On (Not) Designing for Millennials

Moment designs a lot of digital products for clients, including products targeted toward millennials. Frequently, the organizations that hire us describe the particular product we’re working on as “insurance/banking/ app/whatever for millennials.” By now, we should all know what this means—the product needs to be appealing to savvy young people who are critical of tradition and open to disrupting norms.

The “X for millennials” description is really seductive because it communicates the nature a product so succinctly and so appealingly, to the effect that everyone wants to imagine that their target audience is all 80 million Americans under the age of 35.

Of course, this framing is superficial at its base. It’s bad research and bad design that allows our sense of the qualities of a large group to color our impression of individual members of that group. And it’s bad product strategy to imagine that one product could meet the needs of every person under the age of 35 (unless of course it’s Pokémon Go).

As designers, we have to acknowledge that our understanding of the demographic qualities of millennials—and, for many of us, our membership in that group—isn’t sufficient to actually design good products.

A Monday article from The New York Times on the credit habits of millennials is a perfect illustration of this challenge. The paper performed an analysis of Federal Reserve data that shows that the number of young Americans with credit card debt is the lowest it’s been since 1989, and the author makes the case that millennials are making a choice to behave differently than previous generations by not taking on the same levels of debt as their parents.

The author describes and interviews two millennials: Jason saw his family’s business shuttered because of the loss of access to a credit line during the 2008 crisis, and Rebecca, who has a load of student debt. These two are great foils for the larger narrative. In other words, they both are clearly making deliberate choices about their finances because of their personal financial history and the larger financial climate. It’s easy to imagine these two as representatives of their demographic because their stories play so well into what pops into our heads when we hear “millennial:” savvy, disruptive, and critical of tradition.

The positioning of Jason and Rebecca as generational avatars breaks down as we learn more about their lives and professions. It turns out Jason works at a private equity firm and recently paid cash for a new house. Rebecca’s experience with debt encouraged her to found a financial literacy service aimed at her peers. These two might just be the absolute best possible examples of the savvy, disruptive, critical millennial that you could imagine. They’re educated, experienced, and resourceful, and they’re actively using these attributes to improve their own financial lives and the lives of others. To put it bluntly, the vast majority of millennials might not have as much in common with Jason or Rebecca as the Times article lets on.

When we design, it’s really easy when we hear the “X for millennials” framing to imagine a Jason or a Rebecca using our products, but it’s our job to understand our audiences in a way that isn’t reductive so that we can actually find and meet real user need.

This situation certainly isn’t unique to millennials, but it feels like a particularly acute problem because that archetype has become so well-defined through these kinds of news reports. This article was a good reminder for me to push myself to explicitly acknowledge and articulate when it’s useful to use my preconception of the group (like open ideation), and when that preconception is a bias I need to overcome in order to make good design decisions.