Family Matters

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Much has been said about how kids use the Internet but most of the "experts" (this columnist included) rely on anecdotal evidence, often involving their own kids. Let's be honest. People who write, lecture or get quoted about technology are far more likely to be around tech-savvy children than the population at large.

It turns, out, according to a study released this week, that "it's a common myth that children are masters of technology who can defeat any difficulties when using computers." The study, "Usability of Websites for Children" was conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group (( and written by Shuli Giltuz and Jakob Nielsen.

Nielsen, a former "Distinguished Engineer"' at Sun Microsystems, is a leading authority on user interface design and Web site usability. For years he has been urging Web site developers to put usability ahead of sizzle, pointing out that it's no coincidence that uncomplicated sites like Yahoo and Amazon are more likely to attract return visitors than sites that are heavily laden with animation, sound, graphics and other elements that slow things down.

Nielsen has posted an excellent summary of the 128-page ($125) report on his Web site (

With this study, Nielsen and his colleagues have put the spotlight on how kids, (ages 5 to 11) use Web sites. They did usability testing with 55 children from the United States and Israel. The research team tested 24 sites that included some, like MaMaMedia, and Sesame Street, designed for kids and others, such as Yahoo and Amazon, aimed at general audiences.

The results showed that usability issues are just as important with kids as they are with adults. This seems pretty obvious to me, but it has apparently been lost on some people who design sites and software for kids. Kids, according to the study, respond to sites that are hard to use by leaving the site rather than trying to figure it out.

Like adults, kids want to be able to find information quickly and easily. It may come as a surprise to some children's Web site developers who like to use odd colors and weird type faces that kids want sites with text that is legible and easy to read. And, like adults, kids "welcome similar interfaces that require them to invest little time in learning." Yahoo and Amazon scored high with this age group, despite -- or perhaps because -- they're so plain and simple.

I've been bothered by the tendency of developers to be so creative in their user interface design that they negate what the users already know. Even young children have invested considerable time learning to use standard navigational tools. Why not take advantage of that learning instead of baffling the kids by overly creative (i.e. non-standard) interfaces?

Web site performance is even more of an issue for kids than it is for adults. Kids, whether at home or at school, according to the report, are more likely than adults to be using older and slower computers. Older machines are not only sometimes slower than new models, but they're less likely to have the latest browser versions and plug-ins that can wreak havoc with some Web sites. When a site crashes, displays an error message or slows to a crawl, the typical response from kids is to "close the window and find something else to do."

Also, like adults, kids want to be in control of their own destiny. They want the ability to stop whatever is happening and resume at a later time. They don't like it when they can't stop an introduction or an animation and they're not happy when a Web page hides the browser's navigational tools.

It comes as no surprise that kids are more likely than adults to use the Web for entertainment rather than for information gathering. As a result, multimedia elements such as animation and sound that may annoy some adults are more likely to appeal to kids as long as they are "very attractive" and "serve content in a richer and more amusing way." In other words, a bit of non-gratuitous sizzle is OK, as long as it helps lead to child in the direction of the content.

To my pleasant surprise, Nielsen found that kids are actually more likely to read text and pay attention to the labels on links than adults, perhaps because kids are active learners and accustomed to having to read instructions.

When Nielsen first started writing about usability in the mid-'90s, he reported that adult users were reluctant to scroll through long pages, but over the past couple of years adults have became more comfortable with the practice. Not so for kids. Children are less likely to scroll and therefore more likely to miss important information or options if they're presented "below the fold."

The study had both good and bad news when it comes to safety and privacy. The researchers found that kids and parents are generally aware of privacy and safety issues but "often users assume a kids' Web site is acting responsibly, therefore they do provide personal information when asked for it." Web site operators need to be aware of the provisions of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 ( and parents need to continually remind their children to never give out any personal information without parental consent.

The biggest, and perhaps scariest, difference between kids and adults is that kids are much more likely to click on advertising banners and icons. While adults are able to quickly distinguish between editorial content and advertising, kids are much more likely to confuse the two. While that might be good news for advertisers of products and services aimed at children, it's not good for the kids themselves because it means that kids are more likely to be attracted away from a sites' editorial content and more vulnerable to the commercial promotions.

Bottom line: Kids, like adults, need Web sites and products that are clear, easy to understand and compelling. They're willing to spend some time reading instructions but they're not going to put up with sites that are slow or confusing. In other words, kids are people too.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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