No Such Thing as Offline

Digital natives are redesigning the way we build tech one tap at a time.

By Justin Barber

Whether you find it menacing or miraculous, there’s no denying that the mobile web’s most enduring imprint on contemporary society will be the dissolution of what it means to be on and offline. For digital adopters — those who arrived at tapping by way of clicking — the ramifications mostly revolve around matters of integration, like convenience and time. For digital natives — those who grew up with ubiquitous computing — the consequences are often more complex, reflecting their identity and shaping the way they communicate. Herein lies the challenge for designers: How do we build a responsible, effective ecosystem for a world we may not fully understand yet? Acquiring cultural competence is a start. By truly understanding the behavioral shifts and evolving language in our digital spaces, we can begin to design appropriately for the problems we see now and anticipate the potential of what is to come.

One of the most notable behavioral distinctions between digital adopters and natives is the latter’s preference for interaction over passive consumption. That difference between arriving at a destination versus interacting is evident not just in the products we use but also in the way we talk about them — you might be on Facebook (where you find friends), but you use Snapchat (where you add friends). You might browse Instagram or Twitter, but you swipe right on Tinder.

In a roundtable discussion of the latest trends in design tools, Google’s Matias Duarte observed that “it’s much more positive, engaging, delightful, and stimulating” to directly manipulate something instead of clicking and waiting for a response. And yet so many of today’s interfaces maintain this mindset, mistakenly assuming a finger is the same as a mouse while the very form of mobile — small and light in our hands — begs for a far more intimate and tactile interaction, like pull-to-refresh or fling-to-dismiss.

Snapchat was the first mainstream product to extrapolate this principle beyond individual features by structuring its app entirely around gestures and direct manipulation (like hold-to-record/reveal and swipe-to-navigate), the ultimate non-discoverable affordances. This approach prompted digital adopters, who only recently grew out of needing skeuomorphic visual cues but still rely on a map or menu to orient themselves, to deem the app “unintuitive” (the ultimate UX insult).

But for digital natives, who’ve leapfrogged the need for visual affordances altogether, every interface is intuitive. They don’t need a map detailing each direction — they’re comfortable navigating with only a compass.

But that’s just a part of the story. Visit to finish reading about the ways that digital natives are reshaping UX design, from collapsing conventions around chronology and time to developing new methods for self-expression.

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