Theresa Crafts

What a Child’s toy can teach us about Usability and Design Principles

Most of us have had an opportunity to see a child play with a favorite toy. Our interaction with the child can either be that the child is our own, we are watching someone else’s child, or we see a child at a store.  Often the favorite toy is a tool to keep the child engaged, accomplish a goal, or to comfort the child.  The toy of choice is often successful because it falls into the category of being usable and a good design. The qualities that make these toys successful are the same qualities that a good web design should possess.

Take for example, some toys that have been around for a while: Lego’s, play-doh, a ball, or a baby doll and think about how successful they have been for as long as they have been around. Now consider an iPhone, your favorite website, or your favorite Smart Phone App. Do they have similar qualities? Let’s examine these qualities:

1. It should be usable without instruction

A child doesn’t need instructions to play with a ball. The range of play on a ball is pretty open. When the child begins to throw, rules might come out, such as “no throwing in the house” but for the most part, rolling, throwing, catching, sitting on, or bouncing need no instruction.

Looking at an iPhone, does it require instruction? Yes, it does to set up. However, once it is set up, a toddler can pick up an iPhone and get to their favorite app without any instruction. The actions inherent in an iPhone are natural actions that we would use to flip through photos or choose something.

2. The design should give positive reinforcement

Some of the newer baby dolls have dolls that laugh, cry, eat, and sleep. When the child takes care of the baby crying by “feeding” it or “changing” the diaper, the baby coos or giggles. The next time the baby doll cries, the child knows exactly how to get that positive reinforcement again.

Think about your favorite shopping site. When you place your order, are you given some recognition that you were all done with process? This can come in the form of a confirmation page or an immediate email. If you didn’t get one, how do you now that you were successful? When you get the product on your doorstep?

3. A design should challenge a new user and an experienced user appropriately

Play-doh is one of my favorite children’s toys because children of many ages find play-doh useful and entertaining. The youngest child wants only to feel the texture, smell it, and view the bright colors. An older child will create barely recognizable dinosaurs and unicorns. The oldest child will create elaborate multi-colored meals or monsters. And even teenagers and adults use a form of play-doh for art projects or pottery.

Think about a web site you use often, maybe your online email hosting (yahoo or Gmail, for example). These sites allow users who are new to the site or have one thing to do, to do so easily and efficiently. An experienced user can set up their home page with news feeds, favorite links, or even rearrange the page to pull their most used tasks to the front.

4. The design should be unbreakable

Lego’s are virtually indestructible. Although the smaller ones are the proper size to get stuck in a vacuum or chewed by a dog, in general use or even rough play, Lego’s keep their rectangular shape and connect to other Lego’s. Part of proper Lego play is actually to build something, tear it down, and explore what can be done with it that may not be shown on the side of the box.

If during normal use on your favorite app, if you are given an error message then something is wrong. You should have the ability to move throughout the app, accomplish your goal, and never get stopped for an error, a broken link, or a system unfriendly message.

5. Proper help should be easy to find

Looking at all of the toys we have mentioned, proper help might be care-taker assistance, watching another child play, or experimenting without the toy breaking. Depending on the age of the child, the type of assistance will vary but the way a child gets to the help is in an expected way.

Let’s look at an iPhone again. How do you get help? Go to the Apple store at your nearest mall, go to, or ask your neighbor that has an iPhone. If you are feeling up to it, you can experiment with the phone and you should expect (within reason) that it wouldn’t break.

6. Upgrades should be optional

In the 60 years that Lego’s have been around or in the 80 years that Play-doh has been around there have been many upgrades, new products, and new accessories. The basic concept is the same and you could still use 60 year old Lego’s today if you wanted to but you can choose to go with a different size or color combination.

If your favorite Smart Phone app needs an upgrade, are you able to use the legacy app? If not, why? A user should be able to choose when and how to upgrade and legacy apps should work until the user deems it appropriate to change it.

The next time you design a web site or an app, ask yourself the “Play-doh” questions:

  • Is it useful without instruction?
  • Does it include positive reinforcement of success?
  • Are new and experienced users appropriately challenged?
  • Is the design unbreakable?
  • Can help be easily found?
  • Are upgrades optional?

If the answers to those questions are yes, chances are you have created something that will last a long time.