Children don’t have the patience to navigate the complex designs of many of the web sites targeted to their age group, according to a study released April 15 that observed how kids surf the internet. They also can’t distinguish between advertising and actual content, the study found, even when the ads are clearly marked.

Researchers from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) had 55 children in grades one through five look at a wide range of web sites, including Amazon.com, Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Sesame Street, and Willy Wonka.

In total, the children browsed 24 web sites designed for children and three mainstream web sites designed for adult users. Researchers found that children who browse poorly designed web sites are just as likely as adults to get frustrated and give up, dispelling the popular notion that kids quickly master anything on a computer.

“Our study convinced us that most web sites for children are built upon pure folklore about how kids supposedly behave,” said Jakob Nielsen, NNG’s internet usability expert.

“While it’s true—as one would assume—that kids love whiz-bang animation and sound effects, even these things won’t hold their attention if they come upon something too difficult to figure out, or they get lost on a web site. Children are quick to close the window and find something else to do.”

In their report, called “Usability of Web Sites for Children: 70 Design Guidelines,” the researchers outlined how children experience the web and what organizations can do to improve their web sites for kids.

Although the participants were very young, the researchers found children had greatest success surfing the web sites intended for adults. The report attributes this finding to the commitment that Amazon.com and Yahoo! have to “utter simplicity and compliance with web design conventions.”

If a web page crashes or isn’t immediately catchy, children look for something else to do, the report found. Other usability problems identified in the report include inconsistent navigation, fancy wording, not being able to tell where to click, and too much text for new readers.

Young web-surfers are especially sensitive to whether the content suits their age level, the report said. One six-year-old participant reportedly said, “This web site is for babies … you can tell because of the cartoons and trains.”

Children rarely scrolled down, preferring to interact with content “above the fold.” They particularly liked animation and sound effects, searching the screen for places to click and for pictures and maps to help them navigate the site. They also preferred content that is funny, entertaining, and colorful.

Children frequently clicked on advertisements, usually because they couldn’t distinguish between advertising and the site’s content. This finding reinforces the need for parents and educators to explain internet advertising to children and how they can recognize ads.

“Many people already help their children understand and cope with television commercials, but such educational efforts overlook web ads—possibly because most adults would never dream of clicking them,” the report said.

On a more positive note, the study found that children had been taught about privacy and had been warned not to divulge personal information online—”which I think is good news,” Nielsen told the New York Times, “because it shows that it’s possible to educate children about the internet.”

Related links:
Nielsen Norman Group
http://www.nngroup.com

“Usability of Web Sites for Children: 70 Design Guidelines”
http://www.nngroup.com/reports/kids