level, kids would have found the game frustratingly hard. Having this insight continued to be useful throughout the remainder of development because as we all got more used to the game, the easier we found it, and had to resist the urge to make it harder.

What do you want to test?

Character design – I remember a user testing session we ran for a BBC Bitesize project a few years ago. It was right at the start of the project so we didn’t have anything interactive to show, but we did want to test some early flat character designs. One of the characters we had designed had a very large head prompting one child to shout ‘fat head’, much to the amusement of… well, all of us. The more their teacher scowled, they more they found it funny. We learnt the hard way that when designing educational content to be used in schools… don’t give characters ‘fat heads’.

If possible, you should always test character designs with kids. There may be something completely obvious that you hadn’t considered. Children may point out a likeness to another character that you weren’t aware of, which could cause you problems, or at the very least make it hard for kids to think about anything else.

User interface and iconography – for Danger Mouse: Super Awesome Danger Squad we specifically wanted to see if kids would understand the class system we’d built into the game; each character was assigned a class depending on their special abilities (Support, Close Combat, Long Range etc,.). To our relief this was understood by the kids, but what came as a surprise was that they didn’t understand the icon we’d used to represent a characters speed. We’d chosen an icon which looked much like a speedometer in a car – something we thought kids would understand.

Of course, kids this age (8-9) would not be familiar with this in the real world, but we expected them to be familiar with it from other games. We knew we had to come up with something else to represent speed so we asked the kids what they thought. We took on board their feedback and chose to go for a trainer icon which, when we tested again, we were pleased to see was universally understood and was more in keeping with the Danger Mouse brand.

A screenshot of the game Danger Mouse Super Awesome Squad

Refining the speed icon after user testing feedback

Balancing the difficulty – It is always good to check the difficulty of a game. When designing we think very hard about the difficulty curve, but we often initially make something too difficult until we’ve tested it with kids to see what they can manage.

When we designed and built the Man City kids app (a semi-social app for kids where they can watch Man City videos and play games) we were able to test the difficulty curve in two very casual games we had created. The games had to be sticky – too easy and kids would get bored, too hard and the kids would give up. The app also awarded the player with XP points for performing various tasks like taking part in a quiz or watching a video. We therefore needed to test the rate at which XP was awarded and how easy it was for kids to level up.

Reporting observations

After every user testing session, we compile a detailed report that lists observations as well as a series of recommendations. This document is then used to discuss potential changes with the client which culminates in a prioritised list of amends.

Building an ongoing relationship with schools

Schools get very excited when we say “Hey, we’d love to come and show you the latest game for Danger Mouse”, but we’re aware that in order to develop this relationship with local schools, we have to think about what else we can offer. Every kid who takes part gets a Game Designer certificate to reward them for their input. We’ve been involved in careers fairs too; something schools have asked for in the past as it helps kids to understand what’s involved in designing interactive content for kids

Hopefully this has helped you to see the benefits of consulting kids when you’re making content for them. It’s easy to plan into a project and the insights are invaluable.

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