Designing interfaces for teens – the challenge of changing behaviour in young adults

People don’t like being told what to do.

Designing products that help users to make the best choices without coming across as prescriptive, patronising, or compromising their sense of freedom is a challenge.

We wouldn’t be happy if Netflix switched itself off after a few hours and told us to go and have a conversation with someone to combat the negative effects of binge-watching.

Or if Domino’s didn’t let us order an extra cheesy (XL of course) unless we could prove we’d done sufficient exercise to offset it.

Teenage kicks

This is true for adults but even more so for kids and teens.

We’re not sure if you remember being a teen. For some of us it was so long ago (and so full of highs and lows) that it’s hard to revisit.

Most of us will probably agree, though, that it’s a tough time to live through. Those racing hormones, social pressures and general feelings of venturing into a new world that you’re not emotionally equipped for can all lead to a confusing experience.

Facing up to problems

So, we had an interesting challenge ahead of us when we started working on a product that aimed to help control problem behaviour between young people online.

The AI-powered engine could analyse conversations and identify actions like bullying or spot harmful language being used.

The tech was there but our job was to design an interface that would give the user the intervention they needed at the right time before actual damage could be done.

Affecting positive behaviour change

As with any UX design project that deals with spotting negative behaviour (and trying to affect behavioural change), it’s incredibly important to first understand why this behaviour is manifesting itself.

In this instance, the reasons were many. Young people are on a voyage of discovery trying to figure out their path through life. They are becoming people who control their own actions and thoughts.

That’s a lot to work out.

Often, problem behaviour is caused by not understanding the effect that their behaviour might have – especially when it’s just words on a screen and not ‘real life’.

Helping these young people understand what negative impact their actions might have is a key driver to educating them and understanding that actions do have consequences, some of which can be very harmful to others.

It was important to remember that these kids aren’t (usually) trying to be bad. They’re just working things out and need a little guidance.

Once we understood this we could start coming up with sensible solutions. Here are some principles we put in place.

Speak the right language

As with all tools of this type, tone was of huge importance in messaging.

Above all we knew that it needed to not be condescending. That’s what parents and teachers are for, after all. 😉

While we knew the tool was unlikely to be the child’s “mate”, it still needed to be casual in how it interacted with them so as to feel like a peer and not a voice of authority.

It also needed to be helpful, whilst coming from a position of knowledge that the kids didn’t have. Without this, it wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Appeal to all

As an added complexity it needed to appeal to a wide range of ages. At that time of life kids change month on month, let alone year on year.

What a 10 year old is into is very different to what a 16 year old likes, and there’s unlikely to be any crossover between them at all

We knew from that start that trying to be “cool” would be a no-go. We could design something slick and appealing but we’d almost always miss the mark if we tried to go with a particular trend or tap into a popular brand of any sort.

Explain, don’t punish

Punishing people makes them feel bad/angry/confused/ashamed. Helping them understand what negative affect their behaviour has is a better way to help them realise why what they’re doing isn’t right.

“You’re being rude” doesn’t explain the problem. “People might feel hurt if you speak to them like that” is a start to helping them understand the outcome.

We decided that the interface couldn’t take control and stop the child from doing what they were doing. An early idea was to freeze the entire app based on the seriousness of the behaviour, or after a certain number of warnings.

Ultimately the kids need to make their own decisions, led by them understanding their own behaviour and not having this imposed on them.


As with all UX design projects, a deep understanding of who you’re designing for is really important. Without this in place you’re likely to miss the nuance behind certain behaviours

When working with younger people, it was really important for us to forget about how we, as (mostly) rational adults, behave in these scenarios.

Concentrating on the unique and wide ranging pressures and emotions that the end use is being confronted with was our route to understanding.

Only then could we empathise.

Cowabunga, dude.