What My 2.5 Year-Old's First Encounter With An iPad Can Teach the Tech Industry

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 6:23 PM EDT

On Monday night, I handed my 2.5 year-old daughter a new toy: My brand-new iPad. What happened next turned out to be a fascinating lesson in product and user-interface design, and what it takes to create the kind of technology that anyone can use and embrace.

As you can see, my kid took right to it. She uses my iPhone a lot, so she was already familiar with the basic elements of the interface. But she also mastered the new aspects of the iPad instantly -- including figuring out how to 2x enlarge some of her favorite iPhone-legacy apps to display full-size on the iPad screen. If you're good at understanding kid-speak, you'll also notice that she immediately saw its potential as a video-display device. And echoing an often-heard gripe about the iPad, it took her exactly 20 seconds to lament the lack of a camera. She also wondered about its potential for playing games.
But the experience wasn't perfect: My daughter had the same frustration as many adults, where touching the screen-edge with your thumb while holding the iPad blocks input to all home screen icons. Notice also that she was confused by the splash page for FirstWords Animals, her favorite spelling game: Because the start button looked like a graphic, rather than a conventional button, she couldn't figure out how to start the game.
Well, 24 hours after uploading my video, it has already been viewed more than 180,000 times. My daughter has become a viral Internet sensation. But what does all this tell us about how to make and market great products?

  • Simplicity Sells: The elegance of the iPad lies in the fact that a 2.5 year-old can use it seamlessly, even without knowing how to read. The touch-interface is as natural to her as a simple hand gesture, and the navigation model is pared back to eliminate complexity. Some argue this isn't such a great thing. As the folks over at BoingBoing put it, this video is "The perfect Rorschach test for liking or hating the iPad -- a [user-interface] so perfect and natural even a kid can use it / a UI so dumbed-down that even a kid can use it." In theory, Apple could also give users access to the more-complex, higher-level functionality that some power-users crave. But if nothing else, Apple's rise over the last few years -- first with the iPod, and then with the iPhone -- shows that selling simplicity is a powerful way to woo mass-market consumers.
  • Consistency Matters: Although some critics lament Apple's heavy-handed approach to design, the consistency of the iPhone/iPad's interface from one app to the next is a huge advantage for consumers. Simple things like uniform standards for buttons and sliders matter a lot. In essence, each iPhone/iPad app trains the user to use the next app. My kid's confusion when confronted with the FirstWords splash screen shows what happens when designers decide to stray from convention: The technology suddenly becomes non-intuitive, and thus -- Full Stop! -- harder to use. If you have to make a choice between Clever and Clear, more often than not Clear is the best bet.
  • Watch the Kids to Predict the Future: My daughter has been using touchscreen devices since she was born -- literally. For her, a mouse is a nuisance, and a floppy disk is the kind of thing she'll encounter only in history books. My friend Brad Stone at the New York Times summed up the implications of this in an article he wrote last year: "Younger generations are going to have some very peculiar and unique expectations about the world. My friend's 3-year-old, for example, has become so accustomed to her father's multitouch iPhone screen that she approaches laptops by swiping her fingers across the screen, expecting a reaction." And who is that laptop-swiping kid? Yes, that was my daughter and, actually, she was just a couple months past her 2nd birthday.
  • Your Best Customers Are Excellent Marketers: I'm a loyal Apple customer, but I'm no fanboy. As a media professional, I bought the iPad because I want to see how (and if) it fits into my own life -- so I can better understand the emerging new-media landscape. I posted the video of my kid's first contact with an iPad because I thought it was fascinating. But as I've read through the thousands of comments about it posted on YouTube and Twitter, one thing has become clear: Thanks to the power of social media, this video has become a powerful and authentic demonstration of what the iPad can do, and what it's all about, and the comments tell me that it convinced several people -- including many parents -- to go buy one. Now, if I can just convince Steve Jobs to throw a little something into my daughter's college education fund...
UPDATE 11 April, 2010: Learning Touch, the company that makes the spelling games my daughter loves so much, just contacted me via Twitter to say a user-interface fix is in the works to address the start-button design glitch we uncovered during our "user-testing." As Learning Touch Tweeted earlier in the week, "Nothing like having your UI critiqued by a 2.5 yo in front of 140,000 people." (Good point, although that number is now 550,000+ people! Sorry, fellas.) Kudos to Learning Touch for rapidly executing a textbook-perfect example of social media customer service.