What Kids’ Phones Can Teach You About Product Design

When it comes to their design, kids’ phones are anything but child's play.

Some of the coolest gadgets on the market today are smartphones. Devices designed for kids are particularly impressive. Not only do they fit sensitive components in a small-yet-sturdy package, but they tailor an “adult” product to a niche audience.

Product designers can learn a lesson or two from these devices. Even outside of the tech sector, designers are always looking for ways to differentiate their products, make them more durable, and deliver functionality without feature-bloat. 

Before putting together your next product, take note. These six tips inspired by cell phones for kids are anything but child’s play:

1. Put a premium on safety.

If a product isn’t safe to use, it doesn’t matter what other features it has. Spending money on something that puts you or others at risk simply doesn’t make sense. 

The designers behind Gabb Wireless’s Z2 kids phone made safety their starting point. Because kids are experts at bypassing or disabling restrictions, the Z2 takes away the need for parental controls. 

While the Z2 can call and send texts, it can’t access the internet, social media, or app stores. Kids can still take photos and listen to music on the Z2, but there’s no need to worry about them seeing dangerous content online or developing a social media addiction. And without internet access, there’s less risk of cyberbullying or child predators.

When designing your product, approach it the same way. Before worrying about the bells and whistles, make sure the core product doesn’t put the user at risk. 

2. Question norms around form. 

Who says a cell phone has to be rectangular? Who says it even needs a screen? While there are reasons for these design choices, the point is that innovative designers question assumptions about the shape, look, and feel of the product. 

The Relay Kids Phone is a gadget that breaks the rules. This screen-free walkie talkie lets kids leave their family and friends voice messages, which they receive immediately. 

Your product shouldn’t look like a carbon copy of its competitors. Design something different: It just might be the next big hit. 

3. Make it easy to use.

There’s a reason most apps for children are designed for tablets and not phones. Because their motor skills are still developing, not all kids can navigate something as small as a phone screen.

Although the Jitterbug Flip is often marketed to seniors, it also makes a great phone for kids because of its easy-to-use design. With large buttons and no touch screen, this device makes it easy to text, call, and take photos. Plus, it doesn’t connect to the internet — another feature parents love. 

Easy-to-use products aren’t always the coolest ones on the market. But what’s even less cool is a product that is difficult or unpleasant to use. Put usability before pizzazz when designing your own product. 

4. Go back to basics.

Some of the best designs are out of sight, out of mind. Think about your home’s HVAC system: You wouldn’t want it making noise or needing adjustment all the time, right? You’re probably happiest with it when it heats and cools your home without extra fuss.  

The designers behind the Light Phone II took this same approach. With it, you can call, text, set alarms, play music, and listen to podcasts — and that’s it. There are no social media apps, ads, email, or news feeds. 

Basic doesn’t have to mean boring. This phone’s sleek look and simple design are similar to the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, however, the Light II isn’t packed with distracting or unnecessary features. 

5. Consider the “fun” factor.

The best products aren’t addictive, but they do keep users coming back for more. In your design, look for ways to help users have fun. It could be as simple as a color-changing screen, or as complex as a built-in game. 

Preloaded with 44 games, the VTech KidiBuzz is the perfect example of this design principle. While it does allow calling and texting, parents control the contact list and which websites and applications are accessible. That way, even younger kids can enjoy it safely. 

With this design tip, balance is key. You don’t want to add so many fun features that your product becomes unusable, but you should find small ways to make it engaging. 

6. Don’t forget about durability.

There’s nothing worse than spending a fortune on something, only to have it break six hours later.  Especially if your product is used outdoors, on job sites, or by children, make sure it can withstand a few bumps and bruises. 

Famous for their durability are Nokia phones. A great choice for kids is the Nokia 6.1, which features an all-metal build milled from a single block of series 6000 aluminum. It’s water-resistant, and it features a Gorilla Glass screen that is unlikely to crack or shatter. Users appreciate the long-lasting battery, which is often one of the first things in a phone to go bad. 

Your product doesn’t need to be bulletproof, but it should be well built. When in doubt, check in with your users: How do they plan to use the product? How long do they hope to own it? If they’ve owned similar products in the past, at what point did they need to be replaced?

Designing a great product is difficult. You have to get the form and function right, but there are dozens of deeper considerations as well. Is it built to last? Is it fun and easy to use? Does every feature add something to the core product?

When it comes to their design, kids’ phones are anything but child’s play. For your next design session, ask your son or daughter to borrow their device. It just might be the inspiration your product team needs.

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio; Pexels

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