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, Yahoo and — are accessible by users of any age.

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