I’m talking about navigation, ease of use, usability with a capital U. Today, parents and preschools introduce toddlers and preschoolers to computers when, in the past, most of us were just learning to walk. But think about the process of walking—it works pretty much the same for all of us. At some point, we all learned to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.
Now, think back to the first time you used a computer mouse—how you watched the pointer dance across the screen, how you could pick objects up in one place and drop them in another, how the click of a button could turn a page or take you to a whole new world. It didn’t take you long to figure out the difference between left-clicking and right-clicking, that some things don’t open unless you double-click, that dragging and dropping makes life so much easier. Given how quickly a child’s brain grows and how rapidly children can absorb information, why should we design user interfaces that dumb down their process of learning to use a mouse?
Results from Recent Studies
The Mediabarn User Experience Lab conducted four separate usability studies between September 2009 and February 2010, completing individual test sessions with about 85 children aged 3 to 9 years old. For part of the test, we created a child-friendly environment within our lab. We included a tall chair for the kids that didn’t swivel—so we could capture their expressions using a video camera—and a small table with crayons and coloring books for test participants to use while we talked with their parents, as well as to keep siblings entertained. In addition to a cash incentive for parents, we gave each child an educational DVD and a balloon. For the rest of the test, we visited the children at school and set up a mobile lab facility. These participants attended the study on their own, without family members, and each received a small book as a thank-you. Throughout all of these tests, we found that being in a lab environment helped the participants focus on the tasks at hand and provided fewer distractions than might exist in another environment.
The primary test objective was to understand how children would interact with a user interface that let them watch video clips and play interactive games online. At first blush, from an engagement standpoint, these tests seemed to be highly successful. The children loved spending time using a computer to interact with games and videos that were full of familiar characters and had themes that were immensely engaging.
A key finding, however, was that the children were puzzled by some of the apparently random ways in which we had expected them to interact with the games and the video player. Specifically, children prefer to use a mouse, trackball, or trackpad rather than the keyboard. Since they generally have no need to type, they are more comfortable pointing and clicking than using arrow keys.
We also found that it was difficult for children to use the Web site when tools such as scroll bars, scrubber bars, up and down arrows, and left and right arrows fell below the fold. Placing these controls at the bottom of a page made it difficult for children who never scrolled to the bottom of the page to see them.
Drag-and-drop functionality was another stumbling block for some of our youngest test participants, who had difficulty with this. However, most of the kids who were 5 years old and older were able to select an object by pressing the mouse button, holding it down to drag an object across the screen, then releasing the mouse button to place the object in a new location.
Some difficulty stemmed from our click-and-stick functionality, which let kids grab an object by clicking it once, then click again to release it. Older children became confused when they had to learn a new behavior to get the game to respond properly. While this deviation from a standard user interface made selection slightly simpler for newer mouse users, it actually made it more difficult for family members to help them when they had difficulty.
Many children recognized the standard play/pause, rewind, and fast-forward buttons in the video and music players, and several were familiar with the scrubber bar, which indicated the amount of time remaining in a clip. However, we found just as many were unfamiliar with these tools.