When I am not writing for About.com I design software for use in special education. I decided to focus my programing in this way after spending a few years working in a local special needs classroom and seeing not only a need for great software but what a huge difference the right program could make when it could connect with a child. In this article I will talk about some general principals I try to stick to when designing for this market.
1.) No fancy transitions. There are a lot of fun ways to move from one part of your program to another. Turning pages, spinning effects, dissolve effects, etc. Believe me, I think these things can look great. The problem is that the students also recognize how cool these transitions can be. If a student gets fixated on your cool transition effect they will simply go back and forth to make it repeat over and over and over again. Obviously at this point your software isn't doing it's job and has become a distraction. Transitions can be cool... but leave them out of your special education software.
2.) Keep sounds to a minimum. There are defiantly uses for sounds in your education programs. If your program is designed to teach a child the sound "A" makes then you probably need to make the sound, and say words like Apple and Airplane. But in this market you have to be careful not to put in sound unless it's needed. Let me give you a couple of examples. If you have a quiz and getting the answer wrong is accompanied by an "Awww" sound and a try again screen you might be causing a problem. To some students the negative sound is just as exciting as the "correct" sound and they will attempt to trigger it again. Another example is buttons that make basic clicking noises. If a student spends 15 mins spamming the same button just to hear and fully examine the sound then your program isn't doing its job. I find the best solution is to limit sound unless absolutely necessary.
3.) Customization is great. The more the teacher or parent can customize the app the better. If a student is familiar with a set of icons, let the teacher import them. If the program would benefit from custom photos, make sure they can be loaded. Consider including different levels, or timers for different students. The more you can edit the better... but here is the catch: don't let people accidentally edit. Make sure these features are password protected, or that you find them in a way that a student clicking around the program won't accidentally stumble onto. It is very frustrating for teachers to spend time setting up a program only to have some stray clicks from the student undo their hard work.
4.) Familiarity is key. A lot of the programs used in classrooms are just adaptations of exercises and worksheets already being used in paper form in classrooms. The format of these is already familiar to the students and teachers. Often times students thrive on routine and predictability. By all means make improvements and upgrades, but don't stray too far from what makes these exercises easy to use. Too many bells and whistles can end up being detrimental to the program's use. Keep it simple, keep it familiar, stick to what works.