Designing User Experiences for Children

May 17, 2010

Creating a great experience for Web site users should always take the users’ perspectives into consideration. While a user’s age can be a contributing factor in a design’s success for a particular user, demographic information should not trump design conventions. Then, why do UX designers struggle when creating Web sites for children?

The best rule of thumb: We must consider that children, as an audience, do not differ dramatically from adults when it comes to navigation and usability issues. When creating Web sites for children, we should follow the same techniques and conventions we would use when designing for adults.

This is not to say that content, themes, characters, and other forms of engagement should not cater to the intended target audience. On the contrary, when we design a site for preschoolers, the site should look like we’ve designed it for preschoolers—when it comes to colors, sounds, and, sometimes, even interactions. A young user’s ability to read is another important consideration, and creates the need for verbal instructions and limited text. But there are standard best practices we should always follow in any design, regardless of the age of the audience.

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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.

Design Conventions

Based on our findings from these studies, we have developed a set of suggested standards and design conventions to follow when considering usability for children, shown in Table 1.

Table 1—User interface design conventions for children
Ages 3–5

Nonreaders and emerging readers; emerging mouse control and dexterity
Ages 5–7

Early readers
Ages 7+

Already know standard mouse interactions

Avoid using pop-up windows. It’s much easier for small children to click a Back button.

Create user interfaces comprising multiple windows, if necessary. Older children can more easily switch back and forth between windows.

Reduce the amount of or eliminate text, replacing it with simple, concise voice-overs. Repetitive instructions that explain how to manipulate a Web site’s controls and the goals of a game are always helpful.

Give users the ability to skip voice-overs and instructions.

Reduce the number of buttons, controls, and other clickable elements and increase their size to ensure young mousers can easily hit their intended targets.

Avoid the need to move objects across the screen.

Use standard drag-and-drop interactions.

For all children aged 3 and older:

Always place navigational controls above the fold.

Use a red X button to close a window. Even kids understand this convention.

Do not design navigation that requires children to use the arrow keys on the keyboard.

Consider including a brief tutorial on how player controls work—play/pause, rewind, and fast-forward buttons.

Keep in mind that children usually do not play on a computer in a vacuum. For the tests we conducted with the youngest children—aged 3 to 5 years old—we involved their parents. In many cases, older siblings were also in the room. Whenever a user got stuck or had trouble with navigation, either the mother or an older sibling would jump in and help. When UX designers create customized user interfaces for children, it becomes more difficult for others to help them. Parents and older children are already accustomed to conventional navigation. When they have to decipher an entirely new user interface, it slows down the whole family—so stick with standard design conventions.

Designing with Respect

User groups that include children certainly present challenges to UX designers. We must be cognizant of our audience, but designers can create great user experiences, regardless of our users’ age range. Poor usability confuses the intended target market—the children—and impacts other family members who try to help them. Most important, we should not develop new user interface design conventions just because our audience includes children. Instead, we should limit interactions to standard design conventions, employing those that are easiest for children to use. When it comes to usability, we should treat children with the same respect as adults. 

Director of Usability Research at Mediabarn Inc.

Reston, Virginia, USA

Heather NamSince the early 1990s, Heather has been testing Web sites and software for children throughout her career. She has a special ability to look at a situation through the eyes of her target audience, and her in-depth interviews and ability to skillfully ask the right questions help to uncover insights that otherwise might go unnoticed. Heather is passionate about understanding why users make decisions and has traveled nationally and internationally to moderate over 3,000 research interviews, focus groups, and ideation sessions, with groups that have included parents, teachers, teens, tweens, and young children.  Read More

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