UX/UI design has always evolved according to changing trends. But for the first time since mankind became broadly computer literate, we see the emergence of a generation that doesn’t know what life was like before the web. Is it right to perceive Millennials as some kind of digital tour de force who’ll change the face of the internet, and with it UX/UI design, as we know it? Or is that simply the kind of nonsense made up by tech journalists who need a story?
Communications Through Generations
“Emergent technologies run in cycles: first through a giddy period of optimism when the possibilities are endless before ceding to an entrenched oligopoly,” explains Alan Dargan, Curriculum Lead for Design at Digital Skills.
“It's not new – in the nineties many of the web's early adopters, in all its gaudy blinking glory, experienced it through the prism of AOL. To many, AOL was the web.”
Now, says Dargan, we find ourselves in a similar situation with Facebook where many using the platform don’t even think they are using the internet. “If we’re going to be fundamentalists about it, Facebook, Twitter and Medium are not the web as it was originally envisioned – they're algorithmically curated platforms funded by advertising revenue. These platforms provide an impoverished experience unless you have an account with them and have the potential to disappear overnight – taking all your photos, posts and conversations.”
In other words, the majority of society’s first wave of digitally-savvy consumers have only understood computers and the internet based on applications and interfaces designed by a small number of privately owned companies - Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google. Most of us don't search the internet for information - we search a version of it mediated by Google.
Millennials: The Rebel Force Destined to Destroy Google’s Death Star?
But what of Millennials? Sometimes referred to as “digital natives”, they know not of life before the internet. So surely future generations will not be as easily led by a handful of major tech companies as the generation preceding them? Surely, the spectrum of human instincts will broaden to include an innate understanding of certain technologies? Indeed, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests, “many of the young people growing up hyper-connected to each other and the mobile web, and counting on the internet as their external brain, will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers.”
However, Dargan has his doubts. “There’s a lot of debate around whether there is such thing as a digital native at all,” he says. “Research has shown that the generation in question is possibly no better at multitasking or using technology than others who sit outside that age bracket.”
Other experts make similar points. Professor Randolph G. Bias, Co-director of the Information eXperience Lab at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information, conducted research which suggested that we read no faster than our grandparents’ generation (when they were our age). And in all likelihood, not “significantly faster than the ancient Greeks.” If basic skills like reading are not evolving exponentially, there is no reason to believe Millennials will have any more capacity to “change” the internet from the inside.
UX/UI Rebels Without A Clue
It’s hotly debated as to whether or not Canadian Cultural Critic Marshall McLuhan should take the credit for coining the phrase: “We Shape Our Tools and Then Our Tools Shape Us.”
No new innovation ever comes from one individual. Just like UX/UI is the product of generations of design changes being made to technology, there is no reason to believe future generations will be motivated to build upon existing designs any differently.
And therein lies the great anomaly of the computing age: much of the tech we have created is, in so many ways, smarter than those that gave it life in the first place. And, even though this is widely understood, humans are still expected to compete. So if a major disruption of the existing UX/UI status quo emerges, it may be as a result of Millennials and more advanced computers working in tandem to stage a digital coup.
“The truth is that none of us are all that good at multitasking,” says Dargan. Humans are increasingly expected to process information like computers even though we struggle with it. “Parallel processing and context shifting are what computers do best but humans doing it for extended periods of time is just a boon for mindfulness colouring book publishers” says Dargan.
Perhaps therefore, the fetishization of Millennials into some exotic strain of demographic is another example of this first wave of digitally-savvy consumers trying to shed light on the digital future with oil lamps as torches. “Lumping an entire generation together as a single ‘knowable’ unit is nonsense,” argues Dargan.
“The truth is that some ‘Millennials’ are tech savvy and others less so. In the same way that watching hours of TV in my youth didn't improve my understanding of Radio Frequency Transmission, spending large periods of time on social media does not translate into being tech savvy.” Touché. It might, therefore, be a little early to start shouting ‘Revolution!’ around the office.