Kids on the Net: A Primer for Building Youth-Oriented Websites

The first step of quality web design is knowing who’s going to use your site and how you can tailor it to meet their needs.

Who’s your target market? Are they business executives? Stay-at-home dads? How about kids?

That last group is who we’d like to focus on today. Sure, all markets require a unique approach with web development, but the needs of children are far more specific and far more unique. Designing a site to appeal to children involves a spectrum of concerns and considerations that you must keep in mind.

Law and Legalese

Anything involving children has extra rules and regulations attached to it. For web design, there are several restrictions that should be reviewed before anything else.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) restricts information that webmasters are legally allowed to collect from users. Any person younger than 13 is subject to certain protections regarding their Personal Information (PI). Broadly, PI includes the following:

  • First name, last name, or online contact information that acts as identification
  • Address, telephone number, or geolocation information
  • Video, audio, or images that include the child’s voice or unblurred face

More information on setting up your COPPA-compliant site can be found here.

Review your site’s content and privacy policy before launch. The last thing you want is to fail to provide adequate security for your youthful users.

Kid-Friendly Design

After you’ve guaranteed that your site is legally compliant and safe to use, you can start the actual design phase. When kids are your market, there are a few stylistic strategies you should keep in mind:

Age-appropriate Web Writing

Obviously, vulgarities and expletives are out. Rough language might be a selling point for teenage users, but their parents won’t be psyched. Age-appropriateness applies to all language on your site, including site copy, blog content, and the subject matter found in videos or games hosted on the page. Also, bear in mind what types of references you include in the text. Joking about Nixon and Watergate won’t play well to an audience of 12-year-olds. Remember, you’re designing for children here.

Another key point here is how you use text. Although most adults are literate, you can’t say the same of children. You risk alienating your young viewers by including lots of on-site text. Keep it sparse, if possible. Don’t use complex language, $10 words, or abstract concepts. Even if they’re strong readers for their age, they won’t get it.

Check out the Mr. Men website to see this in action. Designed for pre-schoolers, this site features simplicity, minimal text, and an image-oriented layout that even the youngest users can understand.

Navigation must be simple.

We all know how simple site navigation must be to avoid confusing adults. The same is true of children, except cranked up to 11. Kids, naturally, won’t be able to decipher the puzzle of poorly designed navigation. If you want to help them explore your page, all directory links must be as simple and straightforward as you can make them.

Look no further than the Nickelodeon channel’s site for an example. Understanding that most kids are coming on-site to watch TV shows, the homepage features its most popular episodes front and center. Navigation among games, video, and TV episodes is also simple, with an accessible menu near the homepage logo.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Take a step back and try to remember what it was like to be a kid. Better still—try to get the opinions of actual kids during your web testing phase. Your goal is to create something appealing to their young eyes. Many rules of traditional web design don’t apply to kid-oriented material; feel free to play with animations, cartoons, or other entertaining visual distractions.

Remember the parents.

As you cut loose and get crazy with your kid-friendly site design, never forget about the parents. They’re the gatekeepers standing between you and your target audience. Any site built for kids must first win over the parental unit by establishing legitimacy, security, and trust.

Depending on your product or service, this might mean including a section on your site addressed to parents that answers popular questions or discusses common concerns. If your site features registration or memberships, it wouldn’t hurt to include a primer on your site’s security to help set their minds at ease. Remember, the parents’ goal isn’t to help their child have fun—it’s to keep their child safe at all costs.

Funbrain, an online game and education website, has a great page showing off this concept. Funbrain’s parent page describes the website, its goals of providing education, and its on-site security credentials.

What the Kids Want

The key takeaway here is to take a laid-back, fun approach to your web design. Kids don’t want to be told what to do (they get enough of that already). Instead, focus on an exploratory layout that features enticing colors, basic text, and simple navigation. Have fun creating it, and they’ll have fun using it.