Three reasons why building a viral app for kids is harder than it looks

If you’ve ever seen a toddler interact with an iPad (the best being the toddler who didn’t understand why her paper magazine wouldn’t flip), you know that kids are in many ways uniquely suited to playing with tablet or mobile apps — sometimes before they can even read.

But developing apps that will appeal to kids is a real challenge. A variety of enterprenuers and developers who work with technology intended for kids and parents spoke at the 500 Startups Mamabear conference in Mountain View Friday, where they talked about the challenges but potential benefits of building for the younger set.

Complying with privacy guidelines

Cheating on test / privacy concernsOne of the biggest hurdles for app developers — which should comfort parents concerned about the privacy of their kids — is complying with COPPA, the regulations from the FTC that limit the data that developers can collect from kids like names or photos, and which require developers to attain permission from parents before they acquire any data.

Building a viral social app while complying with COPPA can be tricky, and most notably, COPPA got Path into trouble when an FTC investigation found underage users on the app, which led to a $800,000 fine for the company and 3,000 accounts getting purged from the system.

Shai Samet, a lawyer and privacy consultant who runs the startup kidSAFE Seal Program, talked about how developers can work with the COPPA guidelines to create apps for kids, reminding them that all sorts of information, from real names to photos to videos to geolocation, is all information you need parental consent to collect. You also can’t include social plug-ins for apps like Facebook, or include behavior tracking ads like Google ads, both of which are common monetization strategies, if they’re targeted at kids.

“There’s really three key strategies to avoid COPPA regulations in some scenarios and be able to scale user growth,” he said. Samet pointed to three different tactics, which include anonymizing data from kids (so you’re not collecting real names), limiting sign-ups to kids over age 13 (if acquiring younger users isn’t a requirement for success), and picking the easiest form of acquiring parental consent (avoiding credit card numbers or social security numbers if possible and opting for email instead.) Shamet’s full presentation can be found online here.

App-testing with more distracted users

Child tween kid tablet 4G Plenty of app developers will host focus groups for their target audience to see how people respond to products and how they interact with devices. But when it comes to app-testing with kids, (especially those who aren’t verbal yet), it can be a lot harder to get feedback.

Sandra Oh Lin, the founder and CEO of Kiwi Crate, talked about how to do focus groups and app testing with kids, and how it can depend on the age of the kid with whatever tactic you take.

“Adults have no problem telling you what they think,” she said. “They’ll walk you through and say, ‘Here’s why I’m tapping on this.'” But for kids, you have to do a lot more observation to see how they interact with a game, since they might not tell you why they don’t like something. Plus, they’re extremely prone to distractions, and keeping them focused on the task is tricky too.

But if your focus group works well? Remembering to contact all of those people when your product ships to tell them about it can give you an automatic user base to start with.

Figuring out the content that works

It sounds obvious, but the people designing the apps for kids aren’t kids themselves, so figuring out the content that appeals to them can be somewhat of a learning process.

Mark Schlichting, CEO of NoodleWorks Interactive, said that in creating content for kids, age matters. For instance, an app designed for a toddler who doesn’t yet associate letters with words will have a totally different impact when the game is played by an eight-year old. Some age groups might find some material terrifying that wouldn’t bother a slightly older age group — understanding your audience here is key.

Plus, kids often find new uses for an app that the developer didn’t even intend. Schlichting said they found that kids were tapping a particular part of the app in a way that caused it to crash. A developer asked him if they should fix the app and make it un-tappable, but instead he said it’s important to capitalize on how kids are using it.

“I realized, this is an inherent play pattern that we didn’t know was in here,” he said. What are the things kids like in an app? Everything in an app should be highly tappable, responsive, and interruptive, he said. “Don’t trick ’em.”