I think we can all agree that quarantined life has been strange. And while most of the day is comprised of the monotony of domestic life, I’ve been surprised at how much of my time is dominated by technology.
I’ve spent my entire career working in front of screens. Constantly communicating through tech is not new for me. But what is new is how much of my time is now spent in video calls with people older than myself, particularly those in the boomer generation.
We’re all familiar with the scenario: The first 5 minutes of every video chat is spent troubleshooting why we can’t hear each other. Technological solutions fall on deaf ears because someone somewhere is muted. Just when we’re able to hear one another, someone accidentally stops his or her video. Now we’re left staring at the avatar left on the screen as the person continues to wave and smile into the great unknown.
Though I think it can be a fool’s errand to draw generational lines around complex humans, observing what certain age groups value has brought to life some of the truisms that characterize each generation.
I turned 31 last week, firmly planting my feet in the millennial category. While I often feel and act more like a Gen X-er, I laugh at the times when I embody the stereotypes liberally cast upon my generation. I like good coffee, can be quite the helicopter parent, and genuinely think I deserve a trophy for at least trying to play pee-wee basketball. Guilty as charged. While some of the critiques of millennials can be chalked up as grumpy sensationalism, some of the observations are astute.
Let’s take a look at how the designers of today could learn something from the things we overvalue. We may even discover that these priorities are further perpetuating this generational design gap we’ve created.
One truism of millennials that I’ve struggled with is our overemphasis on aesthetics. Trust me: I’m not throwing stones in the glass house in which I live. As a designer, I live for beauty. I salivate at the mere promise of sleek, beautiful, minimal design. Where can I preorder again?
But I’ve noticed over the years that a dangerous weight has been placed on aestheticism over usefulness, or form over function. Maybe it’s our obsessions with bespoke brands or our complicated relationship with immediacy. Whatever it may be, the speed at which the markets can respond to user behavior has led to visual homogeny. In the quest to be unique we’ve somehow settled for designing brands and products that all look the same.
Sadly, many of these trends aren’t founded in patterns of unification or accessibility but are purely aesthetic expressions. We’ve replaced research with doing whatever looks nice and makes a brand look relevant. The modern design industry has been driven by consumerism. Brands like Apple, Instagram, and Nike have to sell beauty because they have to sell merchandise. The danger is when these companies become the inspirational beacons for everything designed. The adverse effects of letting the consumer world lead design looks like a generation that thinks about function last — rather than as the counterweight to form.
Beauty has a critical role to play in design, of course. But beauty isn’t the only role. One of the reasons that I was drawn to the discipline of design was its marriage of art and science. I grew to appreciate that tension and reverently submit to how it fueled my creative processes.
I spend a reasonable amount of time on design platforms connecting with other designers. As a young designer who used to dream about getting an invite into these online communities, I simultaneously shuddered and shrieked at the idea of letting other designers from all over the world critique my work. While some of that essence of communal betterment is still a part of these online communities, they can all too often become a laboratory for aesthetic trendiness.
Trends are not bad. They guide our life and decisions in more ways than we can count in and out of our designed lives. However, where they can become dangerous is when we are designing purely for other aesthetic-minded designers, which is a great way to get attention—instead of designing for folks like… my parents.
Collaborating with boomers
I once gave a talk titled “Designing for Millennials.” The audience included folks in the tourism industry who were Gen X-er’s and boomers. I was one of the few twenty-somethings in the room expected to impart wisdom as to what millennials, like myself, valued in digital experiences. I mention this to say that the irony that I’m now penning an essay to millennial designers about what boomers value is not lost on me.
First and foremost, let’s not throw boomers under the bus. Of course, they appreciate beauty, aesthetics, and polish just as much as the rest of us. However, in my experience with their generation, these things are nice-to-haves alongside something that just works.
Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of managing a website with my dad. It’s small potatoes. (This is not a humble-brag about being the heir to an e-commerce fortune.) The experience has shown me what he values in a functional website. The site is for the church I grew up in, located in small-town Southern Virginia. The website itself doesn’t have to do a whole lot to function well. In my dad’s quest to create a simple, efficient website, I’ve constantly had to fight my common critique of, “Yeah, but Dad, that looks awful!” when offering feedback to the latest widget that’s been added to the website.
Therein lies the tension. Though my father doesn’t represent every boomer in the United States, he does represent how his generation values functionality and purpose. This collaboration has taught me so much about what’s important to the website’s audience, which is primarily composed of people who are boomers or older.
The reality is that they aren’t coming to site to be wowed; they are coming because they are looking for something very practical. For experiences like these to be successful, more emphasis should be placed on user experience and information architecture rather than on gorgeous visual design.
This design philosophy of the boomer generation has started to illuminate the shortcomings in my own processes. I’ve grown to form a healthy, almost scientific skepticism around overly aesthetic brands and products. It’s made me ask necessary questions like, “Are they masking a low-quality experience?” It’s also made me chuckle at the numerous recommendations I’ve received from fellow millennials, which often take on the tone of, “Oh, it looks awful, but it really works,” when recommending brands that don’t value visual trends as much as others.
Let’s pause here.
Am I saying that aesthetics no longer matter and that to design well for boomers is to forget about beauty, fixating only on raw functionality?
No, of course not. I’m offended you even asked.
Our design should be balanced by aesthetics and functionality. When harmony is found between these two forces, something beautiful happens: Folks can actually use what we’ve made.
A few thoughts on accessibility
This conversation wouldn’t be representative or complete without mentioning accessibility. Accessibility is a term that has evolved to mean everything and nothing. What I mean by the term is allowing the widest diversity of people to use and enjoy your experiences. It’s impossible to design something that will work seamlessly on every device for every human, but it is possible to use patterns that have been engineered to help folks of all backgrounds use your products.
This includes thinking well about who will use your products. Most often, I design experiences that have key audiences but need to work well for a broad spectrum of ages. It not only helps me create simple and intuitive experiences, but it also helps me keep my own generational biases in check.
What may feel ubiquitous to me as a millennial web designer may be foreign to older, or even younger, users. Generational context isn’t the only factor when considering where accessibility and age connect, but it can be an excellent place to start analyzing why our design works, or doesn’t, with different audiences.
How now shall we design?
Here’s some tips about how we can better design for the generation that raised this group of ragamuffin millennial creators.
- Spend time with people outside of your generation.
- Evaluate the generational context around criticism you receive.
- If it doesn’t work for people older than you, it may not work at all.
- Identify your own values and see how they influence your work.
1. Spend time with boomers.
It seems so simple; it just might work! Whether it’s your parents or other folks in your community, make time for people who are older than yourself. The best way to see what someone values is to observe how they live, speak, and act in various situations. Watch them use their phone or iPad. Ask them about the sites or apps they find easy to use and those they find frustrating. We don’t use this information to exploit people. Instead, we use it to meet them compassionately where they are. Don’t be afraid to show your work to older generations. I can guarantee they will reveal some blindspots.
2. Evaluate criticism.
This isn’t me attempting to tell you what feedback to take and what to ignore. Rather, it’s a call to add more context to where the feedback may be coming from. For example, if you’ve only asked like-minded millennials to review your work, you may receive overemphasized feedback on visuals and miss the tough questions of functionality and strategy. This doesn’t mean that folks of your own generation have limited feedback. It only means that it may not be balanced by the wisdom that comes from generations older and younger than you.
3. Kill your darlings.
A talented colleague of mine relayed this excellent writing advice to me. The sentiment is that you may have to cut some of your favorite parts of your own writing that may not work for others. I’ve found this same principle to be true in design. It’s impossible to design with complete objectivity. We all bring our own biases and preferences to our work. The crucial equalizer is that we can test these decisions. When something isn’t working for folks outside of your age range, it may not be working at all.
4. Identify your bubbles.
We all exist within cultural bubbles; it’s how society works. While it’s human to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who enjoy what you enjoy, it may be influencing how you create more than you think. Identify your own values and name them. You don’t have to overanalyze and compare them to the values of others, but it may be helpful in creating more compassionate design.
A better way is possible. It will take more effort. It may not be as efficient. It may even cost more money. However, it could lead to a more focused, rich collaboration with the people we are serving. Hopeful design teaches us that there are real people in real places in real time behind everything we create.
May we design with purpose.