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45 tips when designing online content for kids

I was asked to talk at an NMK (New Media Knowledge) a year or so ago on the subject of creating digital content for kids. That lovely organic proliferation thing happened and my ‘top 10 tips’ got syndicated around the web. Don’t get me wrong, that’s brilliant and thank you to whoever posted it first, hopefully it helped the odd lost soul searching for a quick tip or two. However, I couldn’t help thinking it was the tip of the iceberg. It peaked unexpectedly soon. I’d much rather give as much as possible than a simple, bite-sized ‘top 10′.

I’ve been creating kids focused interactive content since 1993 so, political correctness aside, I know a thing or two about the subject. As a freelancer, this was my secret weapon. My secret stash. My heirloom almost. At my previous job, my title was a bit made up, but nonetheless read “Head of Creative Technology’ for Jetix (the kids TV broadcaster). So I’d also had fair exposure to the inside scoop of a ferociously commercial broadcaster. Ok, I’d worked for the BBC for a few years on and off but the experience out there in the multi-channel, win-at-all-cost world of commercial TV was invaluable. My job was primarily to service the brands that advertised on the TV channel. Creating ‘joined-up’ projects that drove TV audience to the web site to continue their relationship… and vice versa. Whether it be Power Rangers, Action Man, Nintendo, Playstation, McDonalds or a big movie release, you name it, I probably did a game, a microsite or a competition for it.

I also dabbled in interactive TV on both the Sky and Liberate platform, mobile services, multi-player engines, research platforms and consumer products. All in all, a great place to learn.

Luckily, when I left Jetix, I had the presence of mind to make a note of what was buzzing through my mind at the time. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of kids’ design online and some of it is probably old fashioned after only 3 years (note the lack of social networking and dvirtual worlds!) but it’s still a fairly good primer for anyone in the kids interactive space. So here goes, hope it helps…

Download as a Word document here.

Tips for creating kids web sites

What are the main usability concerns that come up when designing sites for kids?
Kids are a hard bunch. They are unpredictable and fickle, loyal yet can be disloyal, easy to attract yet easily distracted, they’re honest but would be the first to try and hack a highscore table if there was a PSP up for grabs. Assume at your peril.

Here are some quick tips:
•    Call to action! This is crucial. Don’t even think of getting on your high-horse and refusing to write ‘Click Here’. You’ll get vastly better clickthrough figures if you tell kids what to do. A big, red, throbbing button with ‘Free games!’ written on it is going to get a lot of use!
•    The three no-brainer content ideas are games, free stuff and cool brands. Any of them in isolation work, but get all three and you’re rocking. Play this wicked game, get to level 3 and win an Xbox 360! Job done.
•    Kids are prone to change the way they use web content depending on their viewing environment. A boy in a competitive class environment is very different from a boy at home. Know your target audience!
•    Text isn’t read by kids. Even short intros are skipped if there’s a ‘WIN STUFF’ button nearby. Keep text short and big.
•    Tone of voice is crucial. Too adult or authoritative and you’ll loose them. Too obviously ‘kool’ and you’ll be rumbled within seconds. If you don’t know the top 5 swearwords and cool phrases of the moment, consider getting a kid specific copywriter in.
•    Say to yourself what the page is trying to do, as though explaining it to your mum, keeping it simple and non-patronising. Those words are usually the ones that should be on the page.
•    Keep the eye-journey simple. The old top-left to bottom-right is usually a good place to start.
•    Consider your competition prizes carefully. A ps2 may still sound cool to us but there will be a thousand competitions on the web that day to win one too. Money-can’t-buy or quirky prizes can often be cheaper and more effective. Walkie talkies, mobiles, win your weight in chocolate, adopting a hedgehog, even the trade promo stuff you chuck away could be exciting to a kid.
•    Kids also love secrets or being in possession of content that give them playground status. This can take the form of collecting points, joining an online community or a simple printout.
•    Data Protection and privacy laws are there for a reason, so be very wary of any idea that involves gaining personally identifiable data from a kid. It’s a huge subject but in general, always try and get their parents permission, never let them upload content to a live site without moderation (highscore names, images, comments etc.) and keep any requested data simple.
•    Don’t agonise about the finer details of the design. Kids will just go for the cool content anyway, regardless of what surrounds it. Having said that, it’s often the silly, quirky extras you slip in that make all the difference. Fart noises on buttons, hidden items, cool cursor effects, draggable stuff and so on.
•    Help them at all times. If kids get confused, they loose interest very quickly and will never come back. If you need to drag something to start a game, use a big flashing arrow with ‘Drag this!’ on it. Reducing confusion should not be underestimated.
•    Don’t assume kids use computers the same way as you do. Most kids only check their email a couple of times a week. They see their mates at school every day! So think before you launch into that email based viral for 5 year-olds. Parents are also wary of their kids being unsupervised on the web and use isn’t as freely available as we assume. Kids also have consoles for games, so there are a lot of reasons Mum and Dad’s cranky old computer won’t be the first thing they turn on after school. Bear this in mind!
•    Help I’m lost! A simple mental map of where they are in a site is vital. If possible, display where they are and allow them you retrace their steps.
•    Don’t assume they know all the conventions like clicking the logo to go to the homepage or two vertical bars mean pause.
•    Avoid including a web based feedback form if you can help it. You’ll get bombarded with anonymous and annoying drivel. It’s nasty, but a ‘Mailto’ that fires up the kids email app really makes them think as it’s not anonymous any more.
•    If you are working across many countries, make sure you are aware of local laws relating to kids privacy and competition laws.
•    Be aware that some parents would prefer their kids to learn something while browsing the web. If you can make your site educational as well as entertaining, you’ll have a powerful weapon to win over the parents too. Often they are the gatekeepers to internet use for the younger kids, so having them on side will make repeat visits more likely.
•    Kids like to pretend they are older than they are. It’s better to be apparitional and slightly out of reach the to pitch it too young and be condescending.

What do you aim for in “look and feel” terms?
•    Don’t go sophisticated. Think blunt, bold and colourful.
•    Loads of movement is good but make sure the thing you want them to click moves more.
•    Make buttons look pressible. Drop shadows and highlights help to make buttons look 3d and pressible.
•    Big strong call to actions are king.
•    Lots of pictures and reduce text to a minimum where possible.

How does the process of generating content differ from creating “regular” sites?
•    The process isn’t any different but the ideas that you come up with need to take account of usage habits and legal restraints.
•    Do you really need that highscore table? What if a kid puts their mobile number in? There are plenty of ways to maintain the challenge of a highscore system without resorting to a standard database model. This example is true of many things we take for granted like competition forms, email a mate or uploading your photo.
•    Pay-off or rewards are more important than for adult sites. A simple ‘Game Over’ isn’t ideal. If they put the effort in to complete a game, the reward should be worth it.

Is it fair to say that you can you be more experimental with children’s sites? Can you get away with more animation, video, sound for example?
•    Not really, but it depends on what your non-children’s sites are. Digital Outlook concentrates on the entertainment sector, with a large focus on film sites, so innovation and wacky concepts are always welcome.
•    In certain areas, you have to be less experimental to avoid diluting the message. Messing about in a 3D contextual navigation sphere may sound cool but kids just want the cool/free stuff… Now!

Do you think children are generally more technically savvy than their parents?
•    In general yes, but only because they have less inhibitions to trying and failing. Grown-ups are more wary of just clicking stuff to see what happens as life has taught them that it could bite. I’ve never pressed the mysterious orange button on my washing machine for exactly that reason. My 2 year old son had pressed it hundreds of times. Kids are encouraged to learn by experimenting and so are better placed to discover and therefore learn from new experiences.

Are kid’s sites more interactive than sites for grown-ups? More experience lead than information lead?
•    Again, it depends on you sector and other work, but in general there need to be more whiz-bang buttons and games on kids sites to keep them entertained for longer.
•    Having said that, some grown-up sites are super-interactive. Look at Google Earth! The amount of interactivity is not the issue, it the style you use that can be perceived as more kids or adult focused.
•    Again, experience or information sites have their equivalents in the kid and adult world. Anyone into Pokémon or Digimon will know the vast amount of information kids can hold and they spend hours on sites learning the relative merits of a Bone Club attack over a Bubblebeam. Likewise, film sites for grown-ups are almost entirely experience lead.

What kinds of research do you perform before and after building sites aimed at children?
•    If it’s your first site, arrange to go to a school or playgroup and take in a CD Rom of something similar. Watch how some kids take control while some have never used a mouse before. It’ll be an eye opener and you’ll soon drop a lot of the arty-farty designer stuff you’ve held dear for so long. This is where it gets raw…
•    Check out other sites in the same areas. Buy a couple of magazines aimed at your target market. Ask friends or family.
•    We always test everything before it goes live. Er, let’s be honest, we haven’t always got time, it’s expensive and is unnecessary in many cases. You’re experience should start to remove the need for some testing once you’ve learnt the hard way, but it’s extremely useful to do a testing session a couple of times a year to keep your assumptions realistic.
•    Some clients (the Government for instance) insist on it. Try to go along or at the very least, sit down with the testers. A report is useful but you often get the underlying human story from the people that were there.
•    You don’t have to like kids to create web sites for them, but it helps! However, you do need to think like a kid to make it a fun and fulfilling area to work in. If you don’t have empathy or a social connection, you’ll struggle to come up with ideas that deliver what a kids actually wants.

Have you consulted with educational specialists or child psychologists in the course of building sites for kids? What kind of advice did they give?
•    Again, they are very useful at the beginning of your career and handy to pop in on now and again, but in most cases experience, client knowledge and common sense can see you through most projects. But not using one at any point and assuming you know what you’re going is not an option! It’s also important you not only listen to the advice but understand it before you put it into practice.
•    If you are doing a specifically educational project, then you have to be aware of the educational needs of kids at key stages in their education. Knowing the limits of a 4 year old and a 6 year old are essential in a maths puzzle.
•    The advise they give is way too important and fundamental to the way you approach kids content to cover here but has remained basically consistent over the past 15 years, so be realistic about keeping up to date. Definitely subscribe to kids industry publications like Kidscreen but don’t concentrate too much on the science. Following trends on the street is often more relevant than following rules.

Are there any specific legal concerns when building for kids? The COPPA legislation in the States comes to mind?
•    These points are copied from above…
•    Data Protection and privacy laws are there for a reason, so be very wary of any idea that involves gaining personally identifiable data from a kid. It’s a huge subject but in general, always try and get their parents permission, never let them upload content to a live site without moderation (highscore names, images, comments etc.) and keep any requested data simple.
•    If you are working across many countries, make sure you are aware of local laws relating to kids privacy and competition laws.

Are there any differences in cost between kid sites and sites aimed at a general audience?
•    No. Often a general audience sites is more expensive to finalise as you have a wider range of feedback to take into account. With kids sites, you have a smaller but more focused audience, so the potential for wildly varying feedback is hopefully reduced.

Download as a Word document here.

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