Capturing the Magic of Interactive Media

By Warren Buckleitner

[Note: this was written in 2000, so things have obviously changed. WB]

If you want to design great interactive products for kids, it pays to have one. A kid, that is. Many case histories of excellent design begin when software programmers become parents, as was the case with Shelley Day. Mom Shelley wanted to find new ways for her son to play with his favorite homemade bedtime stories about a little car named “Putt Putt.” Long story made short— Putt-Putt became the “vehicle” that helped Humongous Entertainment become a $60 million dollar company.

It’s all about knowing and understanding kids. For both Mark Schlichting of the Living Books and Craig Hickman, who single handedly programmed the first version of Kid Pix, design success was born out of wanting to improve current products for their own children. Several years ago, Schlichting shared this story in CSR of how he became captivated by interactive technology.

“I’m a parent of three boys and I’d bring home what I thought was good learning software. Then my sons would play with it once, maybe twice and that was it. Around the same time, one of my older boys and his friends rented a Nintendo game. In the course of three hours they were up to the 52nd level of play. I thought to myself ‘Look how motivated these kids are to figure this out. There’s an incredible amount of critical thinking going on, but in an environment with absolutely no content. Wouldn’t it be great to use this natural draw to technology to deliver real learning through play and exploration?’” (A Conversation with Mark Schlichting, CSR March 1999)

Watching kids makes you wise. Schlichting’s Living Books went on to become a standard-bearer of quality, loved by children, parents and teachers alike for their emphasis on good stories and entertaining exploration. Kid Pix, the classic children’s drawing program, was born out of frustration when programmer/photographer Craig Hickman saw his three-year-old son Ben struggling to use MacPaint. “I was surprised at how quickly he got the knack of using the mouse and how easily he was able to select tools. The problem was that he didn't have total control of the mouse and would occasionally (like every five minutes or so) pull down a menu and bring up a dialog box that he couldn't dismiss without being able to read. Everything was fine as long as I was in the room, but if I stepped out for a few minutes I would come back and find Ben kicking on the floor in frustration. This was not what I had in mind for his introduction to the computer.” (

Thanks to Ben, Hickman went on to design Kid Pix, a rich, open-ended draw and paint program rating high in child control. Since Brøderbund’s first publishing of the of the software in 1991, Kid Pix has been translated into dozens of languages and used by over ten million children around the globe. By CSR count, over 6,000 children’s interactive media products have been developed in the last 15 years, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the best of these were made by folks who know and love kids. By playing with and observing children— programmers, product managers, CEOs and even reviewers can learn some powerful lessons. To borrow from Bob Hughes’ powerful book on interactive media, Dust or Magic, (Addison Wesley) some of the stuff is pure magic, while some is nothing but dust. Here are some of the ingredients of “magic” interactive products.

Nine Rules to a “Magic” Product...

  1. Is easy to set up. Complex installation and registration routines on Windows computers have damaged the industry. Anything more than “Put the CD in the drive” should be outlawed. Hit Clips (by Tiger) exemplifies “ease of use”. Even the batteries are pre-installed. Just open the package, push the button, and it works.
  2. Lets kids “accidentally” succeed in the first 30 seconds. Children, like grown-ups, want control! Early success in a program is like that great golf shot— it keeps you coming back for more. The program must provide the most direct path to what Hickman calls “the prime directive.” Take the typical racing game. You want to race cars, right? But some racing programs put roadblocks in between you and the racetrack, in the form of layers of customization menus. Let me race the car. Give me the preferences if I want them.
  3. Overdelivers and undersells. Few products build customer loyalty faster than software. Parents and teachers can see the difference a well designed program makes for a child, and this builds an emotional bond to the product.
  4. Has a crisp, responsive interface that wants to please. Each program takes a child into its own little world, with its own set of rules, and a distinct emotional climate. We tell designers to imagine their program as a “dinner date.” Some “dates” talk way too much, can’t be interrupted, or don’t remember things you’d already discussed. Author Bob Hughes offers another way to look at an interface, using a good dog as an analogy. Most computer interfaces are like “stuffed dogs”-- static, they don’t do anything. Other programs or toys are like hyperactive puppies—with so many writhing, flashing icons, they look like the Las Vegas strip. The “new & improved” Kid Pix 3 suffers from this fate, because an artist decided to overstylize the icons at the expense of child control. A “good dog” interface is alert, alive and “ready to help,” but it doesn’t detract from your attention. Developers forget that children are very tuned into subtle messages that they get from the program. Tiny delays in the action, non-intuitive icons, or sluggish reactions to a click can convert feelings of control into irritation.
  5. Is consistent. Any teacher can tell you… when children know the rules, they settle down and are much less likely to misbehave. A good interface establishes the “rules” early on, and keeps them the same. Want to see a child throw a mouse? Make an icon that works only after the narration has stopped. Worse, make the same icon do different things, or put two “exit” icons on the same page. Hughes calls programs that change themselves around “Gestapo Interfaces” and compares the experience of trying to use a poorly designed web site (of which there are no shortage) with talking to a paranoid schizophrenic, where the rules can change at any time. “Do I click, or don’t I click? How do I get back to that screen I was playing a few minutes ago? Where’s the undo? ARGGGH!”
  6. Helps kids know where they are. Most software uses some kind of “space” and that space needs to make sense to a child. One of the simplest approaches is to keep everything on one screen, like Space Invaders. Other tried and true techniques include an octopus-like storyboard, with different activities radiating out from a constant menu screen. Maps are another useful navigational tool. Programs like School Zone’s On Track series keep a constant navigation strip on the bottom of the screen. In this case, the strip is made of footprints, each one representing a page. The longer a child plays, they more footprints are filled in. Once they get to the edge of the screen, they’ve completed the book. Define the space, define the goal, and have a visible reminder of progress.
  7. Doesn’t underestimate or talk down to kids. A wise Mississippi preschool teacher once said “young children can’t spell hypocrite, but they know what one is.” The same goes for software interfaces. Even very young children are smart when it comes to sniffing out the real play value of a product, especially programs that are dressed up in flash animations. Media pioneers such as the late Walt Disney understood that children can be the harshest critics. Kids respond to (and deserve) good art and music and original full-strength storylines. They don't like being talked down to, patronized or underestimated. Software developers should be well versed in child development, so they understand what kids can do and when.
  8. Follows tried and true play patterns. We call it “riding the horse in the direction it’s going.” Think about it. Why are RPG (role playing games) so successful? Simple— children love to pretend. RPG games are natural extensions of what kids are already doing. (Of course in our day it was cowboys and Indians, not warrior princesses and aliens!) Programmers and designers should spend some time at the playground. Things you notice there can end up as important elements in your products. Hickman writes “When Ben built something out of blocks, he enjoyed knocking his structure down almost as much as he did building it. Getting rid of the picture should be fun.” Hence Kid Pix’ exploding firecracker eraser, one of the greatest (and most controversial) menu tools ever created. Other good designs let children interact with products in ways that aren’t always intended, another hallmark of children’s play. Stretching a graphic or font way too big, piling up layers of stickers, creating chaos; are all part of sending the message to the child that they have control of this world.
  9. Offers social experiences. Kids like games they can play together (ask Nintendo why they have four controllers). They also like games where they can print something out and share it with others, another important social opportunity. The Internet has connected computers, making the hard drive a virtual one. The Instant Messaging phenomenon, both on computers and handheld toys, is evidence of this “magic.” The ability to play basketball with another person across the country, or to drive a submarine in Castle Infinity (you steer, I’ll navigate), or capture the flag in Disney’s Atlantis, all create interesting contexts for socialization and group interactions.

We have a long way to go before all the bugs are worked out and these interactive social experiences are fully studied; but this trend is certainly the wave of the future and has “magic” written all over it.

From: Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media
First edition, 1996. Revised January 6, 2006 by Ellen Wolock, Ed.D, Ann Orr, Ed.D. and Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D.
© 2006 Active Learning Associates. All rights reserved.