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Should future digital design be child-unfriendly?

19.09.2018 Design : Digital : Children

When creating platforms for children, digital designers must consider what meaningful engagement KPIs will look like in the future.

Mariano Pascual website Mariano Pascual website

Despite current societal discussions about tech's impact on children, digital design continues to disregard – or even play to – the potential of user addiction.

Jessica Smith, creative researcher, The Future Laboratory

Digital design is usually well-merited for its creative execution and ease of use, with websites or platforms that manage to secure viewers' attention, spend or interaction deemed successful. However, in the age of an attention-based economy, where our addictive relationship with technology is becoming increasingly unsustainable, it's also designers' responsibility to consider the impact of digital design on users' wellbeing – especially those that are young.

Last month, Adobe's principle designer Khoi Vinh wrote that, 'design is moving past the stage in the evolution of the craft when we can safely consider its practice to be neutral, to be without inherent virtue or without inherent vice.' He noted how Nielsen Norman Group's study on best practices to consider when designing websites for children details recommendations such as 'avoiding interactions that require dragging, scrolling, and clicking small objects and generally accommodating the limited motor-coordination facility of this audience.' Yet the recommendations do not acknowledge how digital design might impact children and adolescents' mental health.

Mobile device usage among young children now makes up 35% of their daily screen time, compared to 4% in 2011.

Considering that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated its recommendations for device usage among those aged five to 18 to be just one hour per day, while recent studies show that mobile device usage among young children now makes up 35% of their daily screen time, compared to 4% in 2011, it's imperative for brands to reconsider what engagement key performance indicators (KPIs) should look like.

For example, nonprofit group Common Sense Media found that much of this time spent in front of screens is happening just before bedtime, while children in lower-income families reportedly spend more time on devices than those from affluent families. In addition, San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge’s studies reveal that teens whose eyes are habitually glued to their smartphones are markedly unhappier.

It’s no longer responsible for digital designers to focus solely on making it alluring to play a game or easy to complete a task. In my view, that attitude is wholly shortsighted.

Yet, despite current global discussions about technology's impact on younger users, digital design cues that prioritise ease of use continue to disregard, or even play to, the potential of user addiction. As Khoi Vinh argues, 'making it easier and easier to pull the handle on a slot machine reflects on the intentions of the designer of that experience.'

Further, in light of The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognising gaming as an addictive disorder in its International Classification of Diseases, surely it's time for digital designers to creatively counter children's gaming or screen time as a worthy measure of their awareness and support of these young users' wellbeing? A recent promising example is from Chinese technology group Tencent, which limits the length of time young users can play its popular mobile game Honour of Kings, based on their age. For example, players under the age of 12 can only use the app for one hour each day and are unable to access the game after 9pm.

Arguably, it’s no longer responsible for digital designers to focus solely on making it alluring to play a game or easy to complete a task or transaction. In my view, that attitude is wholly shortsighted. Digital designers must instead consider what's in the best interests of today's young device users in order to ensure that this next generation aren't negatively impacted by the very technology that – at present – pitches itself as unlocking, supporting and driving their future.

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