100 Things You Should Know About People: #12 — When it comes to technology, you definitely "act your age".

millenialLet’s start with full disclosure: I’m a baby boomer. Ok, I’ve gotten that out of the way.  I do have two millenial children (now young adults), and most of the people I work with are Gen Xers.

How did people get together before cell phones? — My son (age 20) recently asked me how people ever got together when I was growing up. “There weren’t cell phones, so how did you ever arrange to get together to hang out?”, he asked. I had to stop and think about that for a while. “Well”, I answered, “We had regular phones. We were at home a lot, and we’d call each other on the phone and set up a day and time and place to meet. It was all done way ahead of time. And then we had maybe one or two places we would hang out. So if you called someone and they weren’t there (remember, no answering machines or voice mail either), then you’d go drive around (there was a lot of driving around) to the one or two (or maybe three) places that everyone tended to hang out, and eventually you’d find who you were looking for.” It kind of worked, although it meant that you spent most of your time looking for each other!

Generational definitions — I’ve done some of my own exploratory research on generational differences in the last few years. Here are the age group definitions I’m using for this blog post: millenials (born between 1982 and 2002), Gen X’ers (1961-1981) and Boomers (1943-1961). I focused in my research on differences in technology use and expectations. Here are some of my findings:

1. Dualism vs. Ubiquitous — Boomers think that technology is a separate thing. They “go on” the internet. They “make a call on the cell phone”. They look something up “on the computer”. They have a distinction between doing a task and the “tool” that they do the task with. Millennials don’t have that dualism or separation. They look something up (of course they are doing it on the computer… why would you even think to say it that way?). They make a call or text someone… the technology is implied and assumed.

2. Is the technology trapping us? — Gen Xers live their life with technology. They work with it, they use it to be more productive. They like to customize and personalize. The Gen Xers are actually the group that is most enamored by technology, but at the same time they feel trapped by it. Boomers, on the other hand, remember life without it, so Boomers may use it and may be addicted to it like everyone else (see my blog post on Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information), but they can more easily let it go and live without it. Interestingly, millennials have integrated all the various technologies into their lives, but they are the ones that will say, “We need to talk more instead of all this texting.” or “People are forgetting how to even just talk to each other”, or “I don’t use email. It’s a hassle and it’s too impersonal. If I need to communicate I call them or text or facebook”.

3. No one likes small fonts — All the generations I interviewed for my research commented on how much they dislike small fonts online. We think we only need larger fonts if we have a lot of Boomers in our target audience, but all of the generations commented that text was often too small.

4. Like things to scroll? — Boomers don’t like things that move and scroll on the page, such as banners that change. They REALLY don’t like that — it is a reason why they would abandon a site. Gen Xers are fine with these moving parts and Millennials will get bored without them.

5. Interesting and fun — Millennials expect websites to be at least interesting, if not fun. Gen Xers and Boomers are willing to give up fun if the site can be customized for them (Gen Xers), or it’s a useful tool (Boomers).

6. Twitter and Facebook — Gen Xers love twitter. Millennials prefer Facebook. Boomers are trying both, but are still a little bewildered.

7. Gen Xers are outnumbered — You’ve heard how large the Boomer generation is in numbers, right? (78,000,000 in the US). The Millennials are an even larger group (80,000,000 in the US). The Gen Xers are a much smaller group (55,000,000).

8. Gen Xers have to guard against design bias — If you are a Gen Xer you have to be really careful. Gen Xers are doing most of the website design. But most of the people they are designing for are not them! They have to make sure they are not just designing for themselves, and they have to test their design with different generations.

9. Millennials are most affected by “people like me” — If you have pictures of people at your website the millennials are the most sensitive to what the people look like, especially to how old they are. I’ve seen millennials glance at the page they landed on at a website and click out of it within 1 or 2 seconds because, “this site isn’t for me. That woman was old” (by the way, the woman looked about 35 to me!).

10. They are not going to “grow out of it” — Sometimes when I give talks on this topic people will ask me, “Isn’t this just an artifact because these people are young? Soon they will grow up and get married and have children and then they will be just like all the other Gen Xers, right?”. I don’t believe this. The differences are deep and have been ingrained since childhood. The Millennials are not going to grow into Gen Xers, just like the Gen Xers are not going to grow into Boomers.

What do you think? Which generation are you? Do you have to design for other generations? What do you do to make sure you aren’t just designing for yourself?

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10 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #12 — When it comes to technology, you definitely "act your age".”

  1. I am a little bit confused about gap in generations. I never considered to limit myself according to where I am in time. More often than not I accept what it is, and go with everything according to my unbiased judgment and not according to where I “belong.” :-)

  2. I’m Gen X but definitely with Gen Y tendencies as I grew up with computers and the web. I agree to a large extent with what you’re saying… The group size is not so relevant to me. Yes 55 million is less than 80 or 78 but it’s still a huge number. If your website would draw 10 % of X-ers you’d be pretty wealthy.

    The “people like me” is true in the reverse as well. Will boomers hang around a teenager website for long ? Obviously there’s gonna be a “is this fit for me” question.

    I noticed boomers have a great difficult multi-tasking and absorbing information from different areas in parallel. Hence the scrolling problems I think.

  3. Wonderfully articulated – I write for a university admissions department, so my target audience is mid- to late teens. I could (technically) be their grandmother, so I’m always interested in this kind of informaiton. Your point #1 is something I’ve noticed with the student workers I supervise.
    Great stuff… I’ll be following – thanks!

  4. I had an interesting insight regarding item #1 above. It would be like me (aged 55) saying, “I’m going to build a dog house… using a hammer and a saw.” Or, “I’m going to use my camera to take a picture.” Simple wood tools and cameras are embedded technology, and–exactly as said above–we assume the technology.

    I’m going to go build a dog house. And then I’ll take a picture of it!

    Then I’ll use my computer to put the picture on that Facebook thingy…. ;-)

  5. I think that I must design and tailor learning experiences for my Millennial students as much as I am able to (as I am from another generation). Here is an example: I have been looping with a group of students for language arts, they are special education students and this is the start of year three. This year we have a set of netbooks so that I am able to provide word processing for each student on every extended written response. The difference between before and now is remarkable. I was completely blown away by the increased length of written response, the attention to task and the overall attitude toward their writing that these students demonstrated just by giving them a digital alternative to pencil and paper! Amazing!

  6. I’m 81, so pre-Boomer generation. I teach MBA’s all over the world and have avoided Facebook because I get 40 emails a day already, most of which are spam. I use SKYPE constantly to talk and see students from Singapore to China, Azerbaijan, France, etc. I think this age “thing” is largely a generalization that George Bernard Shaw would say ” all generalizations are false, including this one.” The trouble with dismissing people 30 or 50 years older than you is that you are likely to repeat the mistakes they made, if you don’t listen to their stories. Humans may have changed in some respects ( contraceptives, computers, iPhones,) but our behavior is all too predictable.

  7. I was born in 1962, but I am a boomer. Both parents born in the early to mid 20’s and all grandparents were born in the 19th century.

  8. One thing that has always been frustrating for me is seeing that a popular cutoff for Gen X being 1981… I’m a January of ’82 baby. I always find it odd that divisions like this would put me in a group with someone who was born when I was 20 years old rather than someone who is a couple weeks older than I am.

    All that said, one thing I like about being an early-80s baby is that I feel people in my general age bracket grew up with technological adaptability. When we were little, rotary phones were still commonly seen (my grandmother still rented hers from the phone company), yet by the time we were in college, the cell phone boom was hitting the market. I had a record player, a boom box, a Walkman, a Discman, and now an ipod. I went from using an Apple IIe once a week at school to play the Oregon Trail, to having a clunky Compaq with dialup in high school, to my laptop that has hundreds of times the hard drive space of that old Presario. In college we had regular internet access, but no Facebook, no Youtube, no Wikipedia… the whole “Web 2.0” phenomenon hadn’t hit yet. There was the move from analog to digital. Everything has been constantly changing, and people around my age have grown up adapting to the rapidly evolving technology. We are old enough to remember what life was like before technology ruled our lives, but young enough not to be intimidated by it.

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