3 Things To Read if You Develop Apps for Kids

I love to read anything and everything. When I can tear myself away from books like Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (see above), I slog through piles of email newsletters, blog posts, books, podcasts. What follows are three things I’ve read recently that are perfect for developers of children’s apps, written by people I admire.

Shazia Makhdumi runs the family section of the Google Play store. She and her talented team get to see just about every kids’ app made and stay on top of all the latest trends. Given the current “gold rush” of developers submitting thousands of new AR/VR apps, Shazia is trying to figure out what quality standards are needed in this brave new world, as well as “best practices” for developers.

Shazia recently penned an article, “Inspiring Learning and Creativity with VR,” in which she described the unique features of Virtual Reality that make it particularly impactful for kids: presence, empathy, immersion, agency. Shazia goes on to provide helpful suggestions to developers, with examples, for building an impactful and positive VR experience for kids.

I believe that parents should proceed cautiously when exposing young children to Virtual Reality, making sure that gameplay periods are short. And I worry about kids and teens being exposed to hyper-realistic and immersive first person shooters…you know it’s going to happen once the hardware is in the home. Finally, the jury is out regarding the impact of current technology on the physiology of developing eyes.  It’s all so new. But one thing is inarguable. Kids love, love, love the technology. Parents will soon be faced with decisions about how much and which VR experiences they want for their children. I hope developers are up to the challenge as outlined by Shazia.

Warren Buckleitner is the man I hope most parents and teachers will turn to with their questions about new technologies. He is the editor of the best (in my humble opinion) review source for apps, Children’s Technology Review. If you make apps for kids, you need to subscribe to this service, now. The database of reviews goes back to 1993, and has recently become much easier to navigate and use; it’s the perfect resource for compiling those dreaded competitive product analyses.  Legacy’s games haven’t always received the review scores that I think they should, but even so, Warren is unfailingly warm and generous with his feedback and very consistent in the way he looks at products. (Hint: Immerse yourself in constructivism theory about how children learn and make your interactive designs open-ended whenever possible.)

In addition to running an app review service as well as one of the most prestigious conferences, Dust or Magic, Warren also teaches a college class in child development and app design. Called The Interactive Designer’s Cookbook, Warren and his students have summarized a variety of psychological theories and their relevance to app design, and posted the results online. It is a delightful read, especially rich on Piagetian and humanist influences.

My final reading recommendation is The Smarter Screen. Let’s get the advertisement out of the way first. The author of the book is the behavioral economist from UCLA, Shlomo Benartzi and my son, Jonah Lehrer, a science writer.

I love the book. It’s an easy read, chock full of great suggestions about how to be more effective when creating digital content. The basic premise is that we process information on screens faster, and not necessarily better. Screens make us more impulsive, reactive and careless, more prone to rely on first impressions. We tend to be driven more by emotions and instinct, rather than be reflective and analytical. As a result, we remember screen based content less well. There are ways around all of this, of course, with huge implications for designers.

What does this have to do with children? First, how do we slow down information processing on a screen, so that children are able to glean the content that we want to convey? Second, attention is everyone’s most valuable resource in a digital world.  Children have a more limited short-term memory and can easily become overwhelmed with too much screen content, suffering cognitive overload. How do we design clean screens with limited options, so it’s obvious where your eyes should go?  You’ll have to read The Smarter Screen to find out!

What are you reading these days and how does it influence your thinking about software design?