This blog post aims to share what I’ve learned while designing a mobile app for children. The app was created as a part of Spice, the social responsibility program of Futurice. Hemmo is open source.
This summer, a Spice team worked on a mobile app called Hemmo for Save the Children Finland. Our aim was to identify and fix problems with an existing prototype created the previous summer. The original interaction design was by Sanna Riihimäki and visuals by Eeva Andrejeff.
The user group for Hemmo is children aged 4–12, who visit support families provided by Save the Children. The app lets children give direct feedback about their support families to the organisation.
Previously, Save the Children only received direct feedback from the children at an annual meeting, using a paper form. The Hemmo app lets the child send feedback after every support family visit. The typical frequency for visits is one weekend per month, so Hemmo will provide 12 times the opportunities for feedback than the previous practice.
The app flow is structured around 3 main questions concerning the support family visit:
- “What activities did you do?”
- “How did you feel?”
- “Tell us about your visit in your own words”.
Activities and feelings are chosen by selecting picture icons. The open question is answered by writing or recording a voice message.
The key design challenges specific to this project:
- Wide age range of users
- User interview challenges
- Motivating the kids to use the app
- Privacy and trust
Solving these problems came down to thinking like a child. If I were a child, how would I feel in this situation? How would I want to be treated? How would I want to use this app? Relating to children was surprisingly easy, as children tend to have the same core needs as adults: being understood and respected. Ease of use and fun times while using the app are a bonus, of course.
Let’s take a closer look at each issue.
1. The wide age range of users
One challenge the wide age range of users (4–12) presented was the difference in reading ability. The app had to be designed to fit the needs of both readers and nonreaders.
A character called Hemmo guides users who can’t read as they navigate the app. The character provides instructions via text and voice. The instructions can be easily and quickly muted and clicked away from each screen, so as to avoid annoying the older kids.
The buttons were designed to include both a picture and a text icon. Hemmo also speaks button labels out loud when clicked. This solution may even help kids learn to read.
The labels for the emotion icons were especially important, since the abstract is always open to interpretation. Our hope is that supporting children in thinking about their emotions — by using the illustrations — we could help them develop their emotional intelligence.
2. User interview challenges
Our initial interviews, which looked at the current state of the prototype, were conducted with kids from Save the Children who had been using the app. Next, we conducted user interviews with children of Futurice employees at our offices. We chose this approach, because reaching children from actual support families was difficult. In the interviews, children were asked to imagine telling their parents what they did last weekend through the app (as opposed to telling the Save the Children employee what they had done with the support family).
The wide age range of users presented a challenge in user interviews, too. Talking with younger children involves a lot of prompting with yes or no questions, which is normally something to avoid in user interviews. We don’t want to prime the interviewee with an answer. To get around this, we started by asking the children yes or no questions about their lives. Once the children became more comfortable with talking, we could then move on to discussing the design, with more open-ended questions.
Making sure the children felt in control of the situation was important. For kids, being interviewed by strange adults can be a stressful situation. For younger children, this often meant that they chose to have their parent with them in the interview. In this situation, it’s important to make sure the parent understands they should not answer for the kid. They’re there to help the child feel more comfortable.
By the way; always reward your interviewees. Children appreciated the gratitude (and movie tickets) we gave them.
3. Motivating kids to use the app
The overall visual style of the app was chosen to make it as engaging as possible — it’s colorful and full of illustrations, like a comic book. On-click animations create a dynamic and somewhat gamified feel. The UI looks appealing, and invites the user to click around and explore.
The app’s structure minimizes the cognitive load for users. Children are first asked to remember the visit by selecting pictures of activities and feelings, which help jog the memory. After selecting pictures, creating their own content through text and speech is easier for users.
To reward the user for giving feedback, we created an envelope animation that plays when the child presses the send button. It’s both a reward and a clear indication that the feedback has been sent.
Making sure kids use the app consistently after visits to the support family was an issue, too. Since the app is only used once a month, it’s easy to forget about it. We created a simple push notification that shows up if the child hasn’t provided feedback in 33 days. It’s the Hemmo character asking the user, “How are you?”
4. Privacy and trust
It’s important to treat the children exactly like we would treat adults: with respect and in a way that protects their privacy.
The issue of privacy came up in the initial interviews with the kids from Save the Children who’d been testing the prototype. Three of the children we interviewed said that the app had “disappeared” from their phone. The most likely reasons for this disappearance were either that the child deleted it out of embarrassment or to save space on the phone.
To minimize the likelihood of the app disappearing, we decided to make it as small and unembarrassing as possible. The push notification reminder was designed to be very discrete.
The envelope animation when sending the child’s information builds a sense of privacy and trust. In the initial prototype version, children weren’t sure when their feedback had been sent. Including the envelope animation at the end made it explicitly clear. Before sending the envelope, the user can still go back and delete entries from their feedback. This way children can feel in control of their data.
The Hemmo app will be published for use in Finland during this autumn. It’ll be interesting to see whether we succeeded in making the application engaging enough to retain users over longer periods of time, and whether feedback is given each month. I can’t wait to learn if there are significant differences in feedback quality and quantity between different age ranges, specifically between reading and non-reading groups.
I feel we have succeeded in creating an engaging and trustworthy app for children to use to explore their experiences and feelings. The most satisfying feedback I received was one Futurice employee’s child asking whether they could download the app for their own phone after their user interview.