Takeaways from Designing for teens

Sanna Wickman
Feb 10, 2017 · 7 min read

Insights from working with teens to build user experiences that will stand out and appeal to them

“Why must the prioritized target group always be Japanese teens?” a frustrated CTO said during a client meeting a couple of weeks ago. I giggled to myself at first, dismissing him as a conservative bore.

But then I remembered the first time when I’d ever had to design something for teenagers. Back then, I was terrified. The experience made me painfully aware that I wasn’t 19 anymore. The client, whose primary target group was teenagers, had been failing in reaching a young audience and found themselves with a majority of users in their early 30’s. A change of direction was imperative. When my team was given the task to solve this problem, I instantly had to come to terms with not being the target group.

Unlike today’s teens, I was not a digital native. I grew up in the countryside without smartphones, cellular network, tablets, laptops or other computers for the first 12 years of my life. I relied solely on texting for making plans with friends.

I realized that the 16-year-old whom I was supposed to design an attractive, relevant and somewhat addictive user experience for, were light-years ahead of the 16-year-old I had once been. As I realized later, today’s teens don’t even know their own cell phone number.

Me and my team member Bob sketching on some initial ideas.

Quick notes on how to successfully design for teenagers

  1. Don’t be afraid

How do you get inside the head of a 16-year-old? First off: Let go of your fear. They won’t bite. Sure, they won’t always be nice or even interested in what you’re doing. They won’t be impressed by your fancy job title or your tastefully furnished office space. But they will be honest.

2. Let the teen be the judge

We started our design process by inviting five teens to our office, making them the judges to whom we pitched our initial ideas. Gathering them in a room together with lots of candy and three cards each — a red one for “no”, yellow for “maybe” and green for “yes” — we asked them; “If there was a service that did this — would you use it?”

The replies were unlike anything like we’d expected. Some of our favorite ideas where cold-heartedly dismissed, while some of our prejudices about the teens were actually confirmed.

The big advantage to this setup, was that the teens set the rules and the agenda. By actually outnumbering us (and sitting on a sort of judges’ dais) they were able to express honest statements like “I’m not interested in either reading or listening to the news” without being faced with a group of upset or patronizing grown-ups.

The jury’s votes.

3. Seek the teens where they are

Iterating the ideas from the session, we made three really simple prototypes and set out to test again. For this second encounter with the target group, we decided to meet the teens in their natural habitat — parks and shopping malls.

This method was a big challenge, since we had to interrupt them from what they were doing and ask them to spend time looking at our screens and give us feedback.

Team member Therese user testing in one of Stockholm’s biggest shopping malls.

4. Live recruit for better diversity

A big advantage to this scenario was that we were able to perform a lot of tests during a fairly short period of time. In just two hours we gathered feedback from six very different people. And since we recruited “live”, we could make sure that we talked to people of differing backgrounds and gender.

5. Keep your mind open and listen

Something that surprised me during these weeks of designing, iterating and testing was how nice and intelligent all of the teens we met with where. Most of them were very sincere in their feedback, not just about pointing out what they didn’t like, but also where they saw potential and felt engaged. Words like “cute” and “fun” were used a lot, and they were all very clear about what was important (or not) to them.

5 quick takeaways from user testing with teens

● Don’t be afraid

● Let the teen be the judge

● Seek the teens where they are

● Live recruit for better diversity

● Keep your mind open and listen

One thing the majority of our users had in common was that they rarely (if ever) bothered to read disclaimers, instructions or whatever piece of text we’d thrown into the prototypes. Instead, they just tapped away.

Insights gained

Looking back, this was one of my most rewarding and fun projects ever. Here’s what I found was so great about designing for teens:

– They are fearless

The way teens interact with digital interfaces is truly inspiring. They are full of confidence and completely fearless. One thing the majority of our users had in common was that they rarely (if ever) bothered to read disclaimers, instructions or whatever piece of text we’d thrown into the prototypes. Instead, they just tapped away. The rewarding and surprising thing about that was that almost every onboarding flow we had made worked just fine, and nothing was really too hard for them.

- They are not as judgmental as you might think

Teens don’t really care about who is curating or providing content, as long as it’s free and relevant. Considering how teens consume content today; on platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, the sender is always secondary (at best). It’s the content itself and the context that really matter and have the potential to make an impression that lasts.

We sometimes thought that our client’s image or heritage would turn our user group off, but that was never an issue. They were only focusing on the prototype we put in their hands.

- They think everything is more fun with friends

The tricky part though is that teens’ use of apps is almost entirely dependent on their friends, which adds an extra dimension for us designers. It’s not enough (or even necessary) to create a great user experience for individuals, since they only use services that their friends can, will or are already using. Let’s be honest: None of the leading apps like Snapchat, KiK or WhatsApp have UI’s that would be deemed attractive from a design perspective but they’re still must-haves for a vast majority of teen users out there, simply because “everyone else” is using it.

Some principles when designing for teens

● They don’t read, they just click. FAST. Don’t waste your time writing a lot of introduction copy or instructions that clutter the onboarding process; they won’t read it.

● They are smart! Don’t underestimate your users’ ability to find features and functions by themselves.

● Don’t worry too much about who you are in their eyes. As long as you don’t bore them, you can be whoever. The experience and the content is the only brand you need to concern yourself with.

● Make it social. As fun as it might be to be first with the latest and greatest, most of us just want to use whatever our friends are using, so make sure that your service has a built-in social dimension.

Why teens matter

Now let’s return to my client’s question — “Why must the prioritized target group always be Japanese teens?”

I’d like to rephrase that question: Why are teens important?

To begin with, they are the true definition of early adopters. Basically born on the internet, they spend the majority of their waking hours online. They are the reason why Snapchat and Instagram have become such huge successes and why traditional media is shivering out in the cold.

They also want to try new things, because they’ve already been doing that their entire lives. They are the future. And they’re a huge challenge for all of us who are working in the design industry. Because we are not them. Now we need to find out as much as we can about them. We need to use the apps they’re using, put ourselves in their shoes, their parks, their shopping malls, and hang out with them.

We must test our assumptions early and throughout the whole design process, not only in the early stages of the concept phase but throughout prototyping, beta launches and new releases.

They are the experienced end users and early adopters we’re all looking to attract and create for.

Most important of all: you can’t look at teenagers like “just kids”. Today’s teenagers are probably a lot more like yourself than you think. They might not have your life experience or share your taste in music, but they have likely tested a whole lot more new apps than you ever have. They are the experienced end users and early adopters we’re all looking to attract and create for.

Working with teens will yield honest and useful feedback for you. Now the real challenge is: Are you ready to listen?

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