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UI Symbolism: Interfaces for Preschoolers

Adults mentally link symbols to the things they represent all the time. When an adult looks at a globe, he or she has no trouble thinking about it as an physical object in its own right while simultaneously thinking about it as a representation of something else (planet Earth). Adults do this so often and so naturally, that it is hard to think of this as a skill that children have to learn. But before the age of about 3, most children are unable to understand that one object can be a representation of another. 

I worked with a team of UW researchers to understand what this limitation means for children's media. We found that nearly half of all the apps for preschoolers we reviewed require children to map symbols to objects. When we tried out symbolic and non-symbolic versions of the same interfaces with toddlers and preschoolers, we saw that, as expected, kids under three struggled to use symbols. To read our design recommendations for practitioners, see our manuscript in the International Journal for Human Computer Studies.

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