The danger of the "digital native" myth
Image credit: Pixabay
Back in August 2017, Paul Kirschnerab and Pedro De Bruyckerec wrote a fascinating article that is a must-read for any UX professional. Entitled “The myths of the digital native and the multitasker”, they argue that “information-savvy digital natives do not exist” and that multitasking impairs learning.
While Kirschnerab and De Bruyckerec’s article focuses on learning styles and pedagogy - and thus, is primarily aimed at schools and training institutes - it has broad applicability to the UX space. In particular, it’s very relevant for platforms and websites that are complex enough to warrant training and that target a broad range of users.
Over the past few years, I’ve had numerous clients mention variations of the “digital native” myth. Some have said that all users under a certain age are technologically fluent. Others have said that older users don’t know and don’t understand technology but that younger users do. One was even bold enough to say that one day scientists will discover that young people have a superpower that enables them to pick up new technology without any training.
Regardless of the variation of the myth, the core assumption is the same - young people are “digital natives” and are intrinsically wired to understand technology. But in my experience, there are two negative consequences of relying on the “digital native” myth that many organisations fail to understand.
Reduced training = frustrated users
One of the consequences of the myth is that organisations can use it to justify reduced technical training for younger users - but this can backfire.
As I mentioned in my previous post on the danger of using demographic details in personas, I recently had a client who felt that younger employees wouldn’t require support to complete their training on a tablet. As one stakeholder put it rather bluntly, “younger staff could be left on their own to figure it out”.
This is a problematic assumption because not all young people are “digital natives” that excel at using technology due to some special, intrinsic technical skillset. Being able to use Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat is one thing. But being able to properly install software, manipulate data in Excel, or use shortcuts in a browser is something else.
And not surprisingly, organisations that don’t offer younger users the same supports that are offered to older users can see a host of problems, including increased frustration and reduced usage and adoption rates amongst younger users.
Myth internalisation = overconfidence and struggles
The second, and more concerning, consequence of the “digital native” myth relates to how younger users of complex systems internalise this myth. When the myth gets internalised, it changes how younger users interact with technology and the training offered to understand new technology and platforms.
I saw this first-hand in the UOL Bloom project that I worked on at the University of London. For this project, I explored how young people - primarily students in higher education - used virtual learning environments (VLEs). In countless interviews with students that would be classified as a “millennials” and “digital natives”, I heard how they internalised this myth and it altered how they interacted with their VLE.
The most visible impact on the student-VLE interaction was the low attendance rates for VLE training seminars. It was as though the students had internalised a mantra of “I’m told I’m a digital native and therefore, I don’t need to attend any training.”
And herein lies the problem. Using a VLE is not like using a smartphone app. VLEs are large, multi-faceted, complex systems that require introductory training at the very least. Educational institutions know that hours-long training workshops won’t keep students attentions and so they usually offer smaller, bite-sized workshops during the first few weeks of school. But students, in particular those that would be classified as a “digital native”, rarely attend unless it is mandatory.
I would argue that it’s because they have internalised the “digital native” myth and therefore believe that they can easily understand the VLE and that they will intrinsically know what to do. But the reality is that they don’t understand how to properly use it and that can often have negative consequences.
Take for example the story of a second-year undergraduate student I interviewed. She said that she didn’t attend the training because it wouldn’t be worth her time. She also said that she was expecting the system to be just like using Instagram or Snapchat and she didn’t do any training for those systems.
But because she didn’t understand how to use the system, she was unsure how to upload her assignment. She spent hours trying to understand the system and eventually resorted to emailing her assignment to her professor. She ended up losing marks, not only because it was late, but also because it wasn’t submitted on the VLE and did not go through a plagiarism check.
Now you might be thinking that this story is an edge case … but sadly, it’s not.
I heard similar stories from pretty much every student I interviewed. Many struggled to upload their assignments. A few couldn’t find quizzes and mock exams. And a handful couldn’t properly enrol in classes.
Regardless of the struggle, the outcome was the same. Students were frustrated and many were penalised - either losing grades or not gaining admission to special classes.
Interestingly, they all acknowledged that yes, their school did offer training. But they didn’t attend because they internalised the myth and believed that they didn’t need to attend. And a few students even admitted that they hoped someone else would attend so that if they had a question, they could just ask a peer.
It’s true that the VLE that was the focus of our project was poorly designed, not engaging, and not user-friendly. And yes, these aspects of the VLE undoubtedly contributed to the frustrations of many users and the pain points they experienced.
But these aspects of the VLE weren’t what stopped students from attending the training - it was the internalisation of the digital native myth. It was their belief that they didn’t need to attend because they can easily pickup new technologies and learn how to use platforms.
So my advice is simple - never rely on the “digital native” myth. And if you’re like me and you find that a stakeholder is using it to justify their assumptions or to challenge your research findings, refer to them to the original article and generate insights and artefacts that illustrate the consequences of the myth.
For example, on the UOL Bloom project, I worked with the team to create personas that communicated the danger of relying on this myth. Part of the biography for Claudia, a first-year student, included reference to the fact that she did not attend the training and was penalised for submitting an assignment after the deadline.
Yes, young people have grown up in a world with technology at their fingertips. They might not remember a time when computers, high-speed Internet access, and mobile phones weren’t readily available.
But that doesn’t mean that they are a “digital native”. It might mean they are more comfortable with technology and willing to try it. But that’s not the same as knowing how to use it without ever having used it!