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Designing Social Tools for Tweens

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Designing any type of online social experience for kids is a tricky business. You need to strike the right balance between fun and private, personal and respectful. This becomes especially important for kids in the tween years, ages 8–12, as they are just starting to recognize the vastness of the online space. In my years of designing and researching with kids of this age group, I’ve found that the best way to design for these types of interactions is the FRESH method:

  • Fast
  • Rewarding
  • Easy
  • Safe
  • Human

Let’s take a look at what that means in practice:


Kids and tweens are busy. Between karate class and soccer practice and music lessons and sleepovers, they’re always on the go. So when designing social interfaces for these folks, you’ll want to make sure that all interactions can happen quickly. This is an important differentiation from other types of games and apps for kids in this age group, where speed plays less of a factor. In my experience, I’ve found that kids generally like to take it slow with their screen time, focusing on every tap and click, enjoying the journey as they go. Not so for social interactions. These kids aren’t laboring through Facebook reading status updates and playing games, they’re taking photos and videos on Instagram, sharing them, liking them, and editing them.

Why is speed an important consideration for social interactions? Because, like adults, kids think of socializing as an “in the moment” type of construct, where they capture ideas, thoughts, images, and interests in real time and share them, much as they would in person. In fact, apps like Vine and Instagram have started serving as a secondary “lunch-tables” where kids communicate with each other and comment on each other’s experiences.

When designing these types of social tools, focus on the quickest path to sharing. Can you do it in one click? A single tap? Can you tighten the sign-in flow so it feels secure (safety is also important for kids) yet resolves quickly? These are important considerations for kids as well as adults.


This “R” could just as easily stand for “rush,” as in adrenaline. Kids as young as six are drawn in by the allure of online interactions, and love the excitement that comes from sharing something online that could be seen by thousands of people, if not more. The irresistible forces of seeing and being seen prove even more compelling as kids get older and more aware of their place within the world around them.

You can ensure the systems you design for kids are rewarding by throwing in some extras, not to slow down the process, but to heighten the excitement. For adults, the excitement comes in seeing the results of what they share, but for kids, the excitement comes from the sharing itself. Make that “share” button big and bright and enticing. Throw in some crisp, catchy text while the image or comment is loading, like, “Your genius is being shared!” And, when the upload is complete, choose cool, branded imagery as well as text to communicate the greatness of the child’s accomplishment.


Sounds like a no brainer, right? Social systems have to be easy to use. This is especially true when designing for tweens, however, because they have no patience for tools that are hard to learn. When designing for adults, we can sometimes get away with more complex online social interactions, because the value proposition of communicating online is much higher, especially when it’s for business, finance, or medical reasons. Since there are few “make-it-or-break-it” situations like this for kids, where they absolutely, positively have to get it right, they’re quicker to abandon tools that seem hard.

An exception to this is when kids are joining an existing online community that their friends are already using. In that case, they’ll be more likely to put the work in to figure out how to use it.


Unlike teenagers (and some adults), kids ages 8–12, for the most part, are focused on online safety. They don’t want to remain anonymous, necessarily, but they don’t want strangers to be able to find them or comment on what they share. This concern for safety likely comes from the admonitions of parents and teachers—usually starting around second grade when kids have more independence online—to “be careful,” “stay safe,” “pay attention,” and, the scariest, “go find a grownup if someone makes you feel unsafe.” When kids get a little older and figure out how to navigate the online world, they tend to be more carefree, and when they become teens, they start taking deliberate risks.

When designing social experiences for these tweens, set up all defaults to “private,” and then allow kids and parents to make changes on a case-by-case basis. Want to share a photo with grandparents? Select their email address from a list (or enter it and save it for future use). Want to share with friends? Enter their usernames (most kids under 12 won’t have an email address, and if they do, they won’t know it offhand). Want to share something with a wider audience? Remove everything but your first name and location. Don’t want negative feedback? Remove commenting ability. This will make kids as well as parents feel more comfortable with your tool.

It’s also a good idea to not allow tweens to be “findable” within a system, meaning that they have to share their actual usernames with their friends to get connected. These guidelines work if you’re designing a system to be used by both kids and adults as well.


When you’re designing an experience that allows for any type of sharing, make sure you focus on positivity and eliminate any perception of judgement or negativity. Even a basic system that allows for simple “likes” or “thumbs-up” can be problematic, as kids take it very personally when, in their mind, they don’t get enough likes. Take a humanistic, communal approach when designing for these folks. You can show users the number of people who have viewed their image, post, or comment, but don’t allow others to judge the quality of the item. It’s best to remove anonymous feedback mechanisms for kids, as people tend to be more positive in their feedback when their comments can be traced back to them.

For some good examples of tween-friendly social design, check out apps like Storybird, DIY, and Poptropica. Designing social components for kids, especially ages 8–12, is a slippery slope. It’s always best to get user feedback early and often while designing any type of interface, but using this FRESH method as you design will help you focus on the most important aspects of social interaction that have meaning to kids at this age.

About the Author

Debra Levin Gelman

Debra Gelman is a researcher, designer, and strategist in the field of interactive children's media. She creates sites, apps, and virtual worlds for clients including PBS Kids Sprout, Scholastic, Crayola, Pepperidge Farm, Campbell's Soup, and Georgia Public Television. Deb led the research and design of Planet Orange—a site designed to teach first through sixth graders financial literacy—which won a USA Today Education "Best Bet" award. Deb holds undergraduate degrees in visual media and psychology from American University, and a master's in information design and technology from Georgia Tech. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her very patient husband and her precocious daughter, who wants to be a princess paleontologist when she grows up. Deb's book, Design for Kids, is currently available from Rosenfeld Media. Twitter: @dgelman

6 Reader Comments

  1. Good points! I assume that when you share a location, it’s something like “Minnesota” or “New York”, not GPS coordinates. Any advice on doing that? It’s shocking how easily locations can be used to de-anonymize data—especially in rural areas, or when other demographic information slips out. (How many 8-to-12-year-old female Cuban Americans live just outside Fargo, ND?)

  2. Yes! In fact, the new COPPA guidelines ( specify that geolocation data is considered PII, or Personally Identifiable Information, and cannot be shared or used in marketing, sales or promotion. If you want kids to be able to share their locations, I’d err on the side of caution and go with state/region and country only.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Thanks for the link on the new COPPA guidelines. COPPA is really very hard to wrap my head around as a educational developer who has dealt with FERPA and HIPAA before.

  4. Well this post is very interesting. Designing anything for tween is relay a challenging task, you have highlighted some important points which designers should keep in mind. Thanks for sharing with us.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I do hope future designers are brought up with the help of the methodology you are talking about. Actually, I once contracted with one of the area’s top design/build firms for a major renovation. I paid close to $30k for the design, and it included computer models of the result (you could “walk through” the proposed spaces on a computer screen). This company had a fantastic portfolio, but what they’d designed for my own house was underwhelming. A few very minor functional tweaks, but mostly a cosmetic upgrade. For the money we’d be shelling out for construction, I wanted more. So, we parted ways.

    The next architect we brought in (traditional, not design/build) did a quick back-of-the-envelope concept design that required a major shift in how the entire LR/DR/kitchen/den were laid out, which the previous architect hadn’t thought of. The new design was orders of magnitude more functional, and also very simple. We didn’t get any fancy computerized 3-D renderings, just the old-fashioned AutoCAD 2-D drawings, but we went ahead with the project, and the results were amazing.

    We’re very glad we pulled the plug on the design/build firm. Still hurts that we lost all that money (they do come hard for a writer at paper writing website), but he never would’ve provided the quality result we have now. It would’ve been throwing good money after bad if we’d stuck with him. His fancy software was GIGO.

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