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
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
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, 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)