frustrated teenRecently I decided to delve deeper into the workings of the teenage mind, particularly interested in how they use the web. Most adults I’ve talked to refer to teenagers as “web wizards”, parents and teachers often watch them browse the internet in amazement at their seemingly advanced grasp on technology and their ability to “figure things out.”

While doing some research for our next website redesign project, I found that this definitely is not the case. Teenagers (ages 13-17, who spend 5-10 hours on the web per week) actually perform in usability studies at a significantly lower success rate than adults do. In the report Teenagers on the Web: 61 Usability Guidelines for Creating Compelling Websites for Teens, Jacob Nielsen notes, “Teenagers like to do stuff on the Web, and dislike sites that are slow or that look fancy but behave clumsily.”

One of the most interesting parts of my research was to learn that the age group audiences of children and teenagers are actually very, very small. Most break the age brackets down to ages 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, 13-15, and 16-17. Why? Because children and teenagers are fiercely proud of their age, and any mistake a designer makes in creating that age-appropriate environment can be detrimental to the success of the website. During one usability study testing a 6-year old, the child actually said, “This website is for babies, maybe 4 or 5 years old. You can tell because of the cartoons and trains.”

Back to teenagers. What can we do to optimize our websites for this finicky age range?

  1. Present any copy text in small, readable chunks
    Many teenagers dislike reading (online and/or in general), or simply don’t want to read large amounts of text online. Try to break the copy up with interesting photos, or something interactive such as a poll or survey. If there’s information in the text that can be visually represented, try to create a chart or graph with this information. For example, if you are writing an article to teach teens about caring for their pet, start the column off with a poll asking them what type of pet they have, and finish the article with a quiz about famous pets in movies.
  2. Create easy to understand, uncluttered navigation structures and titles
    Teens have a dramatically lower patience level than adults. Make sure that your website is easy to navigate through, and that you provide relevant links, breadcrumb structures, and search features that can guide them to what they need. On top of their lack of patience, teenage minds are still developing, and they definitely have less sophisticated research strategies when looking for information.

Beyond these basics, it’s important to try to understand what teenagers actually do want out of your website.  While saying that, let’s be realistic here, and note that there’s not much that teenagers actually do like… or willingly admit to liking. In fact, 13-17 year-olds show either dislike or indifference to most categories conducted in the study.

What teens don’t like

  • mine sweeping for links
  • reading long blocks of text
  • being called “kids” or “children”
  • heavy animation
  • color schemes that seem to child-like
  • small text

What teens might appreciate

(To some extent… maybe… depends on their mood)

  • tasteful animation and sound effects
  • relevant advertising
  • scrolling

The big question… what do teens REALLY like?

(Drumroll….. INTERACTION)

  • quizzes
  • feedback forms
  • ways to ask questions
  • voting (polls)
  • sharing pictures or stories
  • message boards
  • offering and receiving advice (see sodevious.net/)
  • a way to add their own content
  • cool-looking websites (they pay more attention to graphics)

Teens also prefer clean, easy-to-use designs above over-cluttered, confusing,  glitzy sites.

What has been your experience with the teenage audience? Do you find them more or less tech-savvy than the average adult? What else can we do to engage them?