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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:
October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers


Having fun or finding information? Usability for kids sections of Web sites

Céline Arseneault, Montreal Botanical Garden & École Polytechnique de Montréal and Jean-Marc Robert, École Polytechnique de Montréal, Canada


Kids aged 6-12 use the Internet more and more as a resource for finding information for school projects. Teachers also include web content in their curriculum. Many museums' Web sites include a kids' section, either as a separate website (such as the J@rdin des jeunes branchés at the Montreal Botanical Garden) or a corner dedicated to fun activities and interactive learning (such as the Canada Science and Technology Museum). In an educational environment, content-enriched Web sites should be designed to be user-centered taking into consideration this young audience. Situated cognition of kids applied to the Web reveals important aspects in the design and evaluation of educational Web sites. Concurrent review of available literature, analysis of ergonomic criteria applied to kids' Web sites and usability studies with children demonstrate the need for a better consensus on the way we develop and evaluate the user-interface of online products for children. An integrated and iterative model is proposed to bring a structured and analytical perspective on kids' Web sites that can be applied to museum Web sites.

Keywords: children, cognitive ergonomics, educational Web sites, heuristic evaluation, usability tests, model, user-centered design, situated learning


In January 2003, while preparing for this conference, I read in the newspaper that a school board in the Eastern Townships (about 250 km east of Montreal), was about to buy a couple thousand laptops for their students, certainly at a cost of few million dollars. Their reasoning was probably that they wanted to integrate the powerful content of this tool in the curriculum and to develop new expertise for kids as young as 8 years old. This way of thinking assumes that putting a PC in the hands of a child will produce instant magic and that this child, even with the guidance of his teachers, will become ' in a click ' an expert in using the many interfaces that she or he will face. It's just a matter of time before she or he will be aware that not everything is perfect in the marvelous world of electronic data. Or is it?

At the same time as they are being exposed to the computer at school, children themselves are eagerly using the Internet, not only for communication and leisure, but also for assistance with homework and school projects. For instance, an Environics Research Group survey done for the Media Awareness Network (Young Canadians In A Wired World) and published in June 2001 shows that the majority of young Quebecers (56%) and Canadians (50%) seem to know more about the Internet than their parents; 99% of the children have used the Internet at least once. They are left to themselves when consulting the Web. Almost half of them use it every day. Though the virtual activities conducted by young people are diversified, i. e. music downloading and listening, e-mail and chat, online games, etc. , they are usually associated with leisure, thus being more in the fun department of Web use. This would surprise their parents, who think that kids primarily use the Web for academic purposes. In fact, it is true that academic use is important but less popular than the parents and the teachers would suppose (only 38% in 2000). However, Internet is the winner as the primary resource for schoolwork and projects (82% in Quebec and 71% in Canada), ahead of public libraries (64% in Quebec and 60% in Canada) and school libraries (55% in Quebec and 57% in Canada) (Environics Research, 2001).

In 1999, Internet was already widely used in Canadian schools (up to 88% of the students in primary schools and 97% in secondary schools). However, learning the use of the computer is not generally seen as a separate subject, such as math or history. It is often seen as a part of the general educational domain in which efficient learning takes place in a contextual environment.computer literacy, particularly applied to Web technologies, seems to be missing as a specific subject, even though teachers have asserted that "the computerized tool, in its conceptual form, can become a powerful pedagogical lever at a meta-cognitive level" (Lemieux, 2000), i. e. in the search, retrieval and organization of information.

As webmasters and/or museum professionals, we cannot ignore the propensity of our educational specialists to integrate diverse skills, or as it is called in Quebec, develop 'transverse competencies', for example, incorporating math into literature, geography into math, or computer skills into natural sciences. So much of the information on our Web sites will eventually be found and used by children, that a study about how kids react to information on the Web would be useful for further development of Web projects.

Web masters have to be humble when thinking of their popularity among young virtual visitors, and the assessing satisfaction of children using their Web sites, because this use is often associated with assigned schoolwork. Nonetheless, content-enriched Web sites should be designed to be user-centered, taking into consideration this young audience (and their teachers and parents).

Sites expressly designed for a youthful clientele can be classified according to various criteria. The first is the anticipated use - purely playful (one is amused), informative (one looks things up without the goal of learning anything), search (surfing the Web), play-educational (one is amused while playing or what Demner (2001) calls 'edutainment') and finally educational (learning-oriented). To these must be added or included sites extolling parallel activities that are related to the Internet's potential: chatting, editing, communicating, etc.

Certain sites unfold on more than one level and thus command a larger audience. Some sites that are not specifically designed for youth find that a large proportion of their traffic is composed of young people, either because of the type of activities they offer (music, search engine) or because of their content. Museum sites often fall under this category. But should they try harder to specifically target a young clientele? If yes, how should they do it?

Many publications and the many papers presented at this conference suggest that the search for guidelines for a better design and use of Web sites designed for kids is happening at the right moment, because the next boom will be the complete integration of the new technologies in the school curriculum. Our cognitive ergonomic approach is designed to help us to draw some perspectives for evaluation and use of educational Web sites in science (though it is likely to be of value for other subjects as well). In particular, we have established that usability tests conducted with children with both real and plausible contextual problems relative to their level of learning and interests at school, could offer the necessary situated learning perspective to enable additional analysis.

Web usability evaluation methods

Our goal was to review current multidisciplinary literature (available in the spring of 2002) that discussed the development, use and analysis of Web sites dedicated to children aged 6-12. Choosing 53 Web sites from a potential list of few hundred, we proceeded with a heuristic evaluation. We selected 30 of them for their content in context. Usability testing followed in a cognitive learning situation with pre-determined scenarios, both fun and educational. Eight children, 3rd to 6th graders, from a private elementary school in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, were subjected to an hour-long session, including a questionnaire and videotaping. Questionnaires were also sent to parents, prior to the tests, asking for permission to film and requesting information about their children's knowledge and use of the Internet at home. At school, these children had access to computers and the Internet in their classes, without formal training. Only one child did not choose Internet as his primary source of information for school projects. Analysis from both of these methods helped us to extrapolate recommendations for science-related educational Web sites.

Situated learning of children

Jean Piaget took his inspiration from cognitive sciences as the comprehensive science for describing children's developmental stages(Inhelder & Piaget, 1970). In cognitive ergonomics, the mental structures and thought of children are represented as a system and an information process. Piaget and other cognitive developmental scientists have seen children as active agents who construct their own understanding of the world (Fischer and Lazerson, 1984). The applicability of this concept to the educational use of computers in learning depends on intelligent didactic programs able to interact with the children in the most natural and constructivist way.

Constructivist learning theory allow us to divide children according to their ages and the stage at which the sense of the concrete is associated and applied. The 7 to 11 year old group coincides with the concrete operational stage (elementary and early adolescence). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thought diminishes. Applied to computer usage behavior, this translates into:

  • Aptitude to surf the content (browsing). (Does this show the lack of literacy to actively search the information or is it a sign of a budding intellectual curiosity?)
  • Aptitude to work in teams in front of a screen (which will be useful when conducting the tests)
  • Easy learning of metaphors and semantic concepts

Recent research on contextual learning seems to demonstrate that even very young children at the concrete operational stage (8 years old) are able to develop sophisticated strategies as a means to react to complex situations. Reasoning and decision-making strategies are, at this age, anchored deeply to the specific usage context and cannot be judged solely on the basis of Piagetian learning (Blaye et al, 1999). Therefore, children demonstrate an elevated cognitive adaptability according to the task that is to be accomplished, an interpretation of situations and, more precisely, an analysis of the answer according to the pertinence of the elements appropriate to each of these situations. This may lead one to a different interpretation of the results when doing an ergonomic analysis. This approach based on situational cognition would tend to justify our procedural method when it comes to usability tests that are tailored for children's educational sites. Therefore, in order to better perceive their reactions with regards to virtual interfaces, we have contextualized this learning process by developing scenarios of real research, which are applicable to the educational milieu for children of different primary levels. We have nevertheless decided that it was important to choose questions with a degree of abstraction in line with Piagetian theory and the pedagogical objectives of the school. For instance, dinosaurs for 3rd graders and the solar system for 6th graders.

More than an intellectual working tool, a computer is a cognitive mirror: it encourages students to reflect on their cognitive functioning and verbalize strategies, and thereby to better comprehend the process of learning and to objectify the process. A computer both reveals the competency and the knowledge of the student, and the mechanisms by which they acquired this knowledge and attitudes (Bibeau, 1997).

In a separate study, Robert (2002) tested children and teenagers on some of the sites selected in a group-setting environment. For the purpose of situated-learning scenarios, we therefore grouped students into teams of two so as to encourage an exchange of information. This falls under the "interactionist" movement, which prioritizes the human and social dimension during the learning process. The idea is that one always learns something for and with someone (Kiledjian, 2001). One must also take into account the role played by interactions between students. Learning activity is thus social and affective before being logical and functional. Many researchers in the educational sciences take this dimension into account in assessing the place of educational technologies in the learning process.

The absence of methodology specific to the utilization of the Internet for researching information coupled with the multiplicity of available information and the anarchy of design of educational sites imposes a renewed cognitive effort by children when they want to use the Internet for school work and even more effort once they finally get to that site. We therefore put the selected sites into bookmarks, in order for the kids to choose them from a restricted list.

When educational sites are employed in a school context, it appears that one must also take into account cognitive styles. The cognitive style defines the organizational and representational approach of the information that the individual prefers when placed in a learning situation. Chen and Macredie (2002) tried to better define the perception and effect of hypermedia systems according to different styles of students. Two particular types of cognitive styles were distinguished when they were adapted to hypermedia, namely "field-independent individuals" and "field-dependent individuals". When learning through hypermedia, the learner possesses control of the route already proposed by the navigation system. For that matter, most Web sites offer their visitors multiple navigational tools and exploit different approaches that are inherent to cognitive styles. Field-independent individuals have a tendency to favor the search options, to increase the opportunities for discovery through the proposed links and to organize a certain informational structure throughout their virtual course. Field-dependent individuals, however, prefer a more linear navigational route or they prefer to use already existing tools for presenting structured information (site plans, glossaries, etc. ) These individuals are dependent on these tools without which they would easily become confused and could learn less well, they could become discouraged at not having found what they were looking for and have a tendency to abandon their search. It is difficult in designing usability tests, to define cognitive styles in advance so as to have a representative sampling of these two cognitive styles. However, these styles will reveal themselves during testing sessions and they will balance themselves out somehow.

The child's mental model of the Internet is also important to this study. Some authors have reported on the "broken Internet" image that children may develop when a problem arises, either during connecting, downloading plugins or following a broken link (Lewis, 2001). On the other hand, it would appear that children are also influenced by the results of their actions, which may lead to efficiency and a satisfactory solution. For both these reasons, schools use of portals or search tools as a preliminary to the retrieval for the information necessary for a schoolwork is a limiting factor. Bilal (200, 2001) has explored the cognitive and physical reactions of young adolescents (approx. 13 years old) when using Yahooligans!, a portal which is enormously popular among young Americans and English Canadians. During these studies, he noted the efficacy, effort and efficiency of the hypermedia movements versus search strategies and he then arranged these criteria in a numerical order. He deduced that these youth demonstrated much more difficulty with research tasks than with tasks based on facts. This study is particularly interesting even for content-rich sites that offer a search option for retrieving information from the site itself.

With a portal like Yahooligans!, the overwhelming size of the result set also gives us a glimpse of the constraints influencing which one to choose. Just as for adults, the children decide to make do with a satisfactory solution (‘satisfacingü) which flows from a bounded rationality and not from an optimal solution. Agosto (2002) revived Simon's postulate that an individual will make a decision with temporal and cognitive limitations that will hinder him from evaluating all of the possibilities involved in decision making. When applied to the Web and experimented on children, this behavioral theory has permitted us to identify time constraints, information overload and physical discomfort that play major roles in attaining a satisfactory solution.

Closely related to the satisfactory solution, the problem of the pertinence, quality and authority of the information is relevant to cognitive studies of Web youth. Lorenzen (2001) in his study of high school students has underlined the weak judgment that young people seem to have regarding the quality of information. He reports that in the absence of supervision or of filters, most youth did a poor job of evaluating the contents of the websites they visited. It is possible that the problem resulted from their lack of tools to evaluate the information or because they are using deficient evaluation criteria. This lack of critical judgment with regards to the validity of the recovered information make the Web both a best friend or a worst enemy of educational research projects for a clientele which is younger and less advanced in critical thinking according to Perry. For example, while older students might judge the quality of the spelling to evaluate a site, it is almost a sure bet that this will not be noted by young grade school students. During the tests of usability it is crucial to attempt to evaluate the validity of information. The Media Awareness Network of which we have already spoken has concluded that their priority should be the development of critical thinking with regards to the new media (Thibault, 2002).

Among the other cognitive elements which fall under the category of subjectivity, curiosity among children 6-12 years old is a non-negligible factor because it depends on capturing their interest and awakening their sense of discovery (Dumas and Brooks, 2001). It's already been stated that children are naturally curious. A tour of educational sites which answer children's questions (Ask Dr. Universe, Le J@rdin des jeunes branchés, Les Débrouillards) leads us to understand the sort of questions that they can ask, as much of their parents as of their educators, as well as the degree of complexity of these questions and the juxtaposition of elements often totally disassembled that they present. A site that doesn't interest young people, in spite of having a potentially captivating interface, is not fulfilling its objectives. In addition, children are very aware of new trends, be it subject treatment (for example, the phenomenon of "grossology", or "grossing one out" that is, whatever's really repugnant but attracts children's curiosity) or by multimedia presentations ("in" colors, graphic styles, music, etc. ).

Designing the Net for children

If we consider that an analysis of children's Web sites falls under the field of multidisciplinarity, it is even more so when conceiving technological interfaces that will be attractive to the young. Some authors, such as Allison Druin, even advocate developing new products for children in cooperation with children (Druin, 2002). Such a design approach could extend from a simple test of usability to full technological immersion in which children participate fully in creating an interface that interests and stimulates them. Learning is centered on the design, the results of which Druin calls the process of cooperative enquiry, which is the most participative format of the largest number of adults, and children who create interfaces. Web designers are offered copious advice when designing sites for children. CNETbuilder.com stresses such diverse aspects as privacy policy and tests for children (Wimpsett, 1998). Never being condescending and treating children with respect is certainly a premise when designing a new Web application. Other aspects of user-centered design may appear when dealing with content-enriched Web sites, especially if educational goals are to be attained.

Ergonomics of the "Youth Web"

Web ergonomics or web usability aims to create an interface that is effective for content delivery and efficient for use by its targeted clientele. The Museums and the Web Conferences have demonstrated that content-enriched Web sites are an important key to success. Our own experience at the Montreal Botanical Garden has shown that diversified and rich content will help attract virtual visitors and will also contribute to a repeated experience, which contributes towards building a virtual community (Arseneault, 2002). Shneiderman (1997) states that enriched-content Web sites are more dependent on their developers' experience, but that this experience, however valid, is not enough to use as guidelines.

Any web application is only as good as its usability (Helinki, 1997). Nogier (2002a) defines usability as an associated concept to the fact that a tool like Internet is more or less usable. Usability is therefore an important factor in a successful and quality website. Web ergonomics in a young people's website is more crucial because of the combined effect of the learning process and fun components associated with its use. Whatever the audience is or the clientele targeted by a website, a set of ergonomic principles (or usability guidelines) can be applied. Our task was defining if the criteria used in most heuristic evaluations would be the same for children's Web sites.

System acceptability is inclusive of the process in which usability is part. Information architecture, homepage, pages' graphic presentation, and navigation are some of the elements of the website system and effective observation of how these elements are used can bring valid keys to its improvement. Other user-oriented design takes into account the efficiency and accessibility of the website.

For this study we have integrated two methods of ergonomic evaluation: expert or heuristic evaluation and usability testing. A cognitive walk-through was helpful in the preliminary selection of the Web sites. More than half of the Web sites selected were from museums or governmental agencies.

How can "traditional" usability principles be adapted to children's Web sites? Nogier (2002a) has established a set of eleven easy-to-ask questions when trying to diagnose major problems on a website, with regards to aspects such as conversational level, user language level, and memory charge.

These questions are very pertinent for kids' Web sites, even if they become intuitive for cognitive ergonomic specialists.

After testing 24 commercial Web sites for children (Yahooligans!, SesameStreet.com and ABC News for Kids), Nielsen has adapted its guidelines on children's Web sites (Nielsen Norman Group, 2002). Particularly appealing is the comment that website developers usually have a folkloric notion of how kids behave on the Web (Nielsen, J. 2002). Kids adore interactivity, but they easily get discouraged and quickly move on. The most important result from the Nielsen series of tests is probably the confusion existing between content and promotional banners, ads, etc. Marketers know that. They exploit more and more thematic Web sites tailor-designed to the young consumer (Rioux, 2002).

Ergonomic evaluation targets the goals to emphasize positive elements and detect and explain elements to be corrected or improved in the website (Robert, 2002). Usability testing is then a component of the global process and a very good follow-up of a heuristic evaluation.

Robert (2002) in a study for the Biosphere, a Montreal-based environmental museum, has presented a comparative analysis of criteria as developed by Bastien and Scapin (1993), Ravden and Johnson (1989) and Robert (1990). The latter divides functionality appropriate to the task, distinguishing the interface quality (compatibility, transparency, cohesion, explicit control, rapidity of action and flexibility) from key functionality of the interaction (information return, navigation, help, error management). This intuitive approach is very useful in the evaluation of the interface. However, for educational Web sites, one also has to take account of content comprehension and architecture.

The International Standard ISO 9241-10 has not proven to be sufficient for the scope of the present work. Unfortunately, evaluation systems for museum Web sites are more oriented towards the pragmatic aspects and collection value of the museum, and less towards the use of the virtual museum by a young clientele, even if these systems are prone to allow greater priority to the user. Guidelines developed by experts for educational Web sites (such as Al-Nuaim, 2000) take into account a more conventional notion of 'education' and were not found to be adaptable for this study.

Generally speaking, I was surprised by the quality and variety of visited Web sites. Most were quite well-structured and graphically interesting, if not remarkable. Navigation is usually efficient, although they are often found to lack more than one option (sitemap, search engine, pop-ups for enlarging images, etc. ).

Without any advance warning, many Web sites only performed when using Internet Explorer (IE) or Netscape Communicator. Still, about 10% of website visitors use Netscape Communicator (Ville de Montréal, 2002).

Among conducting methods for usability tests, few recommendations are oriented towards children. Usability tests for children do resemble adult ones, but some aspects are more specific to them (Bowman, 2002).

We followed Larkin's recommendations (2002) concerning testing children. I do emphasize having the cooperation of school, parents and students, and choosing an environment and preparing scenarios adapted to the children.

Druin (1996) reminds us that children are quite honest. They are quick to respond, to show their likes and dislikes. As users, children see things that are not evident to experts and this can provide a better website evaluation (Robert, 2002).

Results and recommendations

Among the results from these tests, the most significant elements that were noted was the wide variability and richness of responses and gathered observations. If these results are calibrated with the results of similar studies, this leads us on interesting paths of extrapolation. In their turn, these paths can generate preliminary recommendations which are useful to creators of children's sites or those who evaluate them. A subsequent study having a larger sampling would permit an even larger range of recommendations. I will also illustrate how some of these recommendations may have practical applications on a site such as the J@ardin des jeunes branchés' and can dramatically improve a website, even if they involve detailed aspects of the interface design.


When arriving at a website, children take a moment to size up the cognitive environment of the graphics and navigation. They seem to enjoy the novelty of every website. If the website is in the continuity of an alternative media, e. g. a TV program or a magazine, they expect graphic continuity.

  • Avoid homepages too long to download. There are still young people out there who use the Internet with a low-speed connection, They will be more patient if they can have hints about the value of the upcoming content.

Navigation, links, frames, icons and information retrieval

Children know how to follow hyperlink, either by icons, menus or text listings, even if it is not underlined, because they validate links with the cursor appearance. In a complex set of frames and text, underlined links are easier to distinguish and follow. Children understand the value of pop-up windows.

  • Eliminate any risk of confusion between the internal navigation of a site or module and the window banner (frame) normally found on institutional or governmental sites.
  • Avoid too many frames which create visual confusion.
  • Avoid tables with complex listings and long lists of badly organized links which are too cognitively "heavy" for the very young (under ten years old).

Metaphoric use of icons is often confused. Children quickly confuse non-link graphics similar to buttons. They also bring back the semantics developed by the site to their own level of reality. It translates into a mix-up of concepts because of the confusion of language. In French, for instance, a ‘ recherche ü icon (search option) is confused for ‘ recherche scolaire ü, which means schoolwork. Children understand the value of standards, but what if there is a mix-up in their own understanding?

  • Use conventional standards and wordings and test their use on your targeted clientele.

A surprising result was the preference of the back button in the navigator over the use of the menu when going back to the homepage. This denotes that they have not fully comprehended the navigation system. When section of a museum website is dedicated to a young clientele, children may be quite confused by the environment related to the rest of the website, especially with direct linking to other parts of the website.

  • Have the most linear navigation possible (horizontal or vertical). A second navigation level could be oriented towards older or more experienced children and regroup all utilitarian buttons (search, map, mail)
  • Always warn children about the existence of a link to an outside site, even more of the external site's language is different.
  • Use a set of arrows at the bottom of the pages which follow one after the other. An icon to the top of the page is also useful for any page which is longer than the screen's page.

Cognitive styles

As expected, both cognitive styles were represented. Badly chosen wording or spelling for some items confused field-independent children even more. For instance, a glossary identified by a question mark leads a child to select this as a search option. When required to search on a website, children mixed up search from the navigator, search on the current page and search engine from the site itself. Satisfying solutions were largely chosen over the real potential of a website.

  • Simultaneously develop a search option and a website map (alphabetical and or organizational) that brings together both cognitive styles described by the virtual visitors. Make sure these tools are well positioned and neglect any analogies or metaphors that could be sources of confusion.
  • Use to the maximum the potential of hypertext connections to define certain words or concepts, for example pop-up windows instead of a glossary icon, which certain young people confuse with site maps or search option. Be clear about what images could be enlarged.
  • Favor the search for individual pages on sites by their addresses and individual set of metadata in order to use the potential of search engines.
  • Encourage schools to integrate into the curriculum an adaptive and progressive program of Internet training. Mention to school authorities the need for a better Internet mental model, a structured vocabulary and tools of Internet sites as well as navigators.
  • Sensitize parents to the moral authority of content (and reflect this in your chosen links on your website).
  • Sensitize parents, youth and educators to the potential of search tools and index lists of recommended sites and create such lists on your Web sites.

School project content-enriched website

Navigational tools disseminated over the screen often lead children to become confused. The most significant cognitive effort is to select the option that would bring results. The magazine approach, visually heavy, where text is prominent and information is spread out on the page may add to the difficulty to rapidly seize up the path to follow.

  • Do not have overly long Web pages.
  • Distribute the content along with photos and illustrations over several pages. Favor small photos which have an enlargement option.

Plugins or scripts

Children understand the need for plugins but are somewhat hesitant to download them if they do not have the adult's approval.

  • Exercise great caution when using plugins or integrating scripts. Error messages in certain navigators or platforms, non installation capabilities of the visitor's system, poor direction when installing the plugins can be negative elements to an educational use by young people whose mental model of the Internet is too incomplete or erroneous.

Colors, graphics, fonts

All children like colorful, playful graphics. Girls demonstrate a preference for funny or lovable characters. Children see the potential of images which can be included in schoolwork. They try to enlarge them, but are lost when the enlarged image substitutes itself over the page, when the only plausible option then is to use the back button. They appreciate good readability, as expected without serif, and show their disapproval of a small font.comic-style fonts are their favorite (as shown by Bernard, 2001).

Having fun: finding games and playing

Kids love to have fun. As soon as games are advertised, children select this option over the task to be accomplished. They are eager to play, the more interactive the better, but are disappointed if the game does not prove itself as much fun as it should have been, or too young or difficult for their age level. Their approach is intuitive, not wanting to read rules, although girls are more patient than boys (as shown by Nielsen, 2002). Long non-categorized listing of games were not interesting. All of the tested children were not necessarily familiar with Flash. Rules could have been useful if they had been shown during playing, not just before.

  • Exploit to the maximum the educational potential of games, especially if they are interactive, whether for personal or class use.
  • List games indicating their interactivity and their levels of difficulty.
  • Don't use games if the information is for students "to read" and use for school projects.
  • Have concise instructions to which one can accede at different levels or stages of the game.
  • Emphasize important information in larger or thicker fonts.
  • Affix a pop-up which can optionally stay open.

Forms and passwords

One visited website needed signing-up. It was a challenge by itself! Children were discouraged and wanted to quit, not knowing how greatly effective the website was. Surveys were sometimes misunderstood as signing-up.

  • Have an option for accessing a game without having to use a password for a first visit so that the site's potential can be better explored.
  • If the information is not commercially dependent or private information sensitive, publish the user's name and the password as soon as it is validated.
  • Offer the option of receiving the user's name and password by e-mail, without any obligation on the youth's part. Be sure you respect private information access rules and laws. Make your privacy policy available at a child's level of comprehension.
  • Arrange it so that any inscription in a window can be validated by the enter key.
  • Do not make a distinction for font caps in the registration window without advising the user.

Asking questions and receiving a response: Customer service - E-mail

Even if most of the visited Web sites had e-mail addresses and/or forms, few of them had the option to ask questions. Some are specialized in this type of interaction. When finding this option, children commented they would use it or the offered content to previous questions, because they felt it really corresponded to their needs. An informal test conducted by sending an e-mail to the tested Web sites proved itself ineffective: only one responded quickly and in time with the advertised policy (not counting the author's J@rdin des jeunes branchés ).

  • Add on an option for communicating by e-mail, preferably with a form (ease-of-use on a school or public library computer) for sending questions, comments, etc. Indicate clearly on the form's page, the type of question that will merit a reply and the time lapse one should expect between the question and the reply.
  • List your privacy policy.

Sound and music

Children did not find sound and music necessary in content-enriched Web sites. Their logic is somewhat disconcerting, one girl stating it could be nice to hear an interviewed scientist speaking instead of reading his words.


Attractive Flash animation on homepage but not exploited elsewhere is disappointing. Children find animation overstated and not useful when used elsewhere than games. Some Web sites required plugins when requesting their homepage. Animated gifs were liked, in good dosage. Continual flashing disturbed them.

Information quality

Most of the children were not really interested in the authorship of the content and the website's developer, even if a good website title was attractive. It only became important when printing the information and/or including it in schoolwork. Logos, flags and institutional names are obliterated from their virtual experience's memory. If the visit is in the scope of a museum visit, for instance, or if the site seems to offer a rich content that they will eventually use for other purposes, their interest is higher. All of the children were enthusiastic about discovering more about all of the selected Web sites, even if they were inefficient, leading them to become discouraged if they could not find the information.

  • Don't overdo the presence of logos identifying the sites owners (governments, institutions, etc. ), particularly those that refer to external sites: it's not by overdoing them that a child will remember the content's author. These logos seem to become anonymous to young people and, even more, weigh down the graphic and textual spaces and their memory impact.
  • Settle for good and descriptive title pages, including navigational titles with institutional name on the programming and on ease-of-use for those who wish refer to sites by bookmarks or by bibliographic data.


Exposure to publicity varies in its effectiveness. Most tested children ignored it, having been exposed to a greater extent on commercial sites. Many seem to appreciate it and can interpret it as content. Promotional ads integrated in the content and the navigation let them think they have control over it.

  • Eliminate ads including any subjective publicity in any children's educational sites, even if these sites are private or commercial. Rather, make the information market accessible by an icon included somewhere in the navigation (possibly in the "useful" icons) when signing up, advertising or buying is desirable (subscribing, coming-up activities, etc. )
  • Don't have pop-ups for publicity which one can't get rid of or that keep coming back every time a page is opened.

Integrated and iterative model for an educational website

We are tentatively providing an iterative and complementary system model that reveals an integrated methodology of ergonomic processes for the evaluation of educational Web sites. This model also offers an acknowledgement of alternative data gathering methods such as Web statistics or virtual visitors' comments.

Fig. 1. Iterative and integrated model for website evaluation [Arseneault, 2002]


This project has permitted us to validate and clear up some ergonomic criteria that are useful to the youth Web. Some of these criteria are important for any type of clientele, but their importance is clarified by usability testing oriented to children.

The recommendations arising from this study open the door to a non-uniform design of youth Web sites, because their clientele seem to appreciate such factors as novelty and creation even in a purely educational context. They target the integration of tools which are pertinent to the full exploitation of content (site map, search option, glossary, menus, etc. ) as well as the orientation of interfaces of which certain elements could exceed the ergonomic framework and greatly hinder the efficiency of an educational use. Government, media, and museums, outside of the educational and conventional milieu could develop an expertise in rendering their information more accessible to young people who are actively seeking it through online activities and content offered through an effective interface.


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Web sites cited or illustrated during the conference

L'agora de Pythagore (AQUOPS) http://euler.cyberscol.qc.ca/pythagore/

Aplusmath.com http://www.aplusmath.com/

Ask Dr. Universe http://www.wsu.edu/DrUniverse/

@t home, la classe de sciences http://www.ping.be/at_home/index.htm

Biod€me - Espace jeunes http://www2.ville.montreal. qc. ca/biodome/3-activ/f3_jeu.htm

Biosphère, centre environnemental, musée sur l'eau http://biosphere.ec.gc.ca/

Centre des sciences de Montréal http://webzine. CentredesSciencesdeMontreal.com/fr/index.htm

Cybersciences-Junior http://www.cybersciences-junior.org/

Civilisations.ca - Enfants http://www.civilisations. ca/kids/kidsf.asp

Fact Monster: Online Almanac, Dictionary, Encyclopedia, and Homework Help http://www.factmonster.com/

Jardin botanique de Montréal http://www.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin

Jardins de Métis - Plantes en danger! http://www.jardinsmetis.com/jeu/intro.asp

L'escale - Site educatif pour les jeunes de 4 - 12 ans. http://www.lescale.net/

L'Espace pour les espaces http://www.espacepourlesespeces.ca/

L'univers des arbres http://www.domtar.com/arbre/index.htm

La Mission - Une grande aventure scientifique ! http://onfjeunesse.ca/lamission/home_f.php

Le J@rdin des jeunes branchés au Jardin botanique de Montréal [Jardin botanique de Montréal] http://www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin/jeunes/accueil.htm

Le magazine de la forêt http://www.woodworld. ch

Les Débrouillards - Le rendez-vous des passionnés de science! http://www.lesdebrouillards.qc.ca/

Les mathématiques : "forêt" y voir! http://www.madie. qc. ca/math/

Le monde de Darwin http://darwin.cyberscol.qc.ca/

Les Roches/La Vie: Le Mystère des empreintes fossils http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mnh/nature/tracefossils/intro-eng.htm l

Musée canadien de la nature http://www.nature.ca/nature_f.cfm

Musée canadien de la nature (Etrevue avec un paléontologue) http://www.nature. ca/discover/fossils/chasmosaur/chaspopf.cfm

Musée des sciences et de la technologie du Canada http://www.science-tech.nmstc. ca/francais/schoolzone/coindesjeunes.cfm

The NASA "Why?" Files http://whyfiles. larc. nasa. gov/treehouse.htm l

National Geographic Kids--Games, Postcard, Animals http://www.nationalgeographic.com/kids/

Nickelodeon Online at Nick.com http: //www.nick.com/

The Nine Planets http://www.seds.org/nineplanets/nineplanets/

NRCat's Scratching Post - Natural Resources Canada Youth Portal http://www.rncan.gc.ca/jeunes/

Parc national Banff - Coin des enfants http://www.worldweb.com/ParksCanada-Banff/frkids.htm l

PetitMonde : Page d'accueil des Enfants http://www.petitmonde.com/Enfants/Accueil. asp

PBS Kids http://pbskids.org/

Prime Minister of Canada - Kids Page http://www.pm.gc.ca/kids. asp?Language=F&page=kidspage

Radio-Canada.ca - Bêtes pas bêtes+ http://radio-canada.ca/jeunesse/betes/

Radio-Canada. ca - Zone Jeunesse http://www.radio-canada.ca/jeunesse/

Réseau Éducation- Média (Le coin des jeunes) http://www.media-awareness.ca/fre/jeune/pres.htm

Sesame Workshop - Sesame Street http://aol. sesameworkshop.org/sesamestreet/

SII @The Exploratorium http://www.exploratorium.edu/learning_studio/sii/

Toile des insectes du Québec (Insectarium de Montréal) http://www.toiledesinsectes.qc.ca/

The Zoological Society of San Diego - Kids Territory http://www.sandiegozoo.org/wildideas/kids/