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Designing Web Interfaces For Kids

Kids spend a lot of time online, and their cognitive and physical limitations present many challenges to them when they do so. Pair that with poorly designed content and dark patterns, and you have a bad mix. As designers on the web, we have a responsibility to create things that empower kids and make them smarter, not the opposite.

This article will give you some insights about what kids are like from the psychological point of view, and how this affects the way they use the web. We’ll also cover practical design guidelines to create better web stuff for kids.

Paradigm Shift

On 12 March 1989, the first Internet browser, Mosaic, was born, essentially marking the birth of the Internet as we know it. The reason why this date is so important here is that the birth of the “common folk” Internet represents the end of one paradigm and the beginning of another. Those of us who have grown up without the Internet as the primary resource for information and entertainment simply live in a different paradigm than kids of today.

PRE-INTERNET PARADIGM

Those of us who remember a time without the Internet live in an analogue paradigm. I vividly remember back in high school (1995 to 1998) scavenging the school and public library for good books to use in my studies.

Back in the analogue paradigm, we relied heavily on books as sources of information
Back in the analogue paradigm, we relied heavily on books as sources of information. (Image: Les Chatfield)

Built into our mental framework is the notion that we have some control over the time an action takes, like walking from a desk to a bookshelf. We can choose to walk faster or slower. Ultimately, we are in control. This explains why many of us are so impatient when content loads slowly on a website. Our brain remembers what it is like to be in control, and it doesn’t like not having control over the website.

INTERNET PARADIGM

People who have no memory of a world where the Internet was not the primary source of information have a different mental framework when it comes to time control. They know that a website loads as fast as it does. They can’t force it. They know they are not in control of the time an action takes.

I’ve done several studies on this in which I observed kids using a computer. If something loaded slowly, most of the kids simply did something else in the meanwhile — watching TV if one was nearby or talking to the kid next to them if they were in a social setting.

A little while back, I helped my 7-year-old install Google Earth on his computer. It took ages to download, and I remember leaving the room because I couldn’t stand that it was so slow. But he simply turned on the TV and watched a cartoon in the meantime and then called for me when the download was done.

THE “DIGITAL NATIVE” DOESN’T EXIST

I don’t believe there are “digital natives.” Sure, kids grow up with iPads and smartphones and computers, but that doesn’t mean they automatically become experts in using them. Quite the contrary, actually. An iPad (or any other tablet) is a closed, limited environment where they can’t do much harm (apart from buying too many Smurf berries or deleting photos), and it doesn’t teach them anything about how technology works, how computers work or how to manipulate technology to create new things.

Despite this disbelief in the “digital native”, I think the fact that kids live in a different paradigm has a great impact on the way they interact with and perceive the web. Playing in a touchscreen environment from a very early age will affect their mental model tremendously. (We’ll get back to this.)

In addition, they’re kids. They don’t have fully developed brains or physical skills like adults. So, we need to think differently when we design for them.