Interacting with kids

Designing websites and exhibitions aimed at children is a whole different ball game. Emily Pacey looks at how to get young people hooked

‘It is very surprising what children find interesting,’ says Magnetic North creative director Brendan Dawes. ‘They use stuff in a totally different way to adults.’
Dawes describes the digital equivalent of a child preferring the box to the toy. ‘Very often, the thing that kids love is a trivial rollover that makes a silly sound. You thought it was just a throwaway thing – and it’s not even part of the game – but they will do it again and again,’ he says.

Magnetic North has just completed a website that aims to teach children about artist JMW Turner for the Tate. Making Turner appealing to children was Magnetic North’s challenge and a ‘perplexing problem’, says Dawes, ‘because Turner is difficult to understand and not exactly super-exciting’.

The result is a virtual catapult into which you load Turner subjects like sunlight and battles, and ping the lot at the canvas, conjuring a picture containing them.
Dawes assumes that children’s attention spans are ‘nil’ when designing with them in mind. He says, ‘If a game takes a while to load, you’ve lost them; if it has instructions, you’ve lost them. Children do not read instructions.’

According to All of Us founder Simon ‘Sanky’ Sankarayya, children are viewers, not readers. He even say that the traditional storybook, ‘with all its baggage’, is anathema to interactive design.

Sankarayya recommends abandoning the conventional grid of Modernist-influenced print design, which is ‘flat and repetitive and translates very badly to screen’, in favour of creating impressions of 3D ‘space and flow and movement’.

Airside’s recent work for the London Transport Museum on a website of archive material, called Pick & Mix, is intended to appeal to all ages, including children. ‘The content includes lots of beautiful posters, but a younger audience might not want to engage with them,’ says Airside interaction designer Guy Moorhouse. The solution, he says, was to add movement by using Flash, ‘which is so much more immersive and fluid than html, and allows you to animate and create transitions and movement’.

But while Turner and transport posters may not be instantly fascinating to children, in terms of accessibility, cellular biology is on a whole different level.
In 2005, Land Design Studio took on the challenge of making cellular biology comprehensible and interesting to young children, completing a £2.5m installation last month for the Centre of the Cell in Whitechapel, east London.

Aimed exclusively at ten- and 11-year-olds, the installation aims to engage children in a narrative about cells. It even hopes to hook the youngsters into considering careers in molecular biology.

The Centre of the Cell exhibition takes place inside ‘the pod’ in a building designed by architect Will Alsop. In the middle of the pod, Land has installed an ‘interactives capsule’, while projections occupy the perimeter, teaching children about how cells behave in sickness and health.

‘We are trying to explain extremely complicated science to young children who come from a deprived part of London, and not only that but encourage them to get online when they are back at home and learn more about the story,’ says Land creative director Peter Higgins.

He admits that the science went over his head, ‘which meant that it was definitely going to escape the children’, and so he recruited a team of medics to explain the science to the design team. The group went on to work with ‘science interpreters, who understand about communicating science through storytelling’, according to Higgins.
Finally, Land took its ideas into classrooms for evaluation by children. Higgins thinks this could be the most important stage when developing interactive exhibitions, because ‘you can’t rebuild an expensive installation like this if it is not working for its target audience’.

There are other pitfalls with the creation of physical installations aimed at children, including kids’ spontaneous, often rough way of interacting with objects. Sturdiness is paramount, and designing interfaces is another challenge.

‘In the real world, there are going to be five kids scrapping over an installation,’ explains Dawes. ‘When you are designing the navigation for a piece, it has to cope with ten hands pressing things all at once because children don’t care about waiting for something to load.’

Chris O’Shea and Silent Studios took this into account when creating the Youth Music Box. Aimed at getting children and teenagers into creating music, the pod-like installation contains electronic instruments that were programmed ‘to sound good even if you can’t play an instrument’, says O’Shea. Deferring to the joy of experience over learning for this installation, the design team made sure that ‘even if all the keys on the keyboard are being pressed, it makes a nice noise’.

Appealing to young audiences:

  • Use children’s love of repetition to make things ‘addictive’
  • Abandon Modernist rules of graphic design when creating for the screen
  • Use Flash instead of html
  • Look to gaming as an inspiration for creating 3D space
  • Take account of children’s boisterousness in the design of physical environments and interfaces
  • Remember that many children have short attention spans

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