Volume 1, Number 2
May 1, 2006

Articles

Designing Usable Sites for Children and Teens
by Grace Bernhardt

Recommendations for reaching your young audience

Student at Computer Don't leave your user with unanswered questions.

Termed the "Net Generation" by psychologist Don Tapscott, children born in the 80s and onward in the United States are "logging on" to the Internet at increasing rates. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education found that 32% of kindergarten age children and 50% of those in 1st thru 5th grade use the internet, and The Pew Internet and American Life Project estimates that "87% of those aged 12 to 17" go online.

So, what does this mean for web designers? Well, just as any audience presents certain challenges and affordances, new considerations must be made when designing effective sites for a young audience. However, it is often difficult for an adult designer to accurately remember what it is like to be 10 years old, and so it is important to turn to research conducted with children and teens to get a sense of their preferences.

The Nielsen Norman Group (headed by usability "king" Jakob Neilsen) conducted two separate usability studies with children (ages 6-12) and teens (ages 13-17). Based on the results of their two studies, The Group compiled 70 design guidelines for developing more usable sites for children and 60 guidelines for developing for teen audiences. While much of what they found is intuitive, other findings offer new and interesting insight.

Young Children, Like Adults, Want Clear Options

The Nielsen Norman Group found that children are hindered by many of the same usability problems that hold up adults. For example, children were confused by unclear and inconsistent navigation, non-standard interaction techniques, unclear indications as to the location of links, and abstract or "fancy" vocabulary-all problems that made the children unsure what their options were. To avoid overwhelming your young audience, be sure to keep your navigational structure the same (or similar) on each page of your site, and make sure it is obvious what areas of a page are clickable links.

Young Children Want Readable Textual Content

The Nielsen Norman Group also discovered that children also have unique usability problems-not surprisingly, children encountered difficulty reading large chunks of text, especially when the text was written above their reading level. Moreover, when Bernard and Mills conducted a study with 9 to 11 year olds, the researchers found that users preferred 14-point font size over 12-point. When designing textual content for children's site, keep your writing succinct and divide it into small chunks whenever possible. NetSmartzKids.com is an example of a site that uses larger font sizes and short bursts of text throughout the site to keep children's attention.

Children Want Stimulation

While adults often find animation and sound effects distracting or alarming, children react positively to the inclusion of such elements. Moreover, children were willing to "mine sweep," which Nielsen describes as "scrubbing the screen with the mouse either to find clickable areas or simply to enjoy the sound effects that different screen elements played." The web site for Sesame Street is a great example of a design aimed at young children that incorporates animation and hidden treasures for children to find-a quick scrub of the screen uncovers a ringing telephone, flowers that grow in the windowsill, and characters that jump out.

So, Like, What Do Teens Want?

If you were to ask the average teen, they would probably say that their parents "just don't understand." So, when it comes to designing things for teens, why do adults assume that they know what teens want?

To address this knowledge gap, the Nielsen Norman Group conducted a usability study in which teens were observed while browsing a number of sites ranging in content and purpose. The researchers found that teenagers defied common beliefs about teenagers as "technowizards" who are attracted by snazzy graphics and found that teens often have just as many problems navigating a site as adults do.

Keep It Simple

In contrast to commonly held beliefs, the researchers found that teens prefer a simple and clean design and feel that functionality often gets lost in the more elaborately designed sites where download speed is also often compromised. An example of this sort of crisp design geared towards teens is the Teens Health site.

Teens Also Want Readable Textual Content

Like young children, teens disliked long portions of text. In addition, teenagers surprised The Nielsen Norman Group researchers and showed distaste for tiny font sizes. The researchers suggested that this preference for larger fonts may be due to the fact that teens prefer to scan pages quickly, looking for just the information they need (and not because of poor vision).

Teens Want Interaction

Researchers found that teens crave interactive features-quizzes, games, discussion forums-most likely because such activity allows teens to express themselves. Nick.com, the website of Nickelodeon, offers a variety of interactive features aimed at both school age children and teens.

Moving from Theory to Implementation

Many of the findings of The Nielsen Norman Group study may seem a bit abstract or difficult to apply. Looking at examples of other sites aimed at your target audience is a great way to get a sense of how other designers have approached the challenge of designing for a younger audience. In addition, whenever possible, conduct focus groups before beginning the design process, test prototypes throughout, and continuously work to make improvements based on feedback from your users.

Moreover, if your site needs to reach a variety of audiences, The Nielsen Norman Group suggests the creation of separate areas for "kids" and "teens." This design approach is seen on the site for NASA, where content for adults is separated from that intended for "kids" (pre-K level) and "students."

Children and teens are making up an increasingly large percentage of the population going online. Overall, children's preferences in terms of textual content are quite similar to adult users', and so the design changes necessary often consist of reconsidering how to effectively incorporate multimedia elements directed at a young audience. As web designers, if we want to capture this audience's attention and increase the chances of successfully accomplishing our different purposes-to educate, to entertain, to inform-then we must pay attention to this user group's needs and wants.

About the Author

Grace Bernhardt

Grace Bernhardt is a graduate student in the Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. Her interests include editing and publishing, web and graphics design and warm weather.

Email: graceb AT msu DOT edu

Web: http://www.msu.edu/~graceb

References

Bernard, Michael, Melissa Mills, Talissa Frank, & Jan McKown. “Which Fonts do Children Prefer to Read Online?” Usability News. 3.1 (2001): 24 January 2006. <view source>
Lenhart, Amanda, Mary Madden, and Paul Hitlin. “Teens and Technology: Youth are Leading the Transition to a Fully Wired and Mobile Nation.” Pew Internet and American Life Project: 27 July 2005. <view source>
National Center for Education Statistics. "Rates of Computer and Internet Use by Children in Nursery School and Students in Kindergarten Through Twelfth Grade: 2003." U.S. Department of Education. Issue Brief: October 2005. <view source>
Nielsen, Jakob. "Usability of Websites for Teenagers." Alertbox: January 31, 2005. <view source>
Nielsen, Jakob. "Kids' Corner: Websites Usability for Kids." Alertbox: April 14, 2002. <view source>
Tapscott, Don. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw Hill: 1998. <view source>

Extended Readings

Bruckman. Amy and Alisa Bandlow. “HCI for Kids.” The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies, and Emerging Applications. Edited by Julie Jacko and Andrew Sears. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, 2002. <view source>