Designing the web experience for children.
Lil’ Fingers Storybooks.
Small children offer a very specific challenge to experience designers because they use websites differently then pre-teens, teenagers and adults. In fact, usability research with children has often been considered either too difficult to carry out with unruly subjects, or not necessary for an audience that is satisfied with gratuitous animations and funny noises.
Children five and under explore the web through guided discovery, looking for large visual cues like clickable maps and bright colorful graphics. They will click around looking for fun and interesting things to happen when they move their mouse. This is different than their older siblings who seek out and identify with cool looking graphics. Kids are keenly aware of their age and know what is designed for them, and what is designed for their younger siblings.
The “sense of scent”  popularized by Jared Spool , where users will follow visual cues to get to their goal like little breadcrumbs, manifests itself differently in young children. Where adults skim text for key words or ideas that match the expectation of what they are looking for, young children without developed reading and writing skills will gravitate towards pictures, icons, colors and graphics to build mental models of the world around them.
Color and graphics becomes a much more important to designing the experience. This can be seen when children from an early age identify with familiar icons and associate them with complex words or ideas. What child cannot identify the golden arches of McDonalds (red and yellow letter M), the script Coca-Cola logo (red letter C) or the graphic on Superman’s chest (red and yellow letter S)? All of these pose strong iconography and primary colors.
Studies with kids done by Microsoft indicate designing icons meaningful to kids, and even styling the cursor to be more kid friendly to indicate the tasks to be performed and provides specific visual cues which to adults, would be gratuitous. Examples of such cursors would be graphically stylized magnifier glasses indicating zoom functions and paintbrush icons.
Children, especially young children, love and identify with characters. They can identify and derive comfort from them, and from an educational standpoint characters aid young children in the learning process. As much as adults detest “Clippy” from the Microsoft suite of products, young kids love these types of characters. The enjoy interacting with them, and they in turn help them perform tasks.
Along with color and iconography, interaction points need to be findable by small hands. Fitts’ law indicates that the larger and closer the target area, the easer it is for a user to navigate to it. This is especially true for curious children who may not have the dexterity and fine motor control of their older sibilings. For this reason larger more obvious target areas make for better clicking.
Buttons that look like buttons produce better results in all age groups, but take on a different meaning for youngsters who rely more heavily on icons and do not have a full understanding of general internet conventions that are learned by repetition and experience when using web sites habitually.
Studies by Jakob Nielsen found that “children are incapable of overcoming many usability problems, this combined with kids' lack of patience in the face of complexity, results in many [children] simply leaving websites”.
Underlined blue links that take you from page to page, left navigation to traverse a site’s taxonomy, clicking logos to go back “home”, and advertising banners that take you “away” to a new site are not easily understood by young children, and as a result cannot be used as effective navigational tools.
In fact, banner ads pose a particular problem because children do not see these as separate from the experience, but as part of the experience. As a result, they are more apt to click on banner ads.
Another item to consider with young children is a shortened attention span. This means that not only should activities be fast loading and easily accessible but should be short in duration, and if possible be savable or recoverable to the point where the youngster last lost interest. This is mostly for the adult’s sanity to avoid replaying the first few activity sections over and over again.
Because of this limited attention span, instructions need to be short and memorable. Adult users don’t read long on-screen text item, children in contrast, may not understand or remember them, so short and sweet increases task completion.
Sound and music is also something that distinguishes this group from older users. Small children are generally delighted when their movements cause beeps, bangs and snaps. Their parents however, not so much.
Because of these limitations many websites are designed with co-discovery in mind where the heavy lifting, such as navigation and activity selection, is done by someone old enough to easily circumnavigate these pitfalls, leaving the activity horseplay to the kids.
David Lumerman has a graduate degree in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) from Rensselaer Polytechnic, and for the past 10 years has developed Lil’ Fingers Storybooks (www.lil-fingers.com), a online computer storybook and activity site designed for young children.
(1) Hanna, L., Risden, K., Czerwinski, M., Alexander, K. The Role of Usability Research in Designing Children’s Computer Products. 1998. Microsoft Corporation. Online: http://research.microsoft.com/~marycz/druin98.htm
(2) Nielsen, J., Kids' Corner: Website Usability for Children. 4/2002. Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox. Online: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/children.html
(3) Spool, J., Designing for the Scent of Information. 11/2004. User Interface Engineering. Online: http://www.uie.com/reports/scent_of_information/
(4) Blowers, H., Bryan, R. Weaving a Library Web: Guide to Developing Children’s Websites. American Library Associations. 5/2004; pp 71-73
(5) Fitts’ Law. Wikipedia. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitts_law