Helping environmental youth movements get their message across online

Written by Andy Davies - July 1, 2024

Last week we welcomed environmental communications studio Earth Minutes to Somerset House with digital sustainability and engaging younger users with sustainability stories was on the agenda.

Earth Minutes specialise in environmental communications, creating films, events and digital experiences aimed at engaging young people with issues around the climate crisis and while helping the team prepare for the meeting a question occurred to me.

How do you make an effective website aimed at younger users?

Wholegrain’s sites tend to have older audiences. Do the same principles we use apply or is there more to it? This is important for a few reasons. As older generations kick the climate can down the road, today’s younger people will be the ones picking it up in the future. But more than that, the very fact that they are younger increases how much they are affected.

Children and adolescents are at particular risk because of their rapidly developing brain, vulnerability to disease, and limited capacity to avoid or adapt to threats and impacts. They are also more likely to worry about climate change than any other age group.

It’s important that we communicate the risks, challenges & solutions to today’s youth effectively. Websites doing this should combine the best of digital sustainability and UX to meet the challenge.Charities, environmental movements and government organisations play an important role in this. As Tom wrote in his recent piece on humane sites for charities, there are specific challenges here. If anything the requirements for a youth orientated site are even more important.

What do younger users want and need from environmentally focussed websites?

When researching for the Earth Minutes meeting I found a Neilson Norman group (NN) article “Teenagers on the Web”. It’s an invaluable resource for anyone building sites for younger users. It challenged a few of my preconceptions, but the most important message from it’s findings came down to this:

The best practices for websites relating to UX, layout and performance are even more important for younger users.

What’s good for the boomers is good for the zoomers (and gen alpha). For Wholegrain, good UX and performance go hand in hand with sustainability and accessibility. So how is the youth environmental movement doing?

Checking 10 random environmental charity sites

After a quick search on Ecosia I had a list of 10 sites showcasing the work of youth environmental movements and charities. The organisations varied in size of following, from less than 500 followers on Instagram to over 230k.

The analysis of the sites was eye opening. Nearly all the sites scored high website carbon ratings, with 7 out of 10 scoring the worst “F” rating. The main reasons for the poor ratings were:

  • Sites using heavier, less performant site builders like Squarespace or Elementor
  • Autoplaying videos and full bleed images in carousels.
  • Multiple tracking scripts

These low ratings aren’t a huge surprise and nor are they limited to this sector. Site builders like Squarespace offer a low barrier to entry for organisations operating on limited budgets. We need to take climate shadows into account here too. The message is as important as the medium here.However as the Normal Neilson study states Speed Is Key. No one likes a slow site and younger audiences have shorter attention spans and slower connections. Performant sites for younger users are extra important.

Accessibility compliance issues across the board

One of the most frustrating findings was the prevalence of accessibility issues across all the sites. Two issues cropped up time and again.

Firstly low colour contrasts. Given the audience many of the sites used bright, eye catching colours but not always effectively. Webaim’s Wave tool flagged the issues of these bright colours being used on white backgrounds or vice versa. You can use eye catching colours to highlight key messages but need to do so accessibly. Ensuring your messages can be seen by all users is vital for effective climate comms.

Use of images with text either on them or overlaying them was another common issue. Sites often used bright and well designed image cards to showcase events or resources. The text explaining where a user would go was often on the image rather than part of the page mark up. Coupled with this Alt text on the images was often missing. Users with visual impairments or using screen readers would struggle to find relevant information as a result.

As with the performance issues above, these accessibility issues aren’t unique to youth charity sites. It comes down to purpose and alignment here. All the organisations I looked at highlighted inclusiveness as being key to tackling the climate crisis. That makes inclusivity all the more important for your digital output.

User Experience

The NN report confirms that teen users aren’t aimlessly surfing the web, contrary to stereotypes. They are goal-oriented and set out with a purpose. This is probably more true for engaged potential climate activists. Usability and UX are of paramount importance.

Something highlighted by NN is that you should tailor the way you write for younger readers. They have:

  • Lower reading skills
  • Less sophisticated research strategies
  • Dramatically lower levels of patience

Sites with poor navigation and dense blocks of copy need not apply.

Content and layout are especially important

Younger audiences are impatient and easily distracted. Cluttered text splashed across the screen won’t cut it here. Using a technique like chunking will help. A clear visual hierarchy and clustering of information aids comprehension and retention.The sites I looked at actually did this pretty well but a couple of pet peeves did crop up. A few sites used centred text for body copy, something that decreases legibility. Small text size was another issue. Tiny body copy (16px or smaller) is something that younger users hate just as much as Millennials like me. Stop making us squint! Make your copy legible and compelling and I promise we’ll scroll for more…

Privacy and youth sites

A final observation to make on the sites in question relates to privacy. All the sites I checked had some form of cookie based tracking in place, generally Google Analytics. None of them had satisfactory consent mechanisms in place though. Compliance isn’t always an easy or cheap thing to get right and I think this is an important factor here. 

There is also a perception that younger people are always online and that privacy is not a consideration for them. There’s plenty of evidence that this isn’t true though. As with the accessibility issues, there’s a question of alignment here too. Respect and education are common themes across the sites I analysed. It would show users more respect to educate them on what data is being collected and how to opt out.

Key takeaways for environmental youth movements

  • Make your site performant. Young people might not wait around for it to load.
  • Make your site accessible to all. Don’t let you messages go unheard by making it harder for some users to read them.
  • Use UX and content best practices. They’re important for all sites but doubly so for younger users.
  • Respect your users’ privacy.