Brenda Long, Studio 6th Ave

Please tell us about your experience for children, and help us understand what makes it noteworthy or exceptional.: 

Mabell's Zoo is an interactive counting experience for children ages 5 and under; delivered on iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. Designed for the device, Mabell's Zoo is multi-touch and encourages the use of all fingers. Tablets and smart phones have introduced new methods of interaction now available to wide audiences. Mabell's Zoo optimizes those opportunities with an eye to the future by not restricting young children to a mouse, keyboard or a single point of contact. Mabell’s Zoo helps children make learning a lifestyle. It gives them the freedom to explore and discover with what is natural to them ¬– touching with multiple fingers and receiving a response. An overall structure has been designed with numbers, animals, and sounds. The experience however, is completely driven by the child thus, giving room for play, personal interpretation, problem solving, storytelling and sensory fun. Elements that are important in early child development. Pulling from the real world, the imagery is rich with textures and vivid colors. The creases, shadows, and depth encourage children to want to touch and interact. The sound design of Mabell's Zoo is specific for the app with nothing cliché. It introduces a variety of musical elements and allows a child to create music with chords, rhythm, and expression. The goal is to provide a musical environment with wonderful sounds even when created with a child’s unpredictable multi-touch interactions. Since children relate to the voices of other children, the emphasis of counting is narrated by a child. Each view (number) of the zoo has unique characteristics related to the interactions: bubbles float and pop, frogs leap, and monkeys hang together. Different types of movement combined with the audio inspire continued discovery and creativity. On the surface, Mabell's Zoo is simple to use, encourages number association and learning names of animals. However, the app is more encompassing. It embraces all learning styles and levels of development including special needs. It quickly engages a child in activities meticulously designed for fine motor skills, logical relations, cause-effect reasoning, and problem solving. It promotes positive emotions, exploration, self-motivation and when shared with another child or adult, it becomes a collaborative social experience. We are in a state of change with technology and digital activities have more interactive opportunities. With Mabell's Zoo, we are challenging and pushing consumers’ expectations while delivering an intuitive experience for children. We have ten fingers; let's use them.

What can others learn from the successes and failures of how you crafted your product experience for children?: 

A big emphasis while designing and creating Mabell's Zoo was staying focused on the target audience (5 years and under) and keeping in mind how young children discover, learn, and explore. Spend time observing how children interact and play in the real world with tangible objects. Young children are drawn to bright colors and textures and want to explore with both hands. In the digital world find ways to encourage active play and promote creativity with moveable parts, colors, and music. Our target audience specifications guided technical, visual, and audio requirements. Young children want to use both hands and share with a parent. As a result, we included multi-touch activities. 

Prior to developing Mabell’s Zoo, observations were made with young children and how they related numbers of items and groupings. One example was after counting 10 crayons with a child, the child asked “who is number six”. Mabell’s Zoo is intended to encourage children to associate numbers with groups vs. individual items and making the groups memorable through animals, sounds, and touch.

How did you test your product designs and prototypes with children, and how did that testing affect the designs or how you thought about the product’s requirements?: 

User testing with children under 5 years old was conducted throughout the creation and development of the app. One of the first modifications as a result of user observations was removing accelerometer functionality. Adults (and older children) love being able to tilt a device but young children, often using a device on their lap and not level, found automatic movement frustrating. Adult opinions were used in regards to the audio design and creating sounds that worked well together and remained pleasant over a period of time. Sometimes parents have to listen to an item many times over and we wanted that experience to remain positive as well.

Due to device controls and how children could interact with the app, the interface was modified and moved throughout the development to find the optimal design and placement. The “play area” was one of the most important aspects of the experience and every effort was made to give a child room to explore with active multi-touch movement without interferring with native device options.

Since children are quick learners, we employed subtle visual changes each time a view is opened; the order the parrots or koala bears appear, the placement of the banana bunches, or the balls with the seals. We also included a mix play option to change the order of views.

Specific needs for children included simplicity and ease of use. Extra functionality, features, or options were omitted to encourage control by the child. Young children have a tendency to touch the “options” button and then be confused why an app doesn’t work as expected or unable to find the way back.

Please share any quantitative, qualitative, and/or anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of your designs for children and/or of the impact your product has on its users.: 

We discovered that children familiar with the app began to create their own stories: a family of snakes with mom, dad, brother, and sister. Children have also found innovative ways to affect the physics within the app: diving boards with the penguins. We also discovered families with multiples especially enjoyed the multi-touch capabilities since children could play together. 

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