Designing Multimedia Application for Children
January 2007

Designing Multimedia Application for Children

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There are lots of multimedia  applications designed for  children. A lot of imagination has gone into these designs especially educational applications but evidence from a scoping study and literature has demonstrated that the children find them boring much to the disappointment of some designers and producers. Having gone through periods of successes and failures, the educational software that was supposed to enrich and widen the child’s “window” on the world has to some extent failed to capture the interest and engagement of children. The kernel of the whole research was about discovering if this is true and if so to find out what we can do to make the multimedia appropriate for children. Perhaps a Design Model that could represent what children want in a multimedia application designed for them could prove to be useful for designers and evaluators to design systems that are both engaging and educational.

Engagement factors

Basically there are four main issues that seemed to be present in any discussion of children interacting with computer applications. The probable issues circulate around questions like:

  • Does the application allow them to interact with it?
  • What are the operating tools used?
  • How immediate is the feedback when using it?
  • What are the goals expected of them or could be set by them when interacting with the multimedia environment?

Most believed that multimedia has enormous potential. Many tried to design rich multimedia experience. Some works but some does not work. A search was made for a multimedia application that fitted the ‘wish lists’ of end-users in a scoping study. The Sims was a popular game about Life Management, where players play a major role in the management of everyday family life like providing a place to stay, managing finance, basic needs, moods and desires. The end-users had a very engaging experience interacting with this application. It was then chosen as a vehicle for these investigations. An Engagement Model was developed by the researcher through a number of experimental situations on end-users as they interact with this application. Findings from the experiments has given incites into what design factors that engages end-users and what does not when interacting with a multimedia application. The findings are not only useful in designing for children but in any e-learning environment.

Being able to interact is not the only criteria of preferences. The scoping study has demonstrated that the most important factor about children preferences with the multimedia CDs had to do not only with the ability for them to interact with the system but also to have design features that could draw the user’s attention so that he or she would not want to stop when asked to do so.

This sense of “engagement” or “being engaged” will enable the user to be fully immersed from the moment in the timeline of interaction when they are totally cut off from their surroundings through a force derived from within – intrinsic motivation. This Stanton (1998) refers to as hedonic. Therefore, the whole business of fulfilling the children’s need is to find multimedia that has properties that helped them to achieve this state and remain in it.

The research programme

There are five experimental situations involve in this research study. The overall purpose was to find out what really matters when designing multimedia for children. The story began by finding out what works and what did not and the whys behind it all. In a preliminary scoping study it was revealed that multimedia, as an approach, was rated higher than books but the children found the multimedia applications shown to them much less interesting than the corresponding books. These findings seem to suggest that the children did realise the potential of multimedia but did not like the design of the multimedia applications given to them.

As a result the experimental programme became focused on the features of the multimedia that could create this sense of engagement. The study started to develop a theoretical framework that was later tested and retested and ended in the formulation a multimedia design model that engages children. Each experimental study conducted illustrated how engagement really worked in a multimedia environment.

To sum up the findings from the scoping study it appeared that what children wanted was an application that let them: be in control, work at their own pace, manipulate the system, play a role in the action, create, see the things done on the screen immediately, have feedback that is not too delayed, and have goals either set for them or set by them.

A review of the literature about engagement and related concepts reinforced these conclusions and led to a provisional statement of the five design features that contributed to the experience of engagement.

An application that exemplifies user engagement

One way to find a multimedia application that exemplified user engagement is to look for a multimedia application that has been proven to be very popular with children. The application has to be entertaining and educational. The purpose of this study was to find out whether the five design features identified in the scoping study were present in the application and if so whether the features do contribute to the degree of engagement experienced by children.

To sum up the findings from the scoping study it appeared that what children wanted was an application that let them be in control, work at their own pace, manipulate the system, play a role in the action, create, see the things done on the screen immediately, have feedback that is not too delayed, and have goals either set for them or set by them


What do the children want?

A scoping study in a natural setting was conducted to see the reactions of children when interacting with books and a number of multimedia applications that comprises of information CDs and a game CD. Through a grounded theory of ‘discovery lead by children’ method the researcher had factors those could make one multimedia system more engaging than another. Findings from this scoping study demonstrated some needs that would help them stay engaged.

  • Children wanted a system that allowed them to be in control or in charge. When made to compare, books were preferred because they preferred to read rather than be read to. They could flip through the pages and feel them.
  • Children wanted a system that allowed them to create. Children expression of their wish of wanting to create is all about having a chance to get some form of ownership or personalisation into the system they are interacting with and not having everything already there “created” for them like the information CDs and some educational websites designed for children.
  • Children wanted to see what the impact would be if they did this or that to the system.
    They wanted some form of immediacy to enable them to see immediately what happens if an action is taken like a position of the cursor change when a mouse moves to a certain direction, etc.
  •  Children wanted feedback preferably immediate rather than delayed.
  • Children wanted goals and purpose for doing something either set by them or set for them.

In this scoping study, the children were free to play around with the multimedia given to them. The purpose was to see whether the design features in the multimedia could give some form of motivation to attract them to it. The findings show that goals are important for children, either set by them or set for them, that is, either extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. Therefore, when an external drive is not present, the multimedia must have goals either directed to the children by the system or it must make it possible for the children themselves to set and achieve their own goals (task closure) to arrive a certain level of attainment.


A website from an independent and reputed source that sells all kinds of edutainment and games CDs for children was seek. It was found that the game, The Sims got very high ratings (higher upper end ranging from 8/10 to 10/10) in terms of preferences from lists of 96 customer reviews about it collected by the source from 18 Feb 2000 to 23 October 2001 (Woolworths, 2002) since its release 11 Feb 2000.

The Sims
The Sims was a popular game about life management, where players play a major role in the management of everyday family life like providing a place to stay, managing finance, basic needs, moods and desires. A close observation of the application revealed that this multimedia has all the five elements mentioned above.
Through in-depth observations and analysis the researcher found out that The Sims let’s children do role-play and be creative. It gives immediacy to actions made from input devices on screens. It gives feedback: immediate when they are building and rather more delayed when seeing the consequences for families. Its goals are either, directed or non – directed. Most initial goals are task directed by designers but when the child wants to continue playing, the child can set the goals.

Structure of study

A number of experimental stages were made in this study. The first group of experiments was conducted to find out if this multimedia application, The Sims, that has all five features, is really engaging. The next experiment was if the game is engaging, which of the factors contribute to the sense of engagement. A Preliminary Engagement Model was designed from these factors that contribute to engagement. The other experimental studies that follow were conducted to test this model. Factors in the model were dismantled to test, design, retest and redesign under varying conditions till the Engagement Model gets its final form.

An engagement scale score

An engagement scale score of 0 to 10 with a 5-point scale smiley face was created for this study. The scale score had been tested calibrated and validated before it was used in the experiments to develop the Engagement Model. Every child was asked to record an engagement scale score whenever a bell is rang at every 5-minute interval.
The children were asked to place their feelings about stopping if asked to do so at the moment when the bell rang. They could place as high as 10 if they did not want to stop and wanted to continue playing or as low as 0 or leave the game if they want to stop or bored with the game.

Towards a model of engagement

Even though it did not prove possible to disentangle all of the engagement factors so that they could be separately tested, the following overall conclusions could be drawn from a systematic analysis set out to test the role of these five factors in creating an engaging experience. The findings were:

• When all five features are present children achieve a high engagement score over a 40 minute period
• Enabling children to set higher goals for themselves, as in construct interaction, often led to more sustained engagement
• Children with prior experience of the game became engaged much faster than those without experience
• The Construct Interaction condition tended to sustain permanent skill retention better than the Simulation Interaction suggesting that motor skills are more reusable than mental model skills
• Children continue to develop and therefore their aspirations with any application change over time. They continued to be engaged by the application whilst they could still achieve new goals
with it
A model built from this summarises the results from these studies and having initially demonstrated how the five factors interplay to create an engagement experience, there is now an inclusion of a further factor, the sixth factor of the past experience of the child.


Through tests on this engaging application it was demonstrated that, in most cases, no interaction does mean non-engagement. This finding supports the hypothetical statement that interactivity is premier in any form of engagement. Basically a multimedia has got to be interactive in order for it to be engaging. The children have got to be able to do something and see the impact on it for them to be engaged to it.
However, children were not necessarily engaged just by
having some design feature that allowed them to interact using
some basic operative tools. It was found that children quickly get
bored not only when they had only a few things to do; but also when the design features are in plentiful variety.
Children felt bored because there was nothing to do. This is because of passiveness of the design.  It became evident that, though interactive, these design features lacked the ability to allow the children to do anything with it and this bores them. In other words for a child to appreciate and like a multimedia application there must be some kind of activity occurring between the user and the computer application that helps them stay engaged. Schank (1993) suggested that students learn well when they are engaged in active exploration, interpretation, and construction of ideas and products with multiple resources. The scoping study demonstrated that having the ability to interact and get immediate feedback using basic motor skills was necessary but not sufficient for engagement. The applications did not help children achieve a set of goals that is intrinsically motivating if external motivation is not present. As far as learning through play is concerned, engagement steps in when the line of demarcation between the two kinds of rewards disappear. For the children in this research, at least, engagement is all about the drive from within, an intrinsic motivation of not wanting to stop, a point in time when the drive from without becomes “irrelevant” to the situation under study. There are a number of reasons why this phenomenon happens.
At most times it is all about goals setting. Some design features sustained engagement better than others because of the wider scope of freedom of goals setting the design promoted as in Construct Interaction. Others tended to restrict freedom of goals setting thus hindering the extension of creation and imagination, which in turn resulted in a much shorter engagement span as in Simulation Interaction. Goals, intentions, dreams, and desires are in most circumstances affecting the mental model skills of the individuals, whilst tools used to achieve these goals are affecting the motor skills of the individuals. Therefore ‘being engaged’ is about having these skills interchanging until the goal is reached. A previous experience factor accelerates the process to reach this engagement phenomenon. The more experienced the child is the faster the child reached this stage of ‘being engaged’, when they could set their own goals.  The limit in engagement is reached when the design system exhausts the chance to set and achieve advanced goals. Therefore engagement can be sustained as long as the system can successfully continue to give chances for users to set more goals.

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