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Understanding Gen Z: the first digital natives

by Martin McCarthy
13th October 2016

Gen Z is the post millennial generation – the eldest of whom is no more than eighteen years old.

They are true digital natives, and were just nine years old when the first gen iPhone was released back in 2007. These are people who have never had the pleasure of using dial-up. Talking to Gen Z gives you clues about how your products and platforms will have to evolve, from media to pensions so it is important to get a handle on this.

We’ve been conducting research with young people for a number of years and were recently appointed to the BBC’s Design Research Roster as their Children’s Youth research specialist. Gen Z’s are now entering their formative years (read: influence and spending power), representing 22% of the population in the US (23% millennials). And according to a report published by Goldman Sachs, they are expected to be even more “dynamic and influential than the millennials”. It’s time brands learnt more about their behaviours and habits, which will allow them to design better products and services to meet their expectations.

The first digital natives

Whilst the millennial generation largely grew up with technology, Gen Z is the first truly digitally native generation. The technologies Gen Z have grown up with are different, so it is reasonable to expect that they have different expectations.

In terms of technology use, this generation has never had to wait for a page to load. Poking and prodding at touch screens is second nature to them; the television might as well be an ornament; and the floppy disk save icon is a meaningless anachronism.

While Gen Z are young, their behaviours and habits are quite sophisticated. If anything, we’ve found that they approach technology and online activities with a more mature disposition than previous generations when they were in this age bracket. Our research has shown that Gen Z are more aware of who can view their online activity and who is in their social networks. They are just as active as millennials but more conscious of who they are engaging with and are only comfortable sharing content with those they trust.

Omni-channel is a way of life

In terms of technology usage, it will come as no surprise that this cohort is very confident and adept at using a range of devices. Omni-channel isn’t just a buzz word for this group – it’s how they live. According to research by iiD, millennials prefer to communicate over two screens through images and words, but millennials are happy multi-tasking across five screens through images.

They watch video content on smartphones, through games consoles, iPads, laptops, on-demand TV; basically anything that can connect to the internet. Having a range of devices at their disposal is woven into the fabric of their existence, and they take full advantage of it. This group expect immediate access to the content they wish to consume, across whichever device is at their disposal.

Multiple devices, and immediate access is having another (unsurprising) effect on TV in the traditional sense – they’re watching less of it. This age group are watching up to 25% less television in 2015 than they were in 2010, which is twice the decline for all age groups (11%).

A more considered social presence

Gen Z’s sharing and social habits on the web are also different. While Millennials grew up with the spectacular rise and fall of Bebo and then migrated to sharing their lives on Facebook, our research has found that Gen Z tend to use social media that are built on messenger services. For instance, WhatsApp and Snapchat were cited as their favourite social media channels, reasons for which revolved around simply being able to talk to friends and family. This differs greatly to Millennials and Boomers who said Facebook was their favourite social media platform, saying that they use it to ‘let others know what they’re up to’.

However, this is not to say that Gen Z do not curate online personas in the same way that generations before them do; they go through a mature and considered process. And when they do share, they curate and create content that fits in with the persona they are building for themselves. Importantly, privacy and safety is front of mind for them – of those who post to Instagram, many say that they first take a photo, then upload it when they get home because they don’t want their followers to know where they are.

Realistic rather than optimistic

Linked to financial wealth, Gen Z is also generally more realistic and future-looking than Millennials. “Raised by Gen-X parents during a time marred by economic stress, rising student-debt burdens, socioeconomic tensions and war overseas, these youths carry a less idealistic, more pragmatic perspective on the world” (Goldman Sachs).

But what does this mean for us when it comes to designing for this user group? Below are some design sensitivities brands should consider if they wish for their products or services to be accessible and desirable for Gen Z.

  • The fact that Gen Z have no experience of dial-up sums up their expectations around interactions online – everything should be instant.
  • For example, Snapchat allows users to create, and immediately share short, ephemeral clips. With filters like Face Swap or various drawing tools, they can make extremely creative and unique clips in seconds, and share immediately. The importance of Snapchat has been rising for Gen Z, as the importance of most other social networks has been declining: according to Piper Jaffray’s recent survey, Snapchat’s importance grew from 19% to 28% between Fall 2015 and Spring 2016, while Instagram fell from 33% to 27% in the same period.
  • Perhaps in response to this, Instagram have introduced Instagram Stories, which some have derided as a copy of Snapchat Stories. While Stories are similar to Snapchat in that the content only disappears after 24 hours, the feature frees Instagram users to share less artistic or ‘curated’ content that will not ‘live’ on their profile, therefore not interfering with their carefully pruned camera roll.
Peer interaction
  • Gen Z have only ever known technology as a social tool – regardless of whether it’s the internet/web, smartphones and apps, or games consoles – all support human contact. If they’re using a service, they expect to be able to connect with like-minded peers and engage in meaningful conversation.
  • For example, Kik Messenger, [300m registered users with 40% of US GenZ’s having installed the app], have taken a qualitative approach to measure how their service is being used, as opposed to the typical ‘monthly active users’ (MAUs) metric that Facebook and Twitter use to measure engagement. Kik say that U.S. Teens ‘engage in 6.1 chats a day, averaging 12.7 minutes per session’. They also say that users spend 21% of their time in an active chat state, indicating that this generation are well disposed to real-time chat (or ‘conversation’), not just asynchronous messaging.
Value their Interaction
  • Gen Z expect their interactions and relationship with a service, regardless of whether it’s their browsing habits, ‘user generated content’, or hours they have sunk into a game, to be valued and used to create a better experience. For instance, Twitter’s ‘While you were away…’ feature breaks the chronological order of the timeline to show Tweets users have missed from their favourite accounts.
  • Looking toward an even younger generation of users, CBBC encourage contribution for six-to-twelve-years old’s by featuring content by previous contributors. This not only encourages contribution, but also instructs users on ‘best practice’ content, which guides them in their content creation process.
  • This generation expect that their interaction with a service will be saved and there for them to see. This helps create a meaningful relationship with a service, and content consumed and shared on a particular service.
  • The Instagram profile page, which shows all the photos users have uploaded, does a very good job at making users feel more engaged with their ‘Instagram persona’. By showing all the photos without much clutter, it allows users to quickly browse through their life through the lens of Instagram. On desktop, hovering over a photo shows the social metrics (likes and comments), so users can quickly see which photos resonated more with their followers.
  • Snapchat also recently introduced a history feature. While its differentiator was that content was ephemeral and nothing was saved when it launched, in July 2016 it introduced Memories, which allows users to save content privately. Having a history allows users to create a more emotional connection with content – almost like a memory box.

Understanding Gen Z’s behaviour, habits and motivations is key to designing for subsequent digital native generations to come. The design principles established are a precedent from which businesses need to learn and adapt, particularly now as the oldest members of Gen Z arrive in the workplace and develop purchasing power.

Here are three things you need to do in order to get to grips with this generation: 
  • Show Gen Z your products and your plans.
  • Hire (and listen) to Gen Z people as they enter the labour force over the next few years.
  • Talk to the Gen Z people in your own life – and park your mental models and preferences at the door.

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