Let Your Users Act Like Children.

Videos showing young children using the iPad have been making the rounds,cited asproof of the intuitive nature of the product. They’ve beenreferenced in articles with titles likeApple iPad easy enough for a child touse”.

Similar videos made the rounds for kids and theiPhone, kids and the iPod,all the ways back to kids and the original Mac.

If you want to show that something is easy to use, the thinkinggoes, record a child exploring it and post the results onYouTube.

It’s entirely backwards.

Children Are Uninhibited Explorers

Kids engage in active, uninhibited exploration to discover thefunctionality of a system, often through trial and error. Theydo this without self-doubt, prejudice or assumption.

Deviations from behaviours and interfaces that they already knowdon’t make them doubt their intelligence, or make them feel angrythat their existing knowledge is obsolete.

While parents love to show off their children doing cleverthings, bragging about the superior essence of their DNA orparenting, the reality is that most children are shockinglyclever.

I have three young children. They’ve had computers since eachwas a toddler. They have often seen me using computers. They watcheach other using computers.

My youngest has, since well before his second birthday, gone tothe office, turned on his computer, and logged into hisaccount.

He launches Firefox and decides which site amongst his bookmarksthat he wants to visit. There he explores the site-specific UI,picks the activity he wants to play, and masters its nuances.

There is little consistency among the sites or individual games,and they frequently change it up and add and remove content, yetthat never discourages him or throws him off, but instead offersmore opportunity for exploration. It plays a part in theenjoyment.

When he gets bored he goes to the next game or site.

If I’m at the office and I see him appear online through Skype,I can make a call to him and he’ll answer. He often exclaims“DADDY!”, then abruptly (how rude!) hanging up to get back to hisgame.

He figured out most of this on his own. There was no computertraining course or bootcamp learning series.

The same technology aptitude certainly holds true for my othertwo. My daughter was betatesting a page whenshe was two. She had no problem quickly discovering how theelements interacted.

My children play videos from the network-attached storage. Theytake pictures of themselves with superimposed hats using thewebcam. They scan their drawings for digital enhancements.

A year back I discovered my middle son, then a preschooler, onYouTube doing searches for Star Wars videos. I was sitting behindhim on another PC and got curious when he asked how to spell DarthVader.

Now that I’m onto my third Android phone – having gone throughthe HTC Dream, to the HTC Magic+, now onto the Nexus One, all overthe course of less than six months – the Dream has been relegatedas a portable media and internet access device for them, and againthey figured out how to do almost everything it is capable of doingon their own, even on stodgy old Android 1.5.

Taking pictures, playing videos, navigating the market andinstalling and running applications (no pay account is associated,so thankfully they aren’t running up charges).

And it isn’t even an Apple product.

Children are brilliant. Of course I think my kids are especiallyawesome (as every parent does about their own sprogs), but mostkids are capable of these feats if given the freedom toexplore with the confidence that there are few negativeramifications of their actions.

Adults Are Dumb In Comparison

Adults, in contrast, usually approach anything new withself-doubt, biases, and prejudices. They have preconceived notions of howsomething should behave, and deviations from that leads them togrow angry and irritated that the subject is, essentially, makingthem feel stupid, while making their previously acquired knowledgeobsolete.

If Facebook moves a button, there is mass outrage.

Linux desktops are generally considered deficient unless theyclosely mirror the behaviour of the Windows desktop that people areaccustomed to. Individualizing, even where it is demonstrablysuperior, is almost always a negative return activity.

Just copy what people are accustomed to. Most adults activelyavoid learning anything new, so the less “new” the better,generally.

Humanity suffered a decade of jokes about programming theVCR.

We’re seeing the same behaviour now in the smartphone ecosystemwhere Apple is held as the benchmark, and the way things should bedone. While many bemoan everyone “copying” Apple, they need to keepin mind this people-are-dumb effect.

Of course this leads to a chicken-egg debate: how does Apple getaway with doing things “Different” How do they manage to get awaywith, and be heralded for, creating entirely new and differentexperiences How do they manage to “make” markets?

Apple Treats Users like Children

Many users approach Apple devices as if they are children, justas the products are delivered as if to Children.

Watch Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad and seriously questionwhether that sort of presentation would have been tolerable from,say, Steve Ballmer or Eric Schmidt.

Listen as he soothingly delivers the goods like he’s achildren’s author giving a reading from “Why Goombas GoBananas”.

While that sounds like a negative statement about Apple, it isactually incredibly positive.

Given that there is a widespread expectation that there is areward that will come from acclimation – they have been told thatSteve Jobs has the Midas touch and Apple designers are the world’sbest – people often approach Apple products with a wonderfulchild-like open-mindedness, willing to accept differences. There isknowledge that it will be a rewarding experience.

The same thing happened with the Nintendo Wii: Given positivepress and a friendly impression of the company, many had anunexpectedly child-like response to it, and were willing to give ita chance.

This is seldom the case. Whether it’s a simple change of a webpage, the use of the Ribbon bar in Office, a switch to Firefox –people have a strong gravity to things that they already know, anda powerful aversion to change.

It takes a lot of hype to overcome that friction.

Whether Apple products are really as intuitive and brilliant asclaimed is debateable, but the belief that they are isenough to get them over that hump, yielding the same benefits.

On Acting like a Child and Letting a Child (or Adult) Act likea Child

One important note about children (or adults acting like achild) and exploration: To work there has to be an environmentwhere there are few negatives to simple actions.

In the case above my kids use PCs running Windows 7 and limiteduser accounts, coupled with reasonable (but not overbearing)supervision, so there is little to no damage they could cause witha mouse and a keyboard.

Worst case I’d just wipe and reinstall.

They can’t accidentally order things on a credit card. Theycan’t install root kits. They can’t delete system files.

Having that freedom to try things risk free is critical toexploration.

It’s just important for adults who are learning a system, andperhaps a part of how we got to where we are was an ecosystem wheresimple exploration could be a destructive, damaging experience.Where an accidental keystroke launches a complete changedinterface, for instance, with no obvious way to get back.

It destroys the user’s sense of adventure, probably forever.