Two Tweens and a Touchscreen

January 12, 2011

I often encounter a lot of people who adamantly exclaim that “young people just grow up understanding technology.” I’ve always disagreed with this statement. There’s my personal story to disprove it — how, when I was younger, I nearly missed the PC renaissance if it hadn’t been for a good friend who took me under his wing to teach me.  Secondly, the statement doesn’t make sense. (Perhaps it’s more of a wishful-thinking excuse anyway.)  No person is born understanding anything. That’s why babies cry for everything, even when they hear their own voice for the first time.

In actuality, I think the kids in question probably just have far fewer responsibilities, more free time to learn, a more sponge-like mind (at young ages), and fewer concept references to “decouple” in their minds than older adults who most often unlearn. But they don’t just automagically understand technology simply by virtue of being “young.” And believe it or not, they rely on all the same things us older users do to make sense of technology. Want an example?

A few weeks ago I found myself standing in the lengthy returns line at a local department store. Immediately in front of me were two pre-teen girls and their mother. As we inched forward together over a period of 30 minutes, we eventually found ourselves next to the store’s touch-screen computer kiosk where an electronic product catalog could be accessed to place orders. I observed the two girls closely. The younger (probably 8 or 9 years of age) followed the on-screen instructions and engaged the kiosk first. She touched the screen to get started and then selected the “toys for girls” category. (Despite being a kiosk-based system, the interface closely resembled an on-line shopping site format. ) Onto the screen popped 12 or 15 popular items for girls her age. She seemed to study items on the screen intently at first, but then this young lady stopped. She made a few comments to her older sister and mother about one toy, and then lost interest in the kiosk and returned to her mother. I didn’t think anything of this until her older sister (probably about 12 or 13 years of age) who had been watching the entire time stepped forward to the kiosk. She didn’t touch anything at first. She quickly skimmed the toys, obviously not interested in the choices. Then I watched her eyes float to the right side of the screen. And she found what she was looking for — a certain interface convention that means “there’s more here than you see on the screen right now.” A scrollbar. Instantly, her finger shot out and touched the top of the scrollbar to swipe it down. And as the new page of 12 to 15 more toys slid onto the screen, her younger sister appeared at her side.

There are two important take-aways from this. First, the older girl knew what a scrollbar meant from some past experience. Secondly, the younger apparently didn’t but learned very quickly. For once her older sibling left the kiosk, the young girl spent at least ten more minutes continuing to browse for toys, this time leveraging the scrollbar to see subsequent pages. Is it fair to say that use of consistent interface conventions allows users of all ages to engage an interface and accomplish their goals with less confusion? Or was this an isolated case?

Well, what about slightly older “kids,” like college students? Maybe they don’t need consistent interface features because they’re just so darn smart and can figure out anything on a computer. It just so happens Jakob Nielsen posted an article back in December called College Students on the Web in which he debunks the myth that students are technology wizards. In fact, he notes unless they’re computer science or engineering students, they’re not technology experts. The most salient point in Nielson’s article is that:

In particular, students don’t like to learn new user interface styles. They prefer websites that employ well-known interaction patterns.

Bingo. Just like the two tweens at the touchscreen kiosk, older students seem to want to look for the same, familiar interface elements as well. Why? Nielson continues:

If a site doesn’t work in the expected manner, most students lose patience and leave rather than try to decode a difficult design.

This may baffle some older users who think “kids” possess some kind of 6th sense for computers, but students of all ages have a point in time that they must learn what common interface elements are for and internalize that knowledge to make use of it later. If they don’t, they’re just as lost as their grandparents (though, in my experience, usually less fearful about continuing to try.)

So, is this limited to students? I don’t think so. Though I’ve spent much of the last 6 years in writing The Ultimate PC Primer focused on older adults, I’ve certainly encountered my share of 20 year olds who demonstrated a lack of understanding essential PC concepts. In fact, many of them could surf the web, but couldn’t understand file management or the difference between checkboxes and radio buttons.

So learning about technology is not significantly different from learning that is required to understand anything else. There’s no special dispensation for the young, nor is there a curse for the old. That’s why we need more of those real “technology wizards” to explain technology for normal people and more designers to stick with conventions for the sake of us all.