Why does design for children’s websites have to be so chaotic?

Scrolling through websites for kids is an overwhelming experience, full of colours and patterns and pictures, oh my!?

Rachel Brockbank
Oct 30, 2019 · 7 min read

As a designer, when I think of the principles of good UI design, legible typography, a breathable, non-overwhelming layout and beautiful colours come to mind. Especially in today’s trend of minimal, simple designs, what comes to mind is something resembling anything from the front page of Dribbble.

The front page of the website Dribbble, showing monochrome, minimalist websites.
The front page of the website Dribbble, showing monochrome, minimalist websites.
Such minimalist. Very white.

So why is it, that when you take a look at most (not all) websites aimed at children, this style, and the principles that influenced it, seem to be somewhat forgotten? Of course, the audiences are different, and I’ve only taken a look at a small selection of sites, but it did get me wondering why there is such a stark difference.

More is not the merrier

Below is a handful of websites I came across whilst starting looking into the design of children’s sites. One doesn’t seem to be responsive, one requires horizontal and vertical scrolling, a couple have messy — what look like broken—layouts and the rest are simply an overload for the senses.

Dazzling, difficult to use, chaotic… Why?!

Maybe I’m not understanding the websites because I don’t actually have children myself, though I have worked with children in the past and—surprise—once was a child, I believe that whilst children may need lots of stimuli, I don’t believe they need quite this much. Here’s a quote from the National Alliance on Mental Illness that makes the same point:

Bombarded with excessive stimulation and distraction, [children] are expected to focus on subjects that may not hold their interest the same way other stimulating, instantly gratifying subjects do. … A child who is seen as “having difficulty focusing” or “bright, but not working to his full potential” may be unable to keep up with the demands of a stimulus-filled environment.

I have a theory that somewhere, the people creating these websites for children got their wires crossed. Yes, a website needs to be visually interesting to keep the user engaged, but does it need to throw stimuli at the user until they’re exhausted—child or otherwise?

As any good UX designer would do, I decided to check my theory to make sure my initial thoughts weren’t assumptions…

There is some similarity between the internet and books. They are both information and entertainment powerhouses, before Google, we had encyclopedias. As books have been around for somewhere around 2,000 years and the internet for around 20, it felt only right to look to books for guidance. By taking a look at book covers and contents, of both the best selling children and adult books, I hoped to draw a contrast between the designs of books and the designs of websites.

The World’s Worst Teachers by David Walliams

The World’s Worst Teachers by David Walliams is the best selling children's book on Amazon UK, except for Harry Potter. (I chose to disqualify the wonder that is HP, because we all know it isn’t just kids reading that one.)

Yes, looking at the cover of this book, you do get the same impression as with the websites. Bright colours, minimal negative space and illustrations everywhere you look.

For reference, let’s compare to the best selling book on Amazon that isn’t a children’s book.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The cover for The Testaments by Margaret Atwood definitely reflects the website designs you can find on Dribbble. Minimal design, simple colour palette and copious, artistic use of negative space.

Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr

Curiously, the older books among Amazon’s children's best-sellers are the ones with more simple covers. They are all on a pale background and feature one strong illustration. I wonder why it is that the more recent publications are brighter and busier? That may be a question for another article…

So, now we’ve taken a look at the outside of the books and shown that some do, indeed match the same design contrasts found in websites, let’s take a look at the bit of the book that actually matters — the inside.

When you open a children’s book, it isn’t an overwhelming experience

Left: The World’s Worst Teachers. Right: The Handmaid’s Tale (as Amazon doesn’t have a preview of The Testaments)

Amazingly, once you step inside the books, the care for clear, simple information is much more apparent within the children’s book. Wide line spacing, smaller amounts of writing and plenty of breathing room.

This design makes sense with books. Young children are just getting comfortable with reading, and so they need to space and the simplicity to be able to actually read the book. Of course, this issue doesn’t apply to the internet because there’s no writing on the int-

Hm, doesn’t quite make sense, does it?

Whilst most of the websites I’ve shown at the top of the article are game websites, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t support a child’s development. Children are constantly developing until they are no longer children. When designing websites for children the consideration should be on ensuring they will understand what’s going on. Engaging the user is obviously a priority to ensure they stay on and interact with the website, but it’s the content that should be engaging, not just the container that the content is within.

The screenshots I showed before were of the landing page of many children’s websites—the equivalent to the cover of a book. Just to check that I wasn’t going to rage-write an article, I peeled open the cover of one website and took a look at the first page.

On the left is the front page of Nickelodeon, and on the right is the page you land on after clicking the hero image. The page you land on is a clip from a show — when the page first opens, the area where the video should be is black until the video has loaded, at which point it begins to auto-play.

The focus of this page is the video, but the video takes longer to load than the rest of the page. If we want the child to be focused on the video, we shouldn’t present them with other videos to click on before the video they wanted to watch has even loaded, right?

So, why do these sites look like this?

Honestly, I can’t answer that question, and maybe there is some research out there to explain why bright colours and patterns are a good thing. I have a theory this design us simply based on assumptions, and that those making the decisions decided that the website needed to be engaging, no matter the content.

This is the wrong way to think about it. The most important thing is to put our users at the heart of designs. Even if our users are children, their issues and usability should be taken seriously.

I’m not here just to rant… Promise…

I understand that so far I have gone on a little rant. I don’t mean to come across as if I think I’m superior to those who designed the kids websites I showed at the start of the article. I’m just here because I found myself looking at children's sites for some of my work and was confused, and a little upset by the designs of these sites.

Upset may seem like an exaggeration, and I’m going to sound like an old crone here, but—children already look to technology for basically everything; that’s a fact of the tech-centric world we live in. That’s fine, but if children are spending a lot of their time consuming things we adults create for them, then why are we not trying our absolute best to support these children’s learning and development? I suppose I think these garish, sensory-overloading sites seem like they would fit well in the Dark Patterns — Hall of Shame.

I feel that these websites give the impression that they’re taking advantage of children's supposed “short attention span” to get these kids to click everywhere and see everything without necessarily taking anything in. This tactic is especially questionable for those children on the autism spectrum, where these designs are literally doing the opposite for what is recommended. This sensory overload won’t help any child develop — as a busy classroom won’t help kids learn any better.

Design for kid’s websites doesn’t have to be chaotic

It doesn’t have to be overwhelming and messy and bright, but it also shouldn’t be too minimal and “trendy” and forget the audience. When designing websites we should always remember our user, respecting their needs and not designing off assumptions. This means that we shouldn’t throw all the colours at our artboard simply because our users are young, and we should consider carefully the unique UX challenges our young, developing users face.



Do you feel the same about the bright designs, or totally disagree? Have you designed any websites for children? Let us know in the comments, or chat to us via Twitter @InktrapDesign.

Inktrap

Thoughts, feelings and emotions from the Inktrap team

Thanks to Liz Hamburger

Rachel Brockbank

Written by

Digital Product Designer at Inktrap

Inktrap

Inktrap

Thoughts, feelings and emotions from the Inktrap team

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