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Usability Study Shows Kids Don’t Search

While adult Internet users are increasingly “search dominant,” kids navigate the web using bookmarks, remembering their favorite sites, and accessing paid subscription content and games. That’s one of the findings from a new qualitative usability study on how children use the web by human-computer interaction researcher Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. His report makes it seem as if kids have more of an app mentality than a search mentality when compared to adults.

Nielsen had completed a similar study in 2001, so his results are particularly interesting in the context of what children were doing nine years ago. Back then, he contended that kids were not as proficient as using the web as was widely assumed. Now, he argues that kids as young as six are highly proficient, and kids as young as nine are as proficient as adults. (Three-to-six-year-olds, which Nielsen and collaborator Raluca Budiu studied for the first time this year, are increasingly web-savvy but hindered by their inability to read.) Many kids are adopting the habits of long-time Internet users: for instance, skimming pages and skipping instructions just like adults, rather than reading them carefully as they did nine years ago.

Kids today use the web primarily for entertainment. Nielsen said he observed kids in the 3-to-5 age range, who can’t read yet, recognizing the word “play” because they are familiar with clicking on it to start a game. I asked Nielsen if he thought children’s tendency towards an app mentality was a broader trend, and that everyone would be less dependent on search in the future — both because these habituated children will age into adulthood and because alternatives to search like apps and the social web are growing in usefulness. He said he didn’t think that was necessarily the case, because kids in the upper age range of the study — 11 and 12 years old — were observed to be avid searchers.

While Nielsen’s study was qualitative, it’s in line with other quantitative measurements of increases in children’s online activity. In 2009, American kids spent 1 hour and 29 minutes per day on the computer, compared to 27 minutes in 1999, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Seventy percent of children between eight and 18 went online each day last year, and 33 percent had Internet access in their bedroom. (And to my ears, those numbers sound pretty small.)

Unfortunately Nielsen’s test was only done on PCs. Many kids today are amazingly proficient with smartphones and tablets, and it would be great to learn more about how they are becoming native touch-interface users.

Nielsen made a number of usability recommendations for websites to better serve children. For instance, he found that kids are especially confused by redundant navigation. They have a strong “learned path bias,” he said, meaning “they tend to reuse the same method they‘ve used before to initiate an action.” Children also respond better than adults to sound, animation, and characters. Nielsen added that better websites — like Google (s goog), Yahoo (s yhoo) and — are accessible by users of any age.

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Interview: Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO

19 Responses to “Usability Study Shows Kids Don’t Search”

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  2. What is really stunning about all this… is the comments that talk about kids and how smart they are, but the comments themselves are filled with spelling and grammatical errors…

    Seriously, what are we becoming when people don’t know the difference between your/you’re or there/their or how to compose a sentence using correct English.

    Call me a Grammar Nazi if you want to but in a world where written communication is becoming the norm, it matters.

    • I don’t really follow your logic between pointing out that 1. These people say their kids are intelligent and 2. That there are spelling and grammatical errors in their comments. They seem pretty mutually exclusive to me. Unless you’re trying to say that grammatically whimsical people are doomed to having stupid children.

      Spelling and grammatical errors are more often linked to effort and attention than actually knowing the semantic difference. I’m sure most of these people, if you quizzed them would see their mistakes. It’s true that for the sake/pride of our language we should pay attention, but it really has little to do with intelligence IMHO.

  3. I agree with coolrepublica that it’s stupid to to a study to confirm what all parents know.

    My daughter 2 years 8 months old always tries to use my Mac as a touch screen. She gets frustrated that she touches the iPhone screen to play videos, but in my laptop the screen doesn’t respond.

    Everything Nielsen found with his study parents know since day 1.

  4. There might be some relation between literacy and search habits. Kids 3-5 don’t search, but 11-12 year olds do. I wonder what changed in those years… Could it be they learned to read? Search is an effective tool when you understand what you’re looking for.

  5. I remember the comments a few years ago about how today’s crop of kids were going to be super net savvy… but I haven’t seen it yet. I see kids that think myspace/facebook is the whole internet and when they use search is for “free $whatever.” They’re far more vulnerable to scams & malware. They have trouble with things that we grew up on, and *don’t* use bookmarks. More often than not, I will see a teenager typing the name of the website (NOT the url!) into a Google search field. They are then confused when multiple sites are available. They aren’t using IM apps, and a separate email client is completely foreign. They view email as “too slow” and are convinced that Facebook messaging is somehow faster.

    It’s definitely not what I thought it would be 10 years ago.

  6. I’m a 30 years old kid according to this article then, since I got same interaction impression as the kids.


    We all are humans and tend to make assumptions by cognitively translate the perceptual impressions with an interface..

    imho – the image to this article sucks

    // Another Interaction Designer

  7. I met a colleague’s twins the other day who did the typical mimicking mum on her mobile phone. How long will it be before they start immitating her texting or using a touch screen? This sort of technology is second-nature to children now.

  8. Great article.

    I agree with Coolrepublica; Kids and parents are fundamentally different creatures. Their needs differ immensely. Adults tend to be looking for different information as well as being time poor. Kids and adults are also attracted to different aesthetics, so none of this is that surprising.

    With that said, it’s hard to imagine that 5-8 year old’s are going to be using Google, or search as the primary entrance point to the internet in 20 years time. That’s not to say that Google will not exist, though.

  9. Nielsen’s conclusion seems a little counter-intuitive. My daughters (ages 7 and 5)have learnt (or maybe were taught initially) to Google for anything they wanted to know or learn, especially to search on Google Images. They do this particularly well on my Android phone but also on our Mac.

  10. then again alot of kids thinks peanut butter and jelly is the bestest. Fortunately, they outgrow that Fisher-Price Computer Cool School, and app mentality stage and realize that there’s a whole big wonderful world out there

  11. Cyndy Aleo

    Coolrepublica is on the money. This is no shock to parents. App-oriented? Yes. Pete was able to operate my iPhone to get to Elmo videos on YouTube by age 2. They memorize URLs (something I haven’t done in years), visit web sites based on friend recommendations, and go online knowing exactly what they want to do.

    The time is probably right, based on an average. Sure, I have some friends who let their kids online with no limits, but mine have a max of 30 minutes at a time, and usually only on the weekends or during school breaks unless they are doing homework that requires research. Definitely no Internet in the bedrooms (I shut the laptop off at the router if it leaves my sight).

  12. coolrepublica

    I can’t believe someone did a study on this. I could I told them everything they found out if they only asked. lol

    Kid’s don’t search because there is no need for it. Kids like to do the same thing over and over again so it’s natural that they would use bookmarks to visit their habitual sites. Furthermore parents don’t allow search for kids 1) they can’t type and read 2) in search if you type something simple it’s easy to end up somewhere you DON’T want to kids to go.3 3) bookmarks have have favicons which makes getting to your favorite website fast and easy.

    As to the questions whether kids are becoming native touch interface users, the answer is YES. MY children from 18 months to 5 years have never known a computer without touch. I own a PC but have a elo touchscreen which I bought years ago because I was tired of having to get up and help my eldest with little fingers navigate the computer. I have added more touch computers since than to avoid fights. lol My 18 month old knows how to get to starfall and poinsonrouge among other sites because all he has to do is touch the icon he recognizes. Easy and worry free. Touching things is very very intuitive. It has nothing to do with computers, it just a human thing. we love to touch. Kids more than anyone else. Touch is the future.

    Those kids as they reach the age when they can type will start to search for things. My 5 year old is constantly typing for things she wants to see on youtube. Now I am just waiting for a tablet that does flash so we get it poinsonrouge and starfall on the go.