How design can be used to keep kids safe online and off

Through in-depth research, iteration and co-design, these designers are developing products, services and guidelines to keep children safe and happy.

Both online and off, keeping young people safe is a priority most people share, but as the NSPCC reports, many of the risk factors associated child endangerment have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Keeping children safe requires a slew of safeguarding tools and systems. Increasingly, designers are finding that their work can be an important part of this network – be it through the developing of software, other online interventions, or hardware solutions.

Moshi mindfulness app

“Making up a bunch of rules was not going to invoke culture change”

For Stephen Shaw, co-founder and UX director at design consultancy Big Motive, introducing design into a client’s child safeguarding conversations is about provoking a “culture change” across the board. The Belfast-based studio was recently involved in developing the design guidance for the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) Children’s Code.

The Children’s Code is a new statutory code of practice for the UK, which sets out how apps and online services likely to be accessed by children should protect them in the digital world. Since its implementation late last year, digital heavyweights like TikTok, Google and Facebook have made changes to their platforms in accordance with the measures.

As Shaw says, the project was really an exercise in designing for designers. “Making up a bunch of rules and sticking them on the ICO’s website was not going to invoke the culture change that needs to come to keep kids safe in an increasingly online world,” he says.

Spacetalk watch

“Young people nowadays are very aware of their rights and protections”

Designing guidance that could work for the gamut of companies and their designers and developers was a challenge, Shaw admits. The sheer breadth of the project was intense, as was what Big Motive were working to prevent.

Instead of coming up with rules, he says the team leaned more towards tools. “We entered the project thinking that most designers have a similar way of working, but through co-design workshops and research we realised this wasn’t the case at all,” Shaw says. To ensure the design guidelines could be interpreted by all, Big Motive devised a “comprehensive toolkit” – comprised of “do’s and don’ts”, checklists and tools, which “any digital team” can use in their design process. It was the result of a long period of iterative designing, testing and redesigning.

Among the practical tools are “age-appropriate mind-sets” for designers to engage with, as well as data privacy “moments maps”. To promote accessibility and contextual relevance, tools have been published on Miro, the virtual whiteboard platform – alongside videos and instructional content, which supports better adherence to the Children’s code.

The ultimate aim is that by engaging with the guidance, designers can begin to empathise with their young users. As Shaw explains, sometimes it is hard to understand the “paradoxical” nature of young minds. “At once, young people nowadays are very aware of their rights and protections, but also willing to put huge heaps of their private information online,” he says. The tools aim to help designers become “a trusted partner” within the online experience.

Moshi mindfulness app

“Made with accessibility in mind”

Beyond keeping children safe online, there is also the challenge of keeping them happy and healthy. Fiasco Design studio’s recent project for children-focused mindfulness app Moshi had to tackle this sensitively. Mindfulness is undoubtedly a good practice to begin young, but the app needed to broach the topic in a way that was accessible to its users, co-founder and creative director Ben Steers explains.

“Design decisions were made with accessibility in mind and careful consideration was paid to aspects such as readability and contrast,” he says. The updated colour palette now includes brighter hues and a more versatile typeface has been implemented in the form of Chromatica, by Polytype Foundry.

While there is a temptation to lean on more “childlike” visual tropes – including Moshi’s “Moshlings” characters – Steers explains that the “childish quality” didn’t land well with parents. Given they are the decision-maker in control of the app, their views similarly needed taking into account. “We wanted to try to encapsulate how transformative the Moshi app can be to kids and parents alike, from dawn ‘til dusk,” he says.

In place of the more “childish” elements, Fiasco has opted for studio shots instead of stock imagery and hand-drawn annotations and illustrations. The result is an app experience that “champions the child”, Steers says, and puts “the magic of mindfulness front and centre”.

Spacetalk watch

“The parent needs to feel comfortable with it too”

As digital natives, children are increasingly familiar and comfortable with existing online. But as Tangerine owner and managing director Martin Darbyshire remarks, solutions still need to be designed which keep kids safe in the real world too.

The Tangerine team was behind the design for Spacetalk, a watch-mobile phone hybrid device geared towards children and their parents. The device has several features on it, including messaging and calling capability and location tracking. The company says it has completely secure end-to-end software, and Darbyshire has since moved to become the Australian company’s chief design officer, alongside his duties at Tangerine.

Darbyshire admits that designing a product that appeals to children and their parents is a tough one. As was designing for the relatively vast age range which Spacetalk is marketed to – children between the ages of five and 11. “It’s a very broad age range with massive differences in aspirations,” he says. “And then the parent needs to feel comfortable with it too.”

Such is the wide target audience, he says he prefers to think of the Spacetalk watch as more of a family product, than one specifically for children. “It’s a product that is concentrated on community building,” says Darbyshire, who co-designed with families.

Spacetalk watch

“We had to prove the ‘risk’ was less than the value it brought”

Because a smartwatch for children of this ilk is relatively unexplored territory, Darbyshire says the Tangerine team were really tasked with defining the space. “We had to consider how this market will evolve over time, as well as decide on our own unique and ownable language,” he says.

Darbyshire lists Spacetalk’s “ownable” elements as being things like the “wink” at the top of the device (which is actually a camera and speaker) and the strong divide between the top and bottom of the touchscreen panel. These will no doubt evolve as the company does, but remain signifiers of the brand, he says.

On the hardware side of things, Darbyshire says the scale of the watch was the trickiest element to navigate. “Children’s wrists are small, and we don’t want them having to carry around a huge bulky thing,” he says. As for the UI, he says research had to be undertaken to ensure elements like icon display and usability was perfect.

When designing for children, he says these elements are even more under the microscope – while most people are content to buy a new iPhone with minimal improvements to the device, when parents are shopping for their children, they want to see “value added” before parting with their cash. “Basically, we had to prove that the ‘risk’ of introducing the watch to a family was less than the value it brought to the dynamic,” Darbyshire explains.

“Parents and schools dread the iPhone and its competitors, so we believe this is an alternative that gives them and their children more autonomy and safety,” he says.

What do you think about design keeping children safe online and off? Let us know in the comments below…

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  • Carl St. James January 24, 2022 at 8:51 am

    I think the conversation has to start in changing the internet from a ‘place’ you go to a tool that you use. As a backbone network to services the internet is a wonderful thing, be it playing videogames across a closed network like Xbox Live or using it to hail a taxi on a cold winters’ night.

    But as a ‘place’ the internet’s days are numbered. Not many people use forums anymore and social networks are anything but. Online toxicity all stems from trying to make the internet into another realm. It wasn’t so bad 20 years ago because the fringe elements were confined to small forums and newsgroups but a public platform has done nothing but sow discord and division.

    Keep kids away from such places, educate them on how a network can be seen as a utility and such elements will die off.

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