How to Improve User Engagement with Play: 4 Lessons from Award-Winning Kids' Apps

Written by: Julia Chen Julia Chen 

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Before the age of three, kids make a million new neural connections per second. Their brains take in new information and transform with it. While their brains are developing, kids' environments are also giving them opportunities to stretch their understanding of the world. Play and exploration, supported by structure—the best recipe for quick learning.

Designing an educational product for children requires a delicate balance between play and structure. Make it too much like a game, and they might not learn. Force them through a rote sequence of actions—click this button, visit this page, check this box—and you risk disengaging them.

The award-winning kids' app Tinybop has mastered this balance. Their beautifully designed products shed light on how infusing more play into the user experience can help users, regardless of age, learn a new product faster and have fun.

How Tinybop thinks about user engagement

Tinybop was founded in 2012 by Raul Gutierrez, after he noticed how important the iPhone was to his son, and yet how badly designed most kids' apps were. Tinybop has created nine apps to help kids learn about subjects like the human body and space, and five apps to help kids develop creative-thinking and problem-solving skills through building robots, monsters, and video games.

Screenshots of Tinybop's The Monsters app are rich and inviting as a picture book

The apps are full of detailed illustrations reminiscent of children's books. There's little text or instructions. Instead, kids learn through interaction and exploration. For example, in the Human Body app, users drag a flower under their character's nose to see how smell triggers the nervous system. A kid sees neurons firing from the nose to the brain. There’s no text that explains this directly, but after kids engage again and again, they start to make the connection.

leah-feuerTo see how creating more opportunities for play can improve user engagement, we spoke to Leah Feuer, Head of Product at Tinybop.

“Play is critical,” said Leah. “We are the opposite of didactic curriculum, like flash cards or math tests. We believe that you can learn so much through play, exploration, and experimentation.”

Here are four user engagement lessons you can take from the way Tinybop welcomes new users to their various worlds, and adapt for your own product.

Bake play into your user tests

Tinybop’s research team conducts user tests throughout the product development cycle. They bring their target users, kids, into Tinybop HQ a few times a week to test new ideas.

The research team organizes user tests around different stages of play, ensuring that there's a delight factor with every step.

Stage 1: Open play

Leah and her team kick off user research as an "open play" environment:

“When we first started play testing our app, The Robot Factory, we had some rough sketches of the artwork we were thinking of using and we just asked kids, 'What do you think of robots?'

Having an open starting point like this allows you to get early feedback before you start building—to find out what's even interesting and engaging to target users. From there, you can turn some of these ideas into features.

Stage 2: Guided play

Once they have more of a working prototype, they bring kids in to play again. At this stage, the research team looks for common behavior patterns and where users need more help or guidance. This helps the team create product experiences that surprise and engage kids while making sure they have enough orientation to get started.

tinybop user tests

Leah described the research process: 

“We look at everything. From how kids respond to the art style to their emotional reaction (are they having fun?), to whether they discover the buttons. The cycle from getting feedback to incorporating those ideas back into the product is very fast. We'll have kids come in today for example, have feedback by the end of the day, and incorporate that feedback into next week's sprint.”

Conducting another user test at the prototype stage will allow you to pin down the details of your features and in-app messages, so that you can tweak each user touchpoint to provide the most value possible.

Stage 3: Team play

“The research team usually leads play tests but different people from the team, whether it's a developer, designer, product manager, will sit in,” Leah said.

The team also incorporates play into their working week. They have App Fridays, where they play with a host of apps, including their own and their competitors'.

Let new users customize during onboarding

Personalizing your app for users right off the bat can help them connect to its value quicker.

“In the case of The Human Body app, the experience of picking an identity, and seeing your in-app character transform to the outline of the body you picked, really helps draw people in,” Leah said.

Tinybop users can personalize their profile

Throughout each app, there are further opportunities for kids to see themselves in what they're creating or playing with. This creates an emotional connection that’s vital for them to pick up and remember the lessons they're learning.

In the Everything Machine, users can upload photos to personalize play

Tinybop has a really high engagement rate relative to the category of educational apps for kids—personalization is one of the keys to that engagement.

Personalize your onboarding straight away to give users a warm welcome into your app. You could:

  • Send a personal welcome message in-app and to their email.
  • Let users customize their dashboard or profile.
  • Simply add avatars and photos so users feel like they're actually present in this world you've built.

Safety-net play with great scaffolding

Play helps people learn, but without any structure, they'll likely get lost or bored or stuck. This applies to both kids and adults.

“Our apps are open-ended on purpose, but you still have to communicate that to a kid. Kids expect rules and directions!” said Leah.

Tinybop also helps parents support their kids' discoveries by complementing each app with a handbook. Each is a supplementary guide explaining all the content and interactions that parents can find in-app or online.

The Human Body's handbook teaches the science behind app's discoveries

Your app may not be for children, but you still need to support discovery with structure. Creating a guide that backs up exploration is like building helpful parameters, nudging users back to core actions and value. These boundaries don't have to be obtrusive. Try using hotspots to keep text to a minimum during onboarding while providing tips and hints if users need them

Make space for failure

The reason people tend to over-structure onboarding is that the pressure to succeed is high. If users don't get immediate value, and don't discover your features, they'll churn.

In the Tinybop universe, “we try and create a space where failure isn't only allowed but encouraged,” said Leah.

The Robot Factory app allows kids to experiment with no right answer

She described a particularly delightful moment of "failure" for users: 

“In The Robot Factory, if you design a robot that has a head for legs, it's not going to be able to walk well, but it's also hilarious. It blows up in smoke and all the pieces go everywhere. It could be frustrating if it was done differently, because this could seem like failure, but because the app is designed to encourage. experimentation and trial and error — these “failures” become critical to learning.”

It's natural to want to help users win instantaneously—whether the aim is to send beautiful email campaigns with 50% open rates or close sales deals faster. But by ensuring that there's room for failure, and thus improvement, you can hold on to your users' attention longer and be a part of their journey (in becoming a better marketer, salesperson, etc.).

If new users don't achieve amazing results at first, don't make them feel like they've failed or that the product has failed them. Instead, support them with contextual tips and nudges of encouragement.

Design for your user's childhood self

Research shows that playtime is nearly as impactful for adults. Play helps adults form communities, retain information, and engage in their environment.

Giving users permission to explore freely in your product lets them experiment, try things out, and ultimately achieve their own results. This is much more effective for creating a lasting relationship between user and product.

Bring the pleasure of play back into your app and get your users' neurons firing like they're three years old again. 

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