A Midsummer’s Night with Deb Gelman

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Childrens Museum ceiling (via Alex Proaps)
Virginia Children’s Museum

A Midsummer’s Night with Deb Gelman

By Chris Horton

It was the quintessential night of a Virginia summer: hot, humid and ominously suggesting of rain. The ride to Portsmouth atop the Elizabeth River Ferry was all of these things. I journeyed across the river to attend Debra Gelman’s Interactive Design for Kids and Adults. The event was thoughtfully hosted by the Virginia Children’s Museum in historic Olde Towne Portsmouth.

I arrived to a room full of bright-eyed professionals, delicious snacks and tasty adult beverages. After a day in the grind of the “adult” world, I was a delighted to join such a youthful scene.

Full disclosure, I did not know a lot about Deb. After the meetup, I can safely say she is my new UX hero.

Connecting with our Inner Child

The event kicked off with an instantly engaged group. Gelman, a leading voice in the field of interactive media and author of Design for Kids, had us dancing like fools in no less than five minutes. Literally. She played theme songs from a children’s shows, like Pop See Koo from Koo Koo Kangaroo, providing instructions on how to dance to said songs. After the coaching, we demonstrated these moves to reinforce what we just learned. We were participating in a real life application of the UX design patterns Deb recommends for children.

“Here’s how we do it!”

“Now you try!”

“That’s great, now lets add this new move to what we just learned.”

“Great, you are a natural at this!”

Breaking it down:

  1. Show user how to perform an action

  2. Engage user to demonstrate the action is learned

  3. Praise when correct, Repeat instruction when wrong

  4. Repeat steps (1-3), building additional variations

For you gamers out there, this format may seem familiar. Popular titles like Skyrim, Bioshock and South Park: Stick of Truth all utilize these teaching concepts. The next time your significant other gives you grief for hogging the television, kindly inform that you are hard at work studying UX. Deb says it works everytime!

Dancing to Pop See Koo
Dancing to Pop See Koo (via Alex Proaps)

Five Principles of Designing for Kids

A few snippets from Deb’s presentation as translated from my chicken scratch.


Kids love conflict and micro problems. They love to solve puzzles. Overcoming small obstacles is fun. Incorporate a little friction to make the action more rewarding. For adults, avoid friction in banking or financial services.


Cause and effect. Give children immediate feedback after an interaction. Provide real-time response. For adults, Response is helpful for completing short forms.


Purpose, Reward or Gift. Kids expect a reward for investing time in your app or website. For adults, freemium games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans exploit the pattern of Investment to get users addicted.


Kids are drawn into experience by moving things. Provide contextual help for browsing and discovery. For adults, be sure to avoid Action for routine tasks to avoiding slowing them down.


Give kids freedom with boundaries. Allow progress within the experience. For adults, weight tracking apps use flow very effectively with goal setting.

The cool thing about Deb Gelman’s design patterns for children is they are also effective for adults. There are obviously some differences, but we can learn a lot from the basic structure. We are truly kids at heart.

For more, be sure to order her book and follow her on Twitter!

Sketch Notes about Design for Kids
Sketch Notes by Bianca Chesimard

We are Lucky

A big thank you to Deb for making the trip down from New York to see us. We at UXPA Norfolk are very lucky she was able to come see us. Hope to see you again!


Special thanks to Erin Walsh for organizing and sponsoring the event and to the Children’s Museum for hosting us.


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