Conquering kid culture online

by

iMedia Connection

Designing sites for kids isn’t child’s play — it takes a careful balance of usability, creative intuition and regulatory compliance.

They represent an internet population that’s expected to balloon to nearly 38 million in 2008. Yet in many ways, they’re the hardest online audience to reach. They’re kids, and they’re at the heart of a riddle that’s been troubling online marketers for years: How can we effectively engage them on the web?

The emergence of new internet technologies and trends has provided us with some good options for increasing children’s awareness of our products and brands. Marketers have been developing all manner of virtual worlds, online communities, social networks and online gaming destinations in an effort to attract and retain the attention of kids aged 3 through 17. The movement toward creating kid-friendly virtual worlds in particular has been likened to an online gold rush, as businesses recognize the potential of these sites to draw millions of dedicated young users each month.

This potential only promises to increase. Online research firm eMarketer reported last year that 24 percent of the 34.3 million child and teen web users in the U.S. visited virtual worlds once a month with that number expected to rise to 34 percent in 2008 and over 50 percent within the next three years. Meanwhile, Mediamark Research and Intelligence recently found  that nearly 80 percent of kids aged 6 to 11 routinely play online games, with boys and girls spending almost an equal amount of time on the popular online activity.

Knowing young consumers are eager to experiment with these media doesn’t make our task much easier. Marketing to kids has become a competitive business; we certainly benefit from understanding where their interests lie, but simply incorporating social community or gaming components into our sites (or those of our clients) doesn’t guarantee their success. Designing sites for kids requires a unique strategy that takes usability, best practices and child marketing regulations into account.

Sounds like fun
The process of designing a site for kids begins as any web project does: by analyzing the needs of its target audience. If that audience is particularly young — aged 3 to 7 — sound will be an essential element of your site. Although kids this age are likely to go online with their parents, it’s important to make sites as accessible to them as possible. Since they aren’t likely to be reading well yet, that means using sound and voice-overs to narrate text intros, site options, even registration information if users are required to become members in order to use the site.

Children’s attention can be further captured by the use of video, and in cases where sound is a must, offering an accompanying narrative video makes good sense. Many kids’ sites incorporate a narrated video demo into their home page to walk new users through site features and familiarize them (and their cautious parents) with the site.

Rules to design by
The “anything goes” mentality inherent in many forms of online advertising doesn’t apply when you’re targeting kids. Laws like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enacted by congress in 1998, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPR), issued by the FTC in 1999, have been put into place to protect children online and now guide every aspect of web design from site structure to copywriting.

These laws primarily prevent the collection of personal information from children under the age of 13 without parental involvement. Website publishers are therefore required to comply on a number of levels, including by posting their privacy policies, obtaining parental consent before collecting and using personal information (though email addresses can be collected in some instances) and allowing parents to review personal information collected from their kids. The FTC maintains a site where kids, adults and businesses can all obtain more information about both laws.

Even more relevant to web design are the regulations instilled by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit. Established in 1974 by the National Advertising Review Council, CARU is a self-regulatory program intended to promote responsible children’s advertising. Among other things, the program’s guidelines require that online advertisers and publishers prominently identify the name, company or brand associated with each ad, and that online advertising integrated into the content of a game or activity be clearly demarcated as such.

Childrens’ site developers abide by these rules by marking banners with the term “advertising” and by creating “jump pages” that site users see each time they transition from an sponsor-free page to one that features third-party ads. In the case of the latter, text will typically read, “You’re about to enter the commercial area of our site,” and might also provide a friendly warning about internet use in general (i.e., “Remember to never give out your personal information online”).

Such site pages needn’t be dull; in fact, they should maintain the same playful look and tone as the remainder of the site. Take a look at an example for DiscoveryKids.com (Disclosure: Discovery Kids is a client of Enlighten).

Creative that interacts
Whether designing brand sites or virtual worlds, the focus should be on activity and interactivity. Kids expect a lot from an online experience, for various reasons. They’ve never known a world without the energizing action of television and film and use these as a barometer for the entertainment value delivered by a medium like the web. They also didn’t get to experience the internet the way it looked ten years ago, when deliberate interactivity wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is now. If they aren’t sufficiently entertained by a site, there are plenty of other options to choose from. As such, keeping them engaged is a requirement, not a perk.

There are countless creative ways in which to do this. Some sites offer interactive slideshows of new features, transform the standard mouse curser into a symbol or character or provide users with avatars with which to navigate the site’s activities. In virtual worlds, kids are often given a private online space to decorate in accordance with their personal tastes and are allowed to shop online for virtual furniture and accessories using credits earned by participating in site activities. This feature can be extended to brand sites in order to increase the time spent on a property and the child’s affiliation with the product, but developers should be sure to update assets regularly to retain their users’ interests.

Also worth considering is the amount of interactivity available on each individual site page. Our information architecture team has found that while sites that are uncluttered generally receive a higher usability rating, it’s quite the opposite with sites for kids. Children have such a high tolerance for interaction that they expect every graphic on a site page to be clickable and deliver an interesting payoff.

Another useful finding is the way in which children interact with FAQ lists and help sections on a site. Because they have little patience for sorting through a laundry list of tips in search of the one that relates to their immediate needs, it’s best to identify potential usability issues section by section and offer a succinct list of answers on each site page.

It may seem like child’s play, but designing sites for kids requires a concerted approach that takes into account the users’ capabilities, online behavior, interests, and needs. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be as much fun as the end product.

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