Since the term “kids” is so broad and subject to interpretation, and since kids grow so significantly in cognitive/technical ability in short periods of time, this article focuses specifically on kids ages six through eight.
Designing websites for kids is a fascinating, challenging, rewarding, and exasperating experience: You’re trying to create a digital experience for people who lack the cognitive capacity to understand abstraction. You’re trying to establish brand loyalty with people who are influenced almost exclusively by their peers. And you’re trying to communicate subjective value propositions to people who can only see things in black-and-white.
Add to this the need to collect data from people with a deep-seated fear of sharing personal information, and you’ve got your work cut out for you. Let’s remember, too, that these people are still learning how to read, and haven’t taken Typing 101 yet.
Fortunately, it’s possible to create a successful registration process for these folks with an understanding of how their brains work. We’ll explore how to design effective registration forms for kids based on their context, technical skills, and cognitive capabilities.
Successful registration forms for kids:
- have tangible value propositions instead of abstract activities,
- provide opportunities for creativity,
- use pictures whenever possible,
- require little personal data, and
- use “friendly” language.
Tangible value propositions vs. abstract activities#section2
Since kids in this age group find it hard to understand and visualize abstract ideas, it’s important to communicate tangible benefits at the outset of the registration process. During a recent user research session, a seven-year-old boy looking at a popular kids’ site said, “Why do I have to sign-up? Just to play games? I can play games on other websites without signing in, so I don’t see why I have to sign-up here.” To this boy, the concept of “playing games” was too abstract. If he could read about (or better yet) see the types of games available on the site, as well as other activities, such as saving his high scores, he would be more likely to register.
The Barbie Girls site does a nice job with its registration process. Before entering any information, kids take a virtual “tour” of the site, where they can see and experience activities and assets available to them if they sign-up:
Fig 1. Registration on the Barbie Girls site
At the beginning of the registration process, kids get to see the outfits they can dress their avatars in as well as how they can customize the site. This clearly communicates one of the main value propositions of the site: Creating and customizing an online presence. It’s more powerful and easier to grasp than simply telling kids they can “make a Barbie Girl.”
LEGO takes a similar approach with its LEGO ID registration process. An animated LEGO man explains sign-up benefits to kids. Pairing text with voice to accompany a well-known character helps reinforce the site’s value proposition as well.
Fig 2. The LEGO ID registration, on the second animation screen.
Opportunities for creativity#section3
When designing a registration flow for adults, the key is to make it quick and easy, allowing fast access to content and information. For kids, the journey is the destination. It’s important to make that journey as fun, engaging, and rewarding as possible. Provide plenty of opportunities for creativity, from crafting user IDs to picking avatars to selecting security questions. Creating a multi-step registration process is a good way to unfold this. It allows kids to become comfortable with the process and can help with later recall, to reinforce ongoing login behavior.
Distilling the registration flow on a kids’ site into multiple screens simplifies the process—as counter-intuitive as it may sound. If each screen in the flow contains one step in the process, it provides an ongoing sense of accomplishment, especially if you provide visual ”rewards” as kids move through the activities. This is quite a departure from designing flows for adults, where each extraneous click is seen as more work and another barrier to accessing desired content.
A great approach to this is to invite kids to share a little bit more about themselves in a creative way during each step in the process. PBS KIDS GO! does a really nice job here. In the first registration step, kids “make up” their own username. Not an e-mail address, not a parent’s name, but a name of their choosing, allowing them to craft their own identity for the site:
Fig 3. Creating a username on PBS KIDS.
Of course, kids will put in names like “poopyhead,” ”fart face” or worse. This is not only ok, it’s a good thing. They’re testing the limits of the site to see how much they can get away with. By allowing them to create silly usernames (within reason, of course; you’ll want to make sure you have a good obscenity filter in place) you’re telling kids it’s ok to be who they are, it’s ok to be creative, and this is a safe place where they can have fun.
Poptropica, a virtual world for kids developed by Pearson’s Family Education Network, also incorporates opportunities for creativity right at the beginning of the registration process. To capture preliminary user data, the site invites kids to create their own characters to use on the site. It walks them through the process, prompting them to share their data in a fun and rewarding way.
Fig 4. Creating a character on Poptropica.
Kids ages six through eight are still honing their reading skills. They’re sounding out words (usually aloud) and slowly stringing them together to form thoughts and sentences. This is difficult enough in print, but it’s even harder online, for kids and adults alike. And for people who aren’t skilled readers, typing is even more difficult. To make the registration process easier and more successful for kids, use pictures whenever possible.
Ideally, pictures used in a registration process are simple, clear representations of common items that are part of a child’s current context. Animals, food, colors, and vehicles are all good choices. Additionally, the pictures should be easily recognizable, so kids can identify what they’ve selected.
PBS KIDS GO! uses pictures in an interesting way, as part of the security-question process. Kids are prompted to select their favorite items from three rows of images. This not only makes the “forgotten password” process fun, it also reinforces the idea of recognition over recall, since kids understand what the pictures represent and know what their favorites are.
Fig 5. Pictures are used to make a secret code on PBS KIDS.
It’s important to note that while pictures are useful, symbols and icons can be problematic, because, at this age kids are just learning abstract thought. While adults realize that a video camera icon means they can watch videos, kids associate the icon with actually making videos. In a recent usability test evaluating popular kids’ sites, a six-year-old girl pointed out the video camera icon and said, “This is cool! It means I can make a movie here and share it with my friends.” She wasn’t able to extrapolate the real meaning of the icon based on site context and content.
Today’s kids, while they love the power and possibilities of the internet, are also a bit fearful of it. Their parents have scared them silly about sharing any personal information online. As a result, kids are wary of providing any data, even information as basic as gender and age. In fact, many kids fib about their ages online. A savvy eight-year-old girl, when prompted by the Candystand site to enter her birthdate, said, “I’m going to put that I’m 12. I know it’s lying, but it’s ok because I’m not allowed to tell anyone on the internet anything real about me.” Even though the site didn’t ask for any identifying data (name, address, or e-mail) she was still reluctant to type in anything personal.
Similarly, a seven-year-old boy refused to create a Club Penguin account because it asked for a parent’s e-mail address. “You can’t say anything about yourself on the web. If you do, people will figure out where you live and come to your house and steal your stuff.”
Kids’ fears, along with the very real COPPA regulations—which govern the collection and storage of personal information for kids under 13—make data collection a risky proposition. If you absolutely need to collect some sort of data (other than a basic username and password) to provide a more robust experience or to learn about the type of users coming to the site, keep it generic, friendly, and fun.
Funbrain’s Math Arcade takes an interesting approach to personal data. To get a game piece, kids need to select their grade and gender. The site collects this information via interactive widgets as opposed to data entry fields. This feels safer to kids, because they’re not actually entering any real data, they’re just playing along with the game. In testing this site, a six-year-old girl said, “This is cool. They want to know my grade and if I’m a boy or a girl. I think they do this to make sure they give me games that won’t be babyish or too hard.”
Fig 6. Funbrain’s registration screen feels like a game.
The site then provides a password so kids can come back and continue the games from where they left off. In a departure from other kids’ sites, Funbrain only requires the auto-generated password to log in, not a user name. This makes kids feel more comfortable, primarily because it’s system-generated, so they’re not revealing anything personal, and because they don’t have to provide any sort of user name. The one drawback to this is that kids can’t create their own passwords, which would make it easier for them to remember. A six-year-old boy said, “I like how it gives you a password because then you don’t have to put your real one. But I think I’m going to forget it, even if I write it down.”
Fig 7. The Funbrain password screen assigns a system-generated password.
Kids are pretty smart when it comes to web terminology. They know what it means to “sign-up,” “sign-in,” and “enter passwords.” However, some terms that adults consider common to the web are intimidating to kids, especially the younger ones. Terms like “username,” “security question,” and “submit” are confusing and disorienting. A seven-year-old girl pointed out the word “submit” on a registration form and asked what it said. After hearing the word, she said, “Submit? Like my homework?” It’s better to use words directly related to the task at hand, like sign-in, get started, or find out, instead of self-referential commands like submit, click here, or read more.
By the same token, kids don’t like being patronized or talked down to. For example, referring to other players or users as “friends” is presumptuous and a little demeaning. An eight-year-old girl, playing on the Webkinz site, said, “These are not my friends. A website doesn’t know who my friends are.” Additionally, simplifying “password” to something like “secret key” or “private code” is not only patronizing, but confusing. A seven-year-old boy said, “What’s a secret code? Is it like a password?”
Additionally, kids in this age group are still slightly egocentric, meaning they have trouble seeing things from other perspectives. As a result, words like “me,” “my,” and “mine” are confusing. A six-year-old boy said, during a user research activity, “Who’s talking here?” When probed for more detail, he said, “This says ‘my user name.’ Whose name? Who is this?” He didn’t understand that the “me” on the site was referring to him.
Here are some kid-friendly wording options for common web terms:
|Nickname / Site Name||Name / User Name|
|You / Your / Yours||Me / My / Mine|
|Friends||Friends, or Other Players|
Designing registration forms for kids’ sites is a tricky business. Limitations in cognitive capacity, reading and typing skills, and technical ability create constraints that seem insurmountable at times. However, with a little creativity, a lot of experimentation, and iterative testing, it’s possible to design forms that capture data in a fun, engaging, and rewarding way.
- Bernhardt, Grace. Designing Usable Sites for Children and Teens. Content Matters. February 2, 2006.
- Lazaris, Louis. 2009. Designing Websites for Kids: Trends and Best Practices
- Nielsen, Jakob. Children’s Websites: Usability Issues in Designing for Kids. Alertbox: September 13 2010.
- Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA): http://www.coppa.org/
- Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU)
25 Reader Comments
Regarding using more concrete language, this is something nearly every form on the web can benefit from. Rather than simply saying “submit,” the button should be more descriptive as to what is actually being done. Is this the final step in the process, or are there more steps to follow?
And I’ve often wondered about which terminology to use when labeling form fields (me/my/you/your), and this line of thought about perspective is very helpful. Thanks!
You touched on being patronizing and so on, but then expressed that taking a tour was a good idea.
Just like adults get bored being walked through stuff they perceive themselves to already know, I’ve encountered kids getting bored 5 seconds into a tour of the site. If needed, it better be precisely as engaging as the actual site.
Else, just avoid required steps, and let the kids get to the play or “work” as quickly as possible.
(Games are a good place to look for best practices. Watch some kids set up their Miis — Wii Avatars. It’s an example of setup being at least as engaging as “actual” gameplay).
Thanks for the comments!
Brochris – Glad to hear you found it helpful. There’s a lot we can learn from designing for kids that’s applicable to designing for adult audiences as well.
Shoobe01 – Good point. I think the key is to really upsell the value proposition at the outset. If you think a tour won’t engage kids, allow them to “learn by doing” before you ask them to sign up.
At the risk of sounding pedantic and picky, I just want to point out that, in the context in which they are used in the final matrix, the phrases should be “sign up” and “sign in” without the hyphens. I know, I know, but as long as we’re choosing better language, let’s also punctuate better.
That said, I loved this article. Loved reading an article about designing for children on ALA–a nice change of pace. Really sound advice, loved the actual comments made by kids. Thank you for writing this, and thanks, ALA, for publishing it.
Liked the ‘wording options’ chart; as has been mentioned above, ‘Submit’ is rarely a meaningful call to action from an end-user perpective.
I’m working on a children’s online game for a project at university. One thing I’ve been struggling with is how to provide log in functionality without requesting any personal details such as an email address. I found this article very helpful. Thank you!
Thanks for the feedback!
Lily – Not picky and pedantic in the least. We all should be more vigilant about punctuation and grammar. Thanks for catching that! Glad you enjoyed the article.
James (and everyone) – Can you think of other web terms that need “kidification?” I welcome additions to the chart.
Claireanthony – Registration and login can be tricky, for adults as well as kids. What are some specific things you might try for your project?
Thanks for the article Debra!
One thing that I’ve learned about kids website, since I started working on one about 1 year ago, is that the gap btw ages is so much bigger than us grown ups. We want to be “kids” and kids want to be grown ups.
The gap btw a 9 year-old and 10 year-old is huge. Most 10 year-old want to be teens where 9 year-old just want to be 10. When I first designed our website (a social network for kids), I tried to make it fun (playful colors, characters and so on). Than we got tons of comments saying “The site is too babyish”. About 4 months ago I redesign it to look more like a teenager site. The user comments were positive and they felt more mature. To conclude my point, it’s very hard to design for kids of every age and sex. Anyone trying to design something for kids, I would advise to narrow down the age and gender as much as possible.
Hi Rodrigo —
Absolutely. There’s a world of difference between a 5 year old and a 6 year old. The cognitive gap between ages starts narrowing at around 9 or 10, but it does make designing for kids tricky.
That being said, it’s impossible to design for every type of adult, too. And perception is more important than reality. So you’ve got to do lots of up-front research and understand who your primary persona(s) are at the beginning of the project. Are you targeting an 8-year-old girl who plays games and does art projects? Or are you focusing on a 7-year-old boy who watches superhero cartoons? Doing this will help you tailor the experience appropriately and avoid that most dreaded adjective, “babyish.”
Thanks for this! I’ve taught my 7-year-old not to ever register for anything online unless I a) know about it and b) help him do it, so when he registered on Lego.com he grabbed me immediately and I did it for him – no idea how much of the process he absorbed.
That said, I think there’s much in this article that can be applied to web forms in general, particularly when your user base is diverse (as mine is; I work for a credit union) and may have varying degrees of web savvy.
Very nice post, I haven’t been fortunate enough to work on a kids site just yet, but definitely get enough exposure to others well crafted sites with two toddlers in the household. Would like to see more of the same interactivity but without the flash. Big colorful buttons help my 3 year old navigate easily, those sites that try to be clever only hide their navigation from their younger audience, this is my observation from watching my kids anyway.
“Creating a multi-step registration process is a good way to unfold this. It allows kids to become comfortable with the process”
This is my big takeaway from your detailed article. Whenever I am registering for an account, I want the process to be as quick as possible. It never came to mind that this process can be different for kids. Thanks
I am in the middle of designing a language teaching site for kids starting at age 5 through to 11, after reading the article, I realized how stereotyped our thoughts become while designing websites for adults… This article really opened my thoght process and allowed me to conceptualize how to collect information as well as to present it.. The journey being as important as the destination is very true.
Funny how kids say out loud what we, as adult, will accept and endure:
“Why do I have to sign-up? Just to play games?”
Yet, as adult we endure sign-ups for cases where they are not warranted (such as purchasing tickets online).
Reading your article brings up a lot of good practices on how to design proper web interactions. Yet the first and most important principle remains the same: Know your user and its motivations.
Thanks for the great feedback!
ThomasCraig – You’re spot on about navigation. A lot of sites try to jazz it up with flash and animation. The problem with that is, kids can only conceptualize one type of interaction per mechanism. So when a kid sees a character pop up on rollover, it’s hard for them to understand that if they click on the character, they’ll go to another page.
Jenna74 – Glad you found this helpful!
Upendr – How exciting! Please let me know (@dgelman) when your site goes live; I’d love to see it.
Jean-Marc – You nailed it. The framework for designing kids’ sites has a lot of applicability for web design in general. A big difference, though, is that when adults encounter a poorly designed interaction, they tend to blame themselves for not being able to figure it out. Kids just move on to the next site, experience, interaction etc.
You have touched on a significant design principle and end-user audience by neatly articulating the key differences in approaching the minors (age group). I am a usability consultant and in my study, explore various aspects and examples as part of my learning and application. The examples you’ve used are really helpful for “visualizing” the efficacy of the user interfaces designed for kids. If you permit, I would like to use these examples as a listing on my blog (blog.idyeah.com) and provide a link to you/your feature. Kindly let me know if you would allow the same.
Thanks again for sharing these thoughts.
Vishal Mehta, CEO, IDYeah Creations
What a fascinating article! Like others, I believe registration flows for other users could benefit from these practices.
But I’m left with this nagging question: why do so many of the forms you’ve shown as examples have a “gender” field? Do the application interfaces change based on a user’s identifying as boy or girl?
Nice article, i think of that to, for preparing somethings for children, we must look from their eyes, we must remember our childhood 🙂
Hi Mejarc –
The “gender” field is primarily for data purposes. Companies with kid sites like to know the ages and genders of the site’s users, so they can adjust and market appropriately.
That being said, COPPA laws prevent the collection and dissemination of “identifying” information (full name, phone number, address) so companies tend to use more generalized collection techniques.
The only times I’ve seen a gender selection impact the interface is for avatar creation. If you select “girl” you’re presented with a female-looking visual representation. This is actually something I’d like to see discontinued, for the opportunity to create an identity online shouldn’t be constrained by one’s physical gender.
Without wanting to shift away from the focus topic/demographic, I’ve often wondered lately whether the explosion in the number of sites – and the tendency of site developers to engage in sensory overload to make their sites stand out from the crowd – won’t wind up turning people off “designer sites” or the web altogether at some point. It seems really that in the not-to-distant future, “adult” site design will have little choice but to adopt similar short, sweet and simple design principals, or risk failing to retain an audience.
A generally good article, but I don’t think there was any piece of wisdom or advice given that wouldn’t also apply to adults. All it really comes down to is ‘know your audience’.
More and more children in a smaller time to start access to the Internet
To tell the truth all of us adults do not come to accept things a bit to let them go too early to know me a headache
So concerned is necessary in this regard
It is interesting that you put in this article that we should not patronise children by using “my,” but instead avoid confusion by using “your.” However, ever more sites aimed at the general (adult) think they can get away with being patronising referring to “my username” and “my password.”
Are we adults supposed to be unable to tell who is talking? We are not talking to ourselves about the abstraction of the site we are using; we are being asked for our credentials by the site’s owners.
Today kids are attracted towards flash and vector graphics that are visually attractive and informative. Images and 2-D animation reach them faster than providing formatted texts.
To stimulate the registration of children on the site, possible after adding to the site some additional functions interesting for the children, who are accessible only with the presence of registration on the website.
For example to create a mailbox, a children’s forum, to offer to create the first personal blog, organize competitions and quizzes.
Important that the children’s web design contained the maximum quantity of the pictures, elements of flash web design, all instructions, explanation should consist of colorful images.
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