After our recent CLA presentation on Tech Competencies, we got a question asking for resources on web pages for children’s services.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and though we didn’t get to spend much time on it in our conference session, we thought it would be a good idea to share some resources here. I wish there was a site that I could point to and say “This is perfect. Do exactly this.” The truth is, designing library websites for kids is challenging. Children of different ages have different skills and different needs, and you also have to think about the parents or caregivers and what they are trying to achieve. Needs also vary by community (think about economic factors, education levels, access to technology in the home, etc.). Decisions need to be filtered through those important considerations.
I would start with usability factors. It doesn’t matter how great your site looks and how “kid-friendly” the graphics are if the site is unusable and people can’t find what they are looking for. Good design for websites will ALWAYS go beyond look and feel and will consider usability a foundational element in the design.
The best way to tell if your site is usable is to watch people actually try to use it. When I did a usability testing project for my former place of work, I found Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think was a really great source for DIY usability testing tips. I also relied a lot on the work of Jakob Nielsen. One of the books I used was Prioritizing Web Usability, but there are also a lot of helpful articles on his site including this one specifically on usability issues for kids aged 3-12. For more general information, the research-based usability guidelines at usability.gov are very helpful, and there is a lot of other useful information on that site as well. You don’t have to test with very many people before the problems with your site become VERY apparent.
Most libraries don’t have the resources or the desire to create and maintain separate kids pages for several different age or developmental levels, so there will inevitably be trade-offs. I’ve seen different strategies for dealing with this. For example, the Topeka and Shawnee County kids page has graphical images for various games and activities to draw kids’ attention, and then a “grown-ups go here” option for adults to access more text-based content.
Here are a few more examples of library kids’ sites with some different approaches and different levels of sophistication in the design. Some really try to design the interface for kids, some assume the parents will be in the driver’s seat, some are a mix:
It’s difficult to really judge the success of each one without knowing the particular community and target audience in more detail, but these examples should give you some idea of a range of options.
For me, the guiding principle for library websites is to put the content people want and use most front and center, and streamline everything else as much as possible. If I was designing a kids page from scratch right now, I’d lean towards a hybrid design (good for both kids and parents), with items of primary interest to kids made clear and accessible in an appealing visual layout that’s easily clickable. I’d try to keep the home page and any kid-targeted pages scroll-free, and the navigation clear and simple.
Whether you’re a seasoned web professional or a newbie just trying to figure out how to use your website to better market your services, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of good resources on design and usability that will help you make better choices and improve the site experience for your users.
Are the controls easy to identify, and where are they located? Are they placed in such a way that a child will be accidentally touching them all the time? Pagination controls for ebooks at the bottom of the screen will frequently be activated by accident. It may not be a disaster, but it takes the child out of the flow of the narrative and makes the reading experience less engaging.
Is it too easy to exit to the menu or other customization features? If these options are available on more than just the home screen, they should be as unobtrusive as possible. Requiring at least two touches to activate a menu is ideal as a guard against accidental exit from the narrative or the app experience. The First Words and First Letters apps handle this very nicely. The icon that takes you to the options page to change settings is very small and unobtrusive, in the upper corner. Touch it once and it moves to the center of the top of the screen. Touch it again and you exit to the menu. It’s difficult to activate without intention.
The best way to evaluate these issues is to field test with a child. Trust me, if there’s a button, they will push it. I didn’t realize how much of a problem controls on the bottom of the screen could be until I noticed that my son frequently holds the iPad on his lap right against his stomach and his tummy rolls will sometimes activate the controls! I doubt most app designers are thinking about that when they are working on their designs, but it’s the kind of real-world occurrence that you will see over and over when working with kids and technology.
Controls that are needed to successfully navigate the app should be clear, and ideally located at the top of the screen. They should be simple to use, and especially for young children there should not be too many options on the screen at once. A screen cluttered with controls is distracting and diminishes the effectiveness of the app or ebook.