Everything We Learned Designing Software for Children

A Journey through Designing Software for Little Explorers

Apps have become our indispensable sidekicks, handling everything from managing finances to finding the nearest McDonald’s in our area. As adults, we tend to overlook the fundamental design considerations that make these tools and applications intuitive for us. However, when it comes to designing for children, we need to set aside our preconceived notions about how apps should operate.

Let’s consider flight and airfare apps as an example. These applications have undergone extensive efforts to cater to the needs of seasoned travelers, ensuring a smooth and hassle-free experience for them. However, the user experience for novice travelers isn’t as ideal. With the recent uptick in unaccompanied minors taking flights, a new gap has formed in the market.

One of our recent endeavors involved developing an app explicitly aimed at enhancing the flying experience for unaccompanied minors. Throughout this project, we uncovered valuable insights that extended beyond our specific focus. Here are a set of guidelines that all UX professionals should bear in mind when constructing digital tools for children.

Clearing The Clutter

When we embarked on this project, we were brimming with numerous ideas. From adding customizable character avatars to incorporating intricate 3D illustrations, we initially sought to radically transform travel apps. However, over time, we realized that our enthusiasm for extensive remodeling had left our application riddled with feature creep. Throughout the design process, we grew to recognize the importance of distilling everything down to the essential elements. By dialing back on auxiliary features, we were able to save valuable effort and time that would have otherwise been wasted.

A handy technique that helped us declutter and simplify was designing for specific scenarios. For instance, including captivating music and clear voice-overs may work well for many kid-centric applications. However, we discovered that audio wasn’t a good idea for our app because it could potentially be noisy and disruptive for fellow passengers during flights. Sure, headphones exist, but expecting children to consistently use them might be wishful thinking.

Strip away the fluff, hone in on the essentials, and voila! You’ve got an interface that’s smooth, smart, and snappy.

Navigating Cognitive Contrasts

In the context of our research study, our target audience were children who were afraid of traveling on their own. Due to the broad scope of our potential audience, it meant that we had to design a user experience that clicked with both the little ones and the big kids in this group. Our biggest challenge was working around the cognitive mismatch. For instance, younger children may possess basic reading skills with a limited vocabulary, whereas older children exhibit a more advanced lexicon and are comfortable with technology.

Our ultimate goal became crafting an experience that wouldn’t leave our users scratching their heads in confusion or yawning from sheer boredom. To achieve this, we embraced the power of storytelling. We deliberately positioned the user as the protagonist on an epic journey towards their desired destination—a narrative structure that resonates with individuals across various age groups. By infusing our design with elements of storytelling, we aimed to forge a relatable and engaging user experience.

In addition to our findings on the effectiveness of storytelling, we made an intriguing discovery that cut across various age groups of children. We identified a common thread among them—a noticeable tendency towards impatience.

Revolutionizing Waiting

As adults we exercise a degree of patience that is completely foreign to kids. We wait in lines at banks, we wait our turn in traffic and some of us still wait 3 days to text someone after a date. Kids are built differently, they live in the moment!

After analyzing and comparing travel applications, we noticed that most travel apps had generic countdowns that resembled ticking time bombs. In order to transform this system, we created an immersive and exciting way to keep track of travel checkpoints. This took the form of a treasure hunt. We also implemented an illustrated boarding clock countdown.

On the topic of waiting, we also considered implementing an animated loading screen. The idea was largely influenced by the animated loading screen in the Phase app. However, after careful consideration, we decided against it and instead chose to focus on integrating more gamified elements.

Incorporating Gamification

We spiced up our user experiences with a pinch of gamification magic. Badges, virtual coins, and unlocking new levels became the secret ingredients to keep those kiddos hooked and constantly progressing.

But we didn’t stop there. We knew that unaccompanied minors needed a sense of connection, not just virtual achievements. So, we cooked up some collaborative fun! Picture this: a selfie challenge that required teamwork from two buddies. Whether it’s mom, dad, or the little one’s best pal, everyone can join the adventure. It’s like a supervised scavenger hunt in the digital realm.

With our gamified features, we turned intimidating solo journeys into interactive quests. Keeping little ones entertained while reassuring parents of their child’s safety.

Avoiding Micro Transactions

Although we designed this app with little ones in mind, we understood that parents and guardians were an integral part of the customer journey. We needed to create an experience that would win over parents and give them peace of mind while their child traveled. One that would put them at ease.

To achieve this, we made a conscious decision to steer clear of incorporating micro transactions. We were well aware of the potential harm these transactions could inflict, particularly on parents. Since parents bear the responsibility of managing all the associated expenses, they are more affected by micro transactions than children. 

Given children’s inclination towards instant gratification and their limited self-control, they are more susceptible to the allure of micro transactions. Additionally, younger children may not fully grasp the concept of virtual currency, which could lead to unintended purchases being made unknowingly.

Passing The Playground Test

Throughout this project, we did our best to tap into our inner child in an effort to better relate to our audience. Unfortunately, our knees are not as nimble as they once were and we’ve outgrown our naivete. The difference between us and our potential users reinforces the importance of user testing in this situation.

User testing allows for accurate evaluation of the usability and user experience of the software from the perspective of children. It helps identify potential issues, such as confusing interfaces, difficult navigation, or unclear instructions, that may hinder children’s ability to use and engage with the software effectively. This provides us with valuable feedback that can be used to iterate and improve the software.

When it came to designing this app, time was as elusive as a unicorn. So, instead of the full-blown user testing extravaganza, we whipped up something equally magical: experience prototyping! We created a short film to showcase the whole journey with our product, from beginning to end. It was like a sneak peek into the future, helping us decide if we were nailing that pain point with our solution.


Although our app never graced the digital skies, its impact on our design philosophy was eye opening. The design process taught us invaluable lessons and reshaped our understanding of creating user-centric experiences. Sometimes, the most profound growth arises from projects that remain grounded.

It’s our pleasure sharing this wealth of knowledge we’ve accrued from our experience. We’re confident these guidelines will lead you in the right direction. If you’re looking for more counsel in the realm of UX then you don’t have to go too far from here! You can find practical steps for planning your goals as a UX designer here.

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Gcinizwi Dlamini Avatar

Gcinizwi Dlamini / Content Writing Intern @ Phase

Writer, part time super-hero and mint chocolate ice cream advocate.