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Comparing Usability for Kids and Adults (part 2)

By January 23, 2014June 19th, 2020Child centered design, kids, teeners, UX

After looking at the core aspects of good usability for both kids and adults, it’s time to take a closer look at some differences. Yes, there are differences, too. After all, kids differ from adults in many different ways, such as their physical, social, and cognitive development.

When designing websites and apps for children, it is important to aim for the best possible usability. Whether a website is usable or not – so whether kids know what to do and where to click by intuition – determines to what extend content can be found by your target age group.

Especially kids often don’t have a lot of experience using websites. Chances are they won’t bother to dig into your site if they don’t immediately know what to expect and where to find it. So make sure your website or app adheres to all aspects of good usability – also those that are specific for kids – to get children involved with your content.

Quick recap of general aspects of good usability

  1. Initial Reaction. The first impression does not only affect your users’ initial reaction, but also their entire user experience.
  2. Good Design. When designing a website – no matter for what target group – it is important to adhere to the basic principles of good design
  3. Standardization. Users don’t want to spend any unnecessary time to figure out how to use a website, or making sense of the navigation structure
  4. Control. Make sure you put your users in control. This includes any form of navigation as well as anything that might happen on your site.
  5. Technical Interferences. The fact that new technologies are available doesn’t mean your users have access to them.
  6. Feedback. Specific and instructive feedback helps users know what to do on an interface, and recover from mistakes.

How Usability for kids is different

In a series of user testing sessions, Jakob Nielsen discovered that a lot of usability aspects apply for both kids and adults. At the same time, he discovered that some aspects are also quite different. Those are the user goals, physical limitations, exploratory behaviour, scrolling and reading behaviour as well as a limited awareness for commercial content.

Let’s take a look at those aspects one by one:

1. Different user goals

It’s the 21st century and both kids and adults get their share when it comes to spending time online. However, their reasons for using the Internet are quite different.

Adults mainly go online to find all different kind of information, to buy stuff, or to stay connected with friends, family, and professional acquaintances. You could almost call this a mature motivation – or at least an intrinsic motivation that serves some higher purpose. Adults are usually very focussed and goal-oriented when surfing the Internet.

Kids on the other hand usually go online for somewhat less serious reasons. Their main goal is to get entertained. While they also look for certain content, this content is mostly limited to trivial content like games, jokes, or information about their idols.

Goals have a big impact on the usability of a website. For example, the use of animation and sound can be very disturbing for adults. However, for kids, they contribute to the entertainment factor of a website and as that they are most welcome.

2. Physical limitations

Next to the difference in goals, kids are also limited by their physical development and their tech-savviness.

Adults have learned how to use input devices, such as a keyboard or mouse. Therefore typing or clicking smaller targets has no direct effect on the usability of a website.

User testing shows that most children use a hunt-and-peck approach to typing. They experience it as difficult to find the right letters, which slows down their typing speed significantly. At the same time, it causes frustration and puts their patience to the test.

The same is true for using a mouse to interact with a website. While some kids obviously have more experience than others, children in general have limited fine motor skills. This causes them to miss targets, or accidently hit other objects close by.

Also, most kids have little patience for slow loading times. If there is no instant response to their clicking, they tend to click again and again – without realizing they might already be clicking an element on the new page.

Make sure you make clickable areas big enough and optimize your loading times to ensure a smooth navigation.

3. Exploratory behavior

Children are curious by nature. They like to explore the world around them very actively and with hardly any worries about breaking something or doing something wrong. The same things applies for their behaviour online.

Adults have already acquired certain schemata about websites – they approach a website with ideas and expectations of how something should work.

Kids, however, don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to navigating a website. If the do, they often lack the ability to generalize what they have learned and apply it to other sites.

Since children are not as goal oriented as adults, they don’t mind clicking around on a site – exploring the different things it has to offer. Nielsen describes this behaviour as “clicking frantically on different items on the screen with the hope of getting a response”.

However, the fact that kids navigate a site less systematically – and don’t mind to engage in a lengthy trial and error process – doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. In fact, kids easily get lost by accidentally clicking an unexpected link. If they leave a site without the intention to do so, most kids lack the experience to navigate back.

4. Different scrolling and reading behaviour

When it comes to scrolling and reading, kids are on a very different level than adults are.

For adults, reading usually isn’t an issue at all. Sure, it is important that text adheres to the general guidelines of good text design to assure it’s readability – but in general, there is nothing wrong with relying on the user to read in order to understand the interface. Also, scrolling is an accepted way of navigating a website.

For kids both reading and scrolling can seriously affect how well kids interact with a website. Especially small kids don’t read at all – because they don’t know how. From age 6 kids learn how to read, but keep in mind that their reading skills are still very limited. Even children with reasonable reading skills have trouble scanning text – they tend to read it word for word.

Keep text to a minimum and work with lots of visual support, which is easier for kids to recognize. Also, make sure you use simple words and avoid big chunks of text.

When looking at the scrolling behaviour of children, Nielsen’s research shows that online experience is the main influencing factor. Kids with more experience also scroll more. However, kids in general scroll less than adults. Make sure to place all critical content above the fold and offer clear and visual triggers for kids to scroll if necessary.

5. No commercial awareness

Last but not least, kids and adults have a different perception of commercial content.

Adults have grown used to commercial content on the web – even to the extent that they can easily ignore it. This phenomenon is called ‘banner blindness’. Besides, adults are aware of the concept of advertising and they can consciously differentiate between commercial and non-commercial content.

For kids this is much more difficult. They easily see promotional content as actual content from the site and are much more inclined to click on it. Also, ads are often animated and designed with bright colors – exactly what draws kids’ attention.

When kids click on an ad that takes them away from the website, they easily get disorientated. Again, they are likely to lack the experience and web savviness to find their way back.

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