Rules of Attraction

research_150.jpgYou can count on youth media websites to be packed with powerful, teen-produced content. But while a lot of time and effort goes into creating those radio snippets, videos, and articles, few youth media nonprofits have the budget to put as much energy into making their site’s design appeal to teens. Others hire web specialists who may not be experts in teen design. As a result, some youth media groups’ websites are more alluring to adults than to their target audience. This is a missed opportunity—no matter how strong the content, a website that is not designed with youth in mind will fail to attract teen visitors, according to a new study by the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG).
“Teens pay more attention to web design than do adults,” NNG concludes in Teenagers on the Web: 60 Usability Guidelines for Creating Compelling Websites for Teens. Researchers studied 38 adolescents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds (46 percent came from households with an income of less than $30,000) as they performed tasks on the web (like trying to find information on Marie Curie).
Some of the findings may sound obvious to those working with teens, such as the “discovery” that young people crave venues to express themselves. Other conclusions challenge typical teen stereotypes, like the misconception that today’s youth are techno-geniuses in need of constant visual and aural stimulation. (Actually, teens prefer simple design schemes and may be less adept at finding information on the web than adults, the study found.)

Some of the report’s conclusions challenge typical teen stereotypes, like the misconception that today’s youth are techno-geniuses in need of constant visual and aural stimulation.

The NNG report translates these findings into clear guidelines for how to make a website work well for teens. For all who design, edit, or facilitate youth websites, NNG’s tips on what attracts teen attention are worth heeding. After all, the web can be a powerful means of getting youth-produced work in the hands (or on the computers) of one of youth media’s primary audiences—teens themselves. Here are some of the guide’s highlights:
Let teens chat and talk. Make sure your site is interactive. Quizzes, polls, message boards, games, or questions asking for feedback allow teens to meet new friends, share ideas, and believe their ideas matter and can make a difference. Interactive websites send that message. (So does giving teens a platform to showcase their own media, come to think of it…)
Make the site easy to use and understand. NNG cites three factors for why young people may not be the techno whiz kids so many people assume they are—teens’ still-developing reading skills, research abilities, and, uh, patience. Whether or not this sounds to you like more teen stereotyping, you’ll probably agree with the study’s resulting tips for web design. To create an effective teen site, NNG says, make everything clear. Provide lots of visible links that change color to show visited areas and clear cross-references with links to related material. Make the “search” box easy to find.
Keep it clean. A common misconception is that teens want loud, glitzy graphics, reports NNG. Actually, teens like a minimalist, clean layout. They prefer a large font (so they can lean back in their chairs while reading), tabulated borders, and need-to-know information only. Jumbled, verbose content is a major turnoff. Nor are teens fond of fancy animation schemes, pop-ups, or annoying sound effects.
Don’t call it a “kids’” or “youth” site. This may be bad news for organizations with the word “youth” in their names, but NNG’s study found that the terms “can be completely misinterpreted by teens.” While the report did not explain what beef, exactly, teens have with the word “youth,” it did relay that teens avoid sites that appear too childlike, and “detest” being called “kids.” The bottom line: teens like being called “teens.”
Use classy colors and cutting-edge design. Think Macs.
Make it fast. Not every teen has high-speed access or a top-notch computer. Slow-running sites and long download times can be annoying, to say the least.
Let teens click for information. Teens prefer to click than to scroll, so limit the scrolling, please.
Intrigued? You can learn (much) more by buying Teenagers on the Web for, gulp, $149. The price may be worth it. The easy-to-follow, 129-page report offers 60 detailed design guidelines along with pictures of exemplary sites and supporting research explaining how and why these tips work for teens. It also provides commonsense advice for how to get teens to articulate their thoughts during studies. (Assure young people that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers—and no intimidating white lab coats, please.) The report can be downloaded from the Nielsen Norman Group website.
As for the study’s conclusion that adults may be able to out-websurf us youth, I have some difficulty believing it. It takes my mom an hour to type and send a paragraph-long email, and she still hasn’t figured out that “Return” is the same as “Enter.” So for NNG’s next study, I propose a nationwide household challenge to determine web proficiency. Losers do the winner’s homework for a week.
Rebecca Staed worked as an intern at Children’s PressLine.
This article originally appeared on YMR as “What Works on the Web for Teens.”

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