By most accounts, the internet as we know it today was invented in 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the program for the first web browser. The internet — and any child born that same year — is now 28 years old.
As it stands, the generation who might have used the fledgling internet as children is now old enough to have children of their own. With that comes an ever-widening population of very young web users, some just three or four years old. While many universal Information Architecture (IA) principles hold true for all ages, designing experiences for children presents its own set of considerations and challenges.
Many of the heuristics that can be applied to regular IA still hold true for kids. For starters, simplicity is key. Interfaces should be as uncluttered and straightforward as possible. Navigation must communicate well and pages must be organized logically. The user still needs to be able to easily control the experience. It makes sense.
Designing for children, however, presents a special dichotomy where their several years of internet experience is at odds with their normal development. In a 2010 Nielsen Norman group study of child internet users, kids who are now 3–5 years old are displaying internet behaviors that formerly surfaced in 6–8 year olds. Information Architects can expect that children are familiar with many design conventions — UX architect Lindsay Moskowitz details making a presentation about IA to an elementary school class:
Before they began their wireframes, I went over some of the different sections of a homepage — the navigation, the hero image, the search box — and it all seemed almost instinctual to them. They may not have known the exact names for them prior to the presentation, but almost all of them knew exactly how each component functioned, and where they usually live on the page. When they started drawing out their wireframes, some of them were even introducing other commonly used Web elements onto their wireframes. Here are a couple of my favorites:
One boy told me he wanted to re-design Wikipedia’s homepage because he thought the site should be organized by different categories. He didn’t like having to weed through so many search results, and he wanted to limit the options right from the start. He put quick-links on the page below the search bar that would take the user to different categories.
One girl drew a hamburger style navigation menu on her wireframe. I didn’t show any website examples or wireframe examples with hamburger menus in my presentation, she just must have seen it on other sites. When I asked her what would happen if someone clicked on it, she told me that it would open up with a bunch of “main categories” for the user to choose from. She knew exactly what she was doing!
However, some issues have evolved as designers try to reconcile what children like — animation, sound, and graphics — with what they’re capable of. For example, the same NNg study cited the Sesame Street website, which has a mouseover animation and sound in its navigation menu. The animation and sound made some children think this was the sole function of the element. While Sesame Street no longer uses this style of navigation, you can see the same effect on the Nick, Jr. website:
Another issue that has evolved is the inability of children to distinguish ads from site content. Even if parents and educators trust a particular site, advertisers who attempt to blend in with the rest of the content could very easily manipulate young users.
As websites continue to specialize and the base of child users continue to grow, it will be important for designers to consider the best ways to make content clear and accessible for children while maintaining its age-appropriateness.
For further reading: