“YouTube Kids” isn’t safe for kids. Since the #ElsaGate scandal unfolded and even prior to that, parents learned this the hard way, watching intellectual property go rogue in the form of Peppa Pig committing atrocities and Paw Patrol animations running right off the rails. What has become clear is both that YouTube’s parental controls don’t keep the darkness of the internet at bay and that the interface itself isn’t helping children steer clear of potentially disconcerting or harmful content. Put more stridently, YouTube is bad for kids. While it’s tempting to understand this as a corporate problem or as the result tonedeaf management, it might be more constructive and illustrative to focus on the user interaction problem. The interface doesn’t work for kids because, truth be told, it wasn’t actually designed to work for kids.
As it turns out, creating a solid user experience for children is almost nothing like creating a solid user experience for adults. Many of the design features that parents take for granted completely baffle even the cleverest kids. Experts in kid-facing UX design might not have seen murderous cartoons coming, but they were less surprised by the failure of a platform that, on an interaction level, remains close to PG-13. Fatherly spoke with user experience expert Sabina Idler of UXkids in the Netherlands to find out why children are confused by certain interfaces, and how YouTube Kids could improve to become a safer, more child-friendly environment.
What factors do you consider when designing digital platforms for kids?
When we look at Child-Centered Design, we mainly focus on four aspects: the visual design, which needs to be appealing and match the child’s expectations, the usability, which needs to consider the kid’s’ age and their cognitive abilities, fine motor skills, and level of experience, the content, which needs to be age-appropriate and challenging to keep kids engaged, and external motivators, which determine why kids use media for entertainment.
Why do some platforms work for adults, but not kids?
Different levels of exposure, lacking the ability to think in abstract categories, and poor reading skills cause kids to have problems using media that wasn’t designed for them. Basically, any interface that offers a big amount of information, that is text-heavy, or doesn’t clearly differentiate between official and branded content will cause problems for kids.
Can you think of any examples?
Amazon is very usable for adults and, to some extent, it is usable for kids (since kids quickly go for the search bar, which is easy to find). However, kids won’t be able to tell apart the sponsored ads on the homepage, they won’t select a product category to search, and they won’t use the sub-navigation bar because it’s very complex and text only. Another prominent example is Google. Obviously, it is very popular and the search interface is very simple. However, kids struggle a lot with the search results. We see them get stuck with the first or second result and they lack the experience and ability to validate what they’re looking at.
What would the ideal “YouTube Kids” look like?
There are a few things that I’d want to see in the ideal “YouTube Kids.” One, a prominent and very child-friendly search bar with auto-correct function and spelling suggestion. Two, age-appropriate content, which requires waterproof editorial work on the backend. Three, no ads. Four, content personalization, which means kids get to see videos based on their previously watched content. And five, a clear focus on what’s important—watching videos.
The best digital products for kids are developed with kids. So obviously, I’d make sure to test and double test the design with the target group.
How can child safety be maximized while also maximizing the experience?
If there is no technical way to adequately tag and filter appropriate content, there needs to be a human editor involved. Alternatively, I can imagine there could be a crowdsourcing solution allowing parents to tag content and generate valid age-restrictions.
Are there any video platforms doing a better job catering to kids?
In the international market I only know of Netflix Kids, which I think works rather well. In the Netherlands, YouTube Kids isn’t even available yet, so this really is still a huge gap in the market. There are some small alternatives, such as RTL Telekids, but they only show their own content.