Web Design; Lessons kids can teach us

School kids are coming to the Web in droves for their educational needs

I HAVE been using computers since I was a kid. I first sat down at one when I was eight. Back in the late Seventies, the dawn of the digital age, computers were much simpler yet so much more complex than they are today. You had two colour choices, a green screen or an orange screen, and all interaction was conducted through commands typed in line by line. No one worried about megabytes or megahertz and everything was stored on floppy disks - and they were quite literally "floppy".

I remember a glowing orange screens full of cryptic symbols and infinitely scrolling text. I stared in amazement as the screen changed at my whim. I once spent an afternoon on my dad's business computer creating a Christmas tree out of letters, numbers and symbols, only to have it destroyed with the flip of a switch when dad was ready to go home (a lesson in the ephemeral nature of information created on the cathode ray tube).

No one worried much about the "user interface" in those days, and operating system manufacturers could not have cared less about the way in which children might interact with their computers because kids did not buy them back then. But this didn't stop me and other kids from trying to do everything we could to use computers. It is often the young who are the first to adapt and accept new ideas, whether these ideas are targeted towards them or not.

Around the country children are returning to the classroom this week, and the Web is quickly becoming an indispensable tool for teachers dealing with every age group from elementary through to university. The Web started as a medium of education, and despite the vast store-fronts and banner ads, providing educational information is still at the Web's core. You can explore museums in your home town, such as the Larsson exhibit at the V&A (http://www.vam.ac.uk/ larsson/index.html), or check out what's hot at San Francisco's Exploratorium in the United States (http://www. exploratorium.edu/).

School kids are coming to the Web in droves for their educational needs as well as for entertainment. As they do, designers are increasingly finding themselves creating for this unique niche audience. And, unlike in my day, kids have a lot more to say about the computers being bought, not to mention the products being bought on them.

Designing Web sites for a young audience, let's say 6- to 14-year-olds, just to pick an arbitrary demographic, is different from developing content for an older age group. Ironically, this is not because there are more rules, but because, in many ways, there are fewer rules. Kids do not come to a web site with as many do and don't rules. They are less concerned with the dictates of "good" design and are far more concerned with the pure experience of the site. What might seem garish, outlandish and even tasteless on a site for adults might draw kids by the millions.

If you look at some of the most popular sites for children, such as the cable television networks Nickelodeon (http://www.nickelodeon.co.uk/) or the Cartoon Network (http://www.cartoonnetwork. com) you will begin to notice a few things:

Bright and colourful graphics. There is a trade-off between having large, colourful graphics and sparse, flat colours on the screen. The large graphics take longer to download, and for children's short attention spans this can get boring. But the eye candy is often part of the fun.

Constant motion and activity. Kids love movement and like to see things changing on the screen. In addition, sound is another great way to attract attention.

Interactivity and instant feedback. Not only do kids like to see change on the screen, they like to feel responsible for that change. JavaScript rollovers, Flash animations and other devices let kids feel as if they are doing something. You can never give a kid too much control over a Web page.

Navigation that invites exploration. Unlike older audiences who want to get where they are going as quickly as possible, kids do not mind exploring and often find the journey more fun than the arrival.

Remember, kids are not stupid. They know when they are being sold stuff, and they often enjoy more than just titillation. A great example of how a kids' site can both entertain and inform is the Adventures of Banph (http://www.banph.com). This site combines excellent visuals with a rich, interactive and intriguing storyline.

As with all audiences, you have to get to know the particular needs, desires and dislikes of the potential visitors to your site. If you have the time, money and resources, go directly to the source by interviewing members of the age range you are targeting and getting their reaction to your site. In addition, the Association of Computing's Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI) has a regular column in their bulletin on children and computers (http://www1.acm.org:82/sigs/ sigchi/bulletin) by Allison Druin, founder of CHIKids, a programme devoted to understanding how kids interact with computers.

Next week we'll look at how kids are designing for the Web.

E-mail your comments or queries to Jason Cranford Teague at indy_webdesign @mindspring.com

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