I've been observing trends in children's application design for a couple years now. From the time that my boys were born, I started snooping around neat for ways to have fun with them by interacting with technology. What I learned is that most children's software is really bad.
I have broken down what seems to be common issues across most apps for kids. The more I think about it and read, the more I believe that these problems are quite common with software in general.
Kids' apps tend to have poor interfaces. — Rather than cutting to the chase and going straight for the meat, many applications force the child user to navigate through a series of questions. Do you want to start a new game? Of course. What do you want to do? I don't know, have fun. If there's one good take-away from traditional children's toys, it's that they don't come with any preamble. A book should be a book. An instrument should be an instrument. Designers need to get out of the way and allow people to do the thing that they opened the app or website for.
Kids' apps tend to have too much interface. — Some of the best applications that I have found still break down by having very complicated menus that can't be easily accessed by a child. Nothing is worst than reading a beautiful interactive book and then a large, unwieldy menu appears and blocks the child from being able to get back to the book until they either find the button to close it. Children shouldn't have to learn or adapt to custom interfaces that are hard enough for adults to grasp. I have observed users in multiple age categories close an app and relaunch it to get away from menu systems they don't understand in order to get back to the part that they want to be using.
Kids' apps have too little meaningful interaction. — Most of the apps that I keep seeing equate to quasi-legit sound boards created with very poor attention to important details like visuals and interaction. It adds nothing but frustration. I saw an app that was a picture of a Fisher-Price toy phone. You could click pieces of the phone and they would make noise. The child will of course want to play with the toy that they see on the screen, but they can't. This is called skeuomorphic design and this is a great example of it being used improperly. Skeuomorphic design is when you design an interface to mimic an object from the real world to help comfort and aid in their understanding of an interface or thing. You can read more about it here. Too many apps are borrowing from the real world without realizing that if the thing they are mimicking isn't helping the user or adding any value, often just the opposite.
Kids apps have too many wrong answers. — There shouldn't be wrong answers when people are interacting with software. Software should be designed well enough that anyone can find what they need and get work done with the absolute minimum of barriers. What I mean by that is, when unnecessary buttons in an application that lead to pages that contain information/settings/content that isn't meant for the child, it can be misleading and disorienting. It can also completely end the experience instantly. Once disoriented, they don't necessarily know what to do to return to what they were doing. I believe that children's apps (even better, all apps) should be distilled down to pure interactions. Simple functions that stimulate, engage and excite their growing brains. I don't understand the need for menu systems to "start" playing or adjust the interaction. Children don't care about that when they are working and playing and neither do I.
What I think can be done is that more people creating apps actually put them in front of their children. Pay attention to what your children do when they play with it. At what point does your kid lose interest and start to fiddle with the iPhone home button? I have found that to be a pretty telling sign. Did something happen to disengage them? Or did the app just have to much going on?
One of my favorite applications on the iPad is PlainText. It is exactly what it says. It is a plain text editor that is incredibly focused and has virtually no interface. It is simple, elegant, beautiful and does nothing but allow you to write in peace. You can't format text, add images or anything else. You can write.
I propose that more app producers focus on pure interaction. I think that having interface-less apps is a really great way to deepen an experience for anyone. Features don't create a rich and deep experience. I personally have found them to do just the opposite.
All software could benefit from taking a hard look to how much interface and wasted interaction is happening. I think that the more focused an app is, the better. Truly sophisticated interface gets out of the way and allows users to do exactly what they want to do.