Usability: A Key Issue for kids’ sites (2000)

The children starting primary school this year can be truly described as the first of the web generation, for all were born after 1992 when the World Wide Web as we know it today came into existence. The ability of web sites to stimulate and satisfy the needs of these kids, along with those of all other web users, will largely depend on web site usability.

What is usability?

Leading usability expert and author, Jakob Nielsen, offers the following description. “Usability is a fairly broad concept that basically refers to how easy it is for users to learn a system, how efficiently they can use it once they have learned it, and how pleasant it is to use.

According to Nielsen, “On the average, the web doesn’t work: When you think of something to do on the web, the expected outcome is that you will fail.” He cites three studies by different researchers in 1998 to back up his claim. Dr Nielsen has had a distinguished career as a human-factor engineer in the communications, computer and internet industries, working with organisations such as Sunsoft and Bell. He believes that the failure to appreciate the importance of usability in web design is a major source of the problem, estimating that, “90% of commercial sites have poor usability“.

Internet research company Forrester Research has also confirmed the need for improved site usability as has the work of web design consultant Jared Spool, who is often credited with being the first person to develop a comprehensive set of guidelines for web design. He argues people find information on the web by foraging in much the same way as hunter-gathers foraged for food, balancing effort with reward. They pick up the “scent” of the information they are after and follow it as they link from page to page.

Most of the research done by Nielsen, Spool and others relates to how adults use the web, and in particular, to improving the ability of web sites to meet the needs of adult users who are seeking information. Not all adults however, are searching for information, with many in the 18 – 25 age range spending their time surfing from site to site, clicking whatever looks most interesting or cool.

Kids on the net

Computer Economics estimates that 28 million people under 18 years old will be on-line by next year, rising to 77 million by 2005. IMR Worldwide reports about 2 million Australian children and teenagers currently using the net for an average 3 hours per week.

There is also a significant increase in family-orientated net use in many countries. In the US, for example, a survey by Cyber Dialogue at the end of last year found that 34% of US families were on-line. Nearly half of these parents share net access with their children, often going on-line together, particularly if they have children under 12.

The rapid growth in internet use by children has underscored the considerable marketing potential of the medium. On-line toy sales catapulted from $45 million in 1998 to $425 million in 1999 and Media Metrix, predicts this will rise to $1.6 billion by 2002. In addition, a recent survey by the US National Retail Federation (NRF) found that 14% of all parents with children aged 6-17 in the US were planing to use the internet to aid them in their back to school shopping this year.

Usability and kids

Not a lot is known about the way kids use web sites, except to say that it is probably very different to what their parents do. An increasing number of Australian children are brought up with computers, using games and educational software from a very early age, and virtually all will have acquired basic computer skills by the time they leave primary school.

Many children will come to the web with an intuitive knowledge of its basic building block, the hypertext link. Also, it is likely that these children read the screen in a different way, probably taking a whole screen approach to the images and text, allowing their eyes to be drawn to particular areas, rather than employing the skimming and scanning reading techniques of their parents.

With adults, Spool found that imagemaps could cause unforeseen navigational difficulties, leading him to describe them as a major potential usability problem. No such problems I am sure for a child who has conquered the dark with “Pajama Sam” or joined Madeline on her “European Adventure”. By the time they start surfing the web they will already be very familiar with exploring imagemaps and following the links they may contain.

This is not to say that there is no need to be concerned with the navigation and usability elements of a site that is designed to attract kids. One of the key usability guidelines described by Nielsen is the “match between the system and the real world“. He maintains sites should not use jargon and system-orientated terms, but “should speak the users’ language with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user“. Even though many young web users are probably more firmly grounded in the system world of computers and the net than their adult counterparts, in my view this important guideline is just as critical for kid’s sites, but unfortunately often overlooked.

The under 18 market is highly diverse, with each segment having its own interests, needs and expectations. Furthermore, the internet skills level of children today is also very varied, ranging for example, from highly net literate 7 year olds to 17 year old newbies. The diverse nature of this market raises particular usability challenges, requiring a careful balancing of graphic design elements with the need to maintain a level of usability that is appropriate for the different end-users.

The target market segments for a site need to be clearly defined early in the design process, bearing in mind that the prime users of a site will not always be the same as the intended audience for the site’s content. This is particularly the case with sites that are designed to appeal to very young children where the main site navigator will be a parent or teacher. The Family Play site for example, is not likely to appeal greatly to the under twelves, even though a large proportion of its content is for them. The design of the site is aimed directly at their parents, with a good search facility using adult orientated drop menus to provide quick access to a range of well designed age-appropriate activities.

ABC TV Children’s Playground is designed to appeal to young children between 2 and 16, according to information presented in the parent area of the site, although the content and activities seem to be heavily skewed towards the under tens. The extensive use of Shockwave slows down the performance of the site leading I suspect to an imbalance in the time versus reward ratio for many young users. My six year old daughter certainly fits into this category.

Several weeks ago I watched my daughter as she visited the Playground site following a promo on television. She clicked on a jigsaw puzzle in the games area and waited. The Shockwave logo came up. “What’s this dad?” I told her and said it wouldn’t take too long. Twenty seconds later a 6 piece jigsaw puzzle appeared which she did in a couple of seconds. She tried another jigsaw. Click. “Oh, it’s that shockwave again.” Another 20 second wait for a two second game at the end of which she abandoned the site.

My daughter, who will happily spend an hour or so playing a computer game for the umpteenth time, has not revisited the Playground site inspite of all the invitations to do so on television.

Like my daughter, many of us have visited sites that don’t satisfy our needs. We have struggled with poorly designed web sites that are hard to find and slow to access, sites lacking coherent internal navigation and containing links that lead nowhere. Usability evaluation is a highly cost effective way of addressing problems such as these.

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