I got to talk to a couple hundred of my peers at Adobe MAX last week about Generation Z and how our teens to kids today are changing the way we think about interaction design.

I believe that there are new principles of interaction design to consider when creating digital experiences for Generation Z based on three macro insights into this audience. To understand how to create for this audience, you first need to understand where this generation is coming from.

In the research surrounding Generation Z so far there are a number of themes that have begun to formulate about this generation. Although research with this group is relatively new, data captured over the last five to seven years are discovering insights that are formulating how we perceive this next generation. Through many reports, we’re seeing three key themes permeate about this group. Those themes are:

Future Realists — They are realists, with a perspective about the future that is equally pragmatic and optimistic

Laterally Wired — They learn differently, and their education and digital prowess is preparing them for a technology-fueled future

We First — They are global and diverse, more blind to race, gender and age than any other generation

They are realists, with a perspective about the future that is equally pragmatic and optimistic

If Millennials are dreamers, than Gen Z are realists. This theme is common throughout all of the Gen Z research to-date and it’s largely based on the idea that the Gen Z upbringing came during a socio-economic world that included a global recession, drawn out war, and political uncertainty at home. Baby Boomers raised the Millennials to believe in the American Dream. They encouraged Gen Y to chase their passions and dreams wherever they may lead. But Gen X watched Millennials fail and lived through an economy breaking down and so they have chosen to raise Gen Z more practically. They have taught Gen Z to find what they are good at and to pursue that. (Gen Z Whitepaper, Sarah Sladek & Alyx Grabinger, XYZ University)

Gen Z are growing up in a post-9/11 world and through the Great Recession. Today, 1 in 4 American children are living in poverty and 73% of Americans were personally affected by the recession. As a result, their media reflects a more dystopian world-view, where Gen X had Reality Bites and Singles — a perfect reflection of their anti-authority, disconnected worldview — Gen Z has Hunger Games and Divergent, with explicit themes of political distrust and wealth disparity.

So it’s not that surprising that this is affecting their view on finances. “Their exposure to the impact of the recent economic slowdown on their families is expected to lead to financial conservatism.” (“Consumers of Tomorrow, Insights and Observations About Generation Z”, Grail Research, June 2010) While more than 50% of teens 12–18 years old had already started saving for technology gadgets and cards, more than 33% pay for their own cell phone bills. An Australian study found that that they disliked borrowing money. (Veda Advantage & Habbo, Australia)

“While more than 50% of teens 12–18 years old had already started saving for technology gadgets and cards, more than 33% pay for their own cell phone bills. An Australian study found that that they disliked borrowing money.”

If Gen X are anti-authority, highly individualistic, and self-reliant and Millennials are confident, digital thinkers who are needy with a sense of entitlement, than Gen Z are realistic, creative, and hyper-connected (Sparks & Honey). Their realism is a defining aspect of this generation.

They learn differently, and their education and digital prowess is preparing them for a technology-fueled future

One of the other themes that is common throughout all of the research on Generation Z is how this generation is learning differently because of mobile technology, and how their approach to technology is setting them up to be innovators. This is a generation that prefers visual communication because they are growing up on iPads. This is a generation that prefers collaboration because they are growing up in classroom diversity that encourages it. “They are collaborative team players where everyone is equal at winning and losing.”

“Gen Z speak in emoticons and emojis. Symbols and glyphs provide context and create subtext so they can have private conversations. Emoji alphabets and icon “stickers” replace text with pictures.” Gen Z are agile communicators: speed of communication and repartee garners cultural currency. They’re accustomed to rapid-fire banter and commentary. As a result, Gen Z are not precise communicators and leave a lot of room for interpretation.” 68% of teachers think that digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing. 46% of teachers say digital tools make students more likely to write too fast and be careless.

Although Generation Z needs more structure and is more over confident in their knowledge than Millennials, research is finding them to be less selfish than Generation Y who tends to ask “What’s in it for me?” As a result, they are a group where creativity and speed of information, used with their desire for collaboration, has set them up to be a generation of innovators.

Generation Z thinks spatially and in 4D. “Gen Z have always known how to pinch and swipe. They have grown up with hi-def, surround sound, 3D and now 4D — 360 degree photography and film is their normal. Ultra slow motion and hi-speed video is their standard.” (Sparks & Honey, Pew Research, 2012)

And they multi-task unlike any generation before them: 84% of Gen Z multi-tasking versus only 2% of the general population. (University of Utah, Forrester Research) Psychologist Larry Rose of CalState University-Dominguez Hills believes that technology is rewiring this generation. Where the average American attention span has decreased to 8 seconds, from 12 seconds in 2000, 11% of children 4–17 years old have now been diagnosed with ADHD, up from only 7.8% in 2003. (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Associated Press)

This intense understanding and use of new technology, their ability to multi-task, and their collaborative approach is molding this generation into creative entrepreneurs unlike any before them. Entrepreneurship is simply in their DNA. 72% of high school students want to start a business someday compared to 64% of college students. 61% of high school students want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee compared to 43% of college students. (“Millennial Branding and Internship.com”, Mintel, 2014)

“72% of high school students want to start a business someday compared to 64% of college students. 61% of high school students want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee compared to 43% of college students.”

Amongst kids in grades 5–12, 42.1% plan to start their own business, 46.9% have schools that offers classes in how to start and run a business, and 16.9% already work at least one hour per week, while 37.8% believe they will invent something that changes the world. (Gallup & Operation Hope) And this generation is starting jobs earlier than the more sheltered Millennials, “55% of high school students feel pressured by their parents to gain early professional experience” (High School Careers, entrepreneur.com)

Of course, all of this is happening within a technology revolution. With the rise of 3D printers, wearables, the Internet of Things, and virtual reality, the rapid pace of technology is not only being adopted by Generation Z, but they are driving it forward. This is the Maker Generation, a generation that is learning how to make 3D models in school and print their own products on 3D printers, who received robots they could program themselves as children, and who know how to make their own video games.

This is resulting in some incredible talent amongst the Gen Z group and a bright future for all of us. From non-traditional brand ambassadors and influencers such as Tavi Gevinson (fashion editor, founder Rookie Magazine), Kristin Prim (fashion influencer, founder of Prim Magazine), and Charlie Lyne (The Guardian journalist), to TED Talks like Adora Svitak’s “What Adults Can Learn From Kids” and Logan Laplante’s “Hackschooling Makes Me Happy”, we are raising a generation of creative innovators, who see the world differently and have the technology prowess and tools they need to do incredible things.

They are global and diverse, more blind to race, gender and age than any other generation

One common theme that comes through in all the Generation Z reports is how diverse this generation is. They have been called the Plural Generation as they are growing up in an America where multiracial children are the fastest growing group. There’s a +400% increase in multiracial marriages within the last 30 years; a 1,000% increase in Asian-White marriages; a +50% increase in the multiracial youth population since 2000 (to 4.2 million); and a -1.5% decrease in the Caucasian 6–17 year old population while a +7.6% increase in the Hispanic teen population, the fastest growing population in the U.S.

What’s even more interesting is how changes in household make-ups are defining Generation Z. There is now a greater number of multi-generational households and an increase in the number of people in the home than for Millennials or Generation X. This is creating a generation of sharers and has a stronger affinity and respect for the elderly. In fact, because Generation Z is growing up in the Great Recession and are more realistic in their worldview, they share many of the same values as Boomers, the Great Generation who lived through global war depression. (U.S. Census, The two or more races population, 2010 Census Brief)

And that closeness and sharing is even happening in technology. “One of the most surprising findings that emerged from the study, is the positive role at times played by grandparents, who are actively engaged in socializing children to online technologies, selecting appropriate content for their grandchildren, encouraging the acquisition of skills and digital literacy. Grandparents are also usually more permissive and close to the child. They then provide those children who are highly regulated at home with opportunities to experiment with new technologies.” (“Young Children and Digital Technology”, European Commission, Stephane Chaudron, 2015)

“50% of all global tweens 8–12 years old are online daily, 25% actually interact with peers in other countries every day.”

As a result, Generation Z tends to even think more globally. As 50% of all global tweens 8–12 years old are online daily, 25% actually interact with peers in other countries every day. (Millward Brown, 70 cities, 15 countries)

This is a generation defined as being more blind to race, gender and age than any other.

But when you talk to kids and teens, one thing becomes clear; Generation Z is optimistic about the world and excited to create in it. As a generation bound both by immense technology potential and tough socio-economic environment, this is a generation who wants to create and innovate, who believe they can hack the world around them for the better. As we talk to children all over the world we’ve come to understand one thing: give them tools to play with, and they’ll make incredible things. The negativity that plagued reports of Millennials so far hasn’t made its way to Gen Z, and that’s a great thing. All signs are pointing to a generation where creativity will explode and innovation will soar. Treat Generation Z like the powerhouse they’re going to be — as brand collaborators, innovators and makers — and be prepared to hack the world.

As a creative director, I think there are some profound implications on these insights on design. For an audience that sees the world in 4D, that values the digital layer of things, that is both practical yet innovative in their thinking, this is an entirely new consumer to design for. And it’s exciting. The child whose first digital interaction was to pinch-to-zoom is now a teen with her own YouTube Channel and GoPro Music mounted to her guitar. This is a generation who wants to create and hack, who expects interaction design to deliver real interaction that they can control. It means we need to think about design as a tool that assists in creation or a method that helps a user get all the other stuff out of the way so that they have a utility they can use. Design is about subtle cues, visual language that can help guide a path that the user desires, art direction that you don’t even notice is there. As I’ve researched the insights into Generation Z, I’ve come to formulate a few new principles of interaction design: Purely Pragmatic, Simply Visual, Multi-Dimensional.

Functional, purposeful, and rewarding for interaction — a pragmatic design philosophy for youth experiences uses design as a tool to inform discovery and creation. Instagram has skyrocketed to the number one most important social network amongst Generation Z, while Facebook has declined amongst the same audience to fourth place behind upstart Snapchat (BI Intelligence, Spring 2015). Both Instagram and Snapchat are, for the most part, simply featured digital tools that do a few things very well. There’s a lot of constraint in these photo and video sharing platforms on a design level. The user experience is well thought out, and the features remain practical. UI is minimal and offered in a clean, pragmatic way. On Snapchat, I love how the experience opens directly to the camera, without having to interact with the app in anyway, you are immediately directed to take a picture. It’s a telling design decision that considered the purpose of the experience over how to get to the purpose of the experience. In this way, Snapchat reflects what we’re starting to see in digital experiences designed for Generation Z everywhere, digital experiences that don’t require heavily designed navigation, complex paths to the user journey, or even multi-screen paths that tell a story or dazzle in animation and overpowering HUDs. Minecraft is another powerful example. Launch this tool, press the single Play button in the center of the screen, and you are in Minecraft, with only a few, sparse controls tucked to the side that are necessary for movement in the experience. A pragmatic design is anti-design. It’s UI that is tucked away, you might not even notice it. It’s getting to the utility of the experience immediately. It’s giving way to the core value of the digital experience, the interaction itself. A Purely Pragmatic design philosophy is thinking about how design can service Gen Z’s creative experience, and in general, unnecessary pretty graphics rarely do.

A visual language that is simple, easy-to-understand, and guides the user into content types or through a purposeful user journey, with only simple cues that connect. As a creative director who spends a lot of time thinking about connecting brands to youth through digital channels, there’s a certain level of visual emphasis that we’re looking to make. You want to create a digital experience that connects emotionally with a user, that uses style and tone and music and art to convey a brand truth, that uses subtlety and beauty to tell a story…that makes an effort to have a voice. Although Generation Z can appreciate the creative process and the effort that goes into our most elaborate creative trials, keeping things simply visual can connect strongest with the audience, and produce stronger tools. Our work on Happy Studio, the digital Happy Meal for McDonald’s, soared when we removed registration gates and re-designed the experience to get kids directly into content. Even engagement time and retention in the platform saw performance boosts when we simplified design, removed items from navigation, and provided a home screen and nav menu that when to a simply visual approach. I’ve been inspired for some time by Toca Boca’s approach to apps in the kids market, which has practically no text, and the simplest of controls without any tutorials or on-boarding instructions. The app simply assumes that kids already know how to play, and it drops them directly into a play environment: just touch and discover and great stuff happens. QuizUp is another example. A popular game amongst teens and young adults, QuizUp’s clean, simple interface design serves the purpose of the game and uses a well-designed visual language to serve the interaction within the game. A well thought out color palette, flat character design, and simply visual UI guides the user and serves the experience. A Simply Visual design approach knows how to use color and visual language to deliver simple cues to reduce text and bring interactivity to the forefront.

A multi-dimensional design approach for digital youth experiences considers the capabilities of Generation Z and their ability to be lateral thinkers — it’s not a linear journey. In a world where kids play with “augmented” toys, where virtual reality glasses are what you want for Christmas, and where all your friends at school are a photographer, we have now advanced technology users touching our digital experiences. Even if she’s 6. We’ve worked to bring a Multi-Dimensional design philosophy to building digital creative experiences, to think about how digital products are used in different ways and to ensuring that we think beyond the linear, page-by-page approach to digital design of the past. We used this approach in our work for DC Comics Kids. The mobile web experience was designed to a Multi-Dimensional approach, considering the many different ways that youth may want to experience the world of DC. This meant a unique approach to navigation. We decided to allow users to experience the platform in different planes. To swipe right to left to discover content, to dive into content and navigate top to bottom, and to hide special experiences in the backgrounds and behind the more traditional content tiles in the foreground. Beyond the main nav, we added paths to content through characters, shows and property methods, linking pages through related tags, not just a single path to navigation. The effect was liberating. We discovered a world where many different paths could get you to the character you loved, to where a users journey trumped a single pathway, and discovery became part of the experience itself. In a way, thinking multi-dimensionally in design, like the way Generation Z thinks, opened up a world of possibility.

Although the research into Generation Z is still recent, we are certainly seeing this generation — as the first Future Realists who are Laterally Wired and think We First — are looking at the world differently, and changing it in amazing ways as a result. With a design approach that considers these insights, and works to be Purely Pragmatic, Simply Visual, and Multi-Dimensional, we will create the digital experiences and tools that will help them change the world.



Also published on Medium.