Can Tech Newbies Create Products for Tech Natives?

Most designers are digital immigrants–and yet their target audiences are digital natives. That poses a serious challenge for designers.



Ever wonder why the email icon on your computer looks like a postage stamp or an envelope? Think about it: email has almost made the postage stamp irrelevant, so why does the icon cling to an antiquated ceremony?

Some of the research we’ve been doing at SKD has clarified such seeming paradoxes and made me wonder how our products and interfaces will take shape in the years to come. Until recently, many objects have taken cues from established ceremonies, whether mailing a letter or filing a piece of paper. Much of this has to do with the sensibilities of a product’s target audience: Digital Immigrants.

Marc Prensky first introduced this segmentation in his paper, “Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.” Though the paper was written for educators, Prensky’s observations are relevant to designers, whose products must appeal to both Digital Immigrants–Baby Boomers and anyone over the age of approximately 30 who has adopted and adapted to digital technology later on in life–and Digital Natives–those who have grown up with digital technology since their infancy.

As we’ve studied people’s emotional and behavioral responses to shifting technologies, I’ve noticed a divide between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants and developed strategies for addressing the needs of each group.

While it’s harder to earn the trust of a Digital Immigrant, it’s harder to impress a Digital Native.

Digital Immigrants, who hold the most buying power today, are not technophobes. Many have smartphones and Facebook accounts, and we represent a majority of mainstream bloggers. Still, as Prensky points out, “digital” is a second language for those of us born before computers and cell phones entered every home. While we have learned the language and many of us speak it fluently, Digital Immigrants speak with an Analog accent, detected in behaviors that cling to old world experiences, like printing and filing emails.


In addition to this Analog accent, I’ve noticed that Digital Immigrants carry some heavy baggage from the old world. It shows up in the form of attachment to existing ceremonies and a subtle distrust of new things. Bridging this distrust is often done through gradual evolutions that digitize old experiences while maintaining familiar reference points. Like the email icon.

Designing for a Digital Native requires a completely different mindset–one that we need to understand as those in their teens and twenties gain a louder voice in the marketplace. While it’s harder to earn the trust of a Digital Immigrant, it’s harder to impress a Digital Native. Fast-paced change is the rule rather than the exception for the generation that grew up immersed in video games, MP3s and a limitless worldwide web. While you and I may marvel at the multi-tasking ability of the iPhone or the connective power of LinkedIn, Digital Natives take this abundance of information for granted.

As my team and I developed the LifeStudio family of drives for Hitachi GST–a product line targeted to these tech-savvy content creators–we compiled a list of products that have rocked the market by successfully appealing to Digital Natives.

Nintendo Wii

The Nintendo Wii unapologetically introduces a completely new interface to gamers. The experience is immersive, interactive, unexpected and it ultimately delivers on its promise of fun. It’s worth noting that the game console itself fades into the background. Many Digital Natives see their devices not as prized possessions, but as means to an end. It’s about the experience more than the artifact. Of course, the Wii’s sleek white form doesn’t hurt its popularity.


Flip Camera

Cisco’s Flip Camera puts the power of a high-definition video camera in a device smaller than many phones. Many of my younger employees carry it with them every day in their purses. They especially love the freedom from cords–you don’t have to wait until you get home to your adapter cables to charge the camera or post and share videos. While the interface is simple and intuitive, it bears no resemblance to that of traditional video cameras. It creates easy-to-follow rules for its own game.


TiVo puts the power of time- and content-management in the hands of the viewer in a whole new way. Unlike a VCR, which records information onto a tape (a familiar experience for Digital Immigrants, who are more tied to data as an artifact that lives in a physical structure), TiVo appeals to an audience quite comfortable with digital information living on a cloud. Even its signature sound effects depart from traditional analog noises to create a distinct brand element. TiVo goes one step further with a design language that evokes attitude and personality.


In designing the LifeStudio drives, we took lessons from these and other products. First, design for Digital Natives is not defined by an object, but by an experience. Hardware and software are less distinguishable to a generation that’s grown up with screens incorporated in their toys. Good design will make digital experiences more tangible and accessible. Additionally, successful devices help Digital Natives live their lives better. Not only do they store data or capture photos better; their function climbs up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, facilitating life goals like creativity, social connection, time management, and entertainment.

The more I learn about Digital Natives, the more I’m excited about the design opportunities these young people could spur. They are quick to embrace new ideas and technologies and need few familiar reference points to entice them into a new experience. But this does not mean that they are easy customers. On the contrary, they demand value, relevance, and innovation. We designers must be up to the challenge as Digital Natives become the prime demographic.

About the author

Stuart Karten is the Founder and President of Los Angeles-based product innovation consultancy [url=]Karten Design[/url]. Since 1984, he has partnered with medical device, digital health, and consumer product manufacturers to build their businesses through design