Designing digital services for teenagers in APAC

Jas and Shu present nuances to consider and opportunities when designing for Asia's younger population.

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It’s assumed that teenagers are digital natives, with digital devices, tools, and applications coming as second nature to them.

However, our recent research in APAC suggested that when it comes to certain specific types of digital services, teenagers are surprisingly inexperienced, needing more help than we thought to navigate digital tasks. 

We completed work with young teenagers between the ages of 13-17 in Singapore, as well as their parents and teachers. This spanned products in EduTech, FinTech and FinLit. Our work focused around conducting qualitative research including interviews, observations, and diary studies to understand how they use mobile devices and tablets to complete tasks, specifically when learning and managing money.

What stood out for us was that while tech-savvy, and able to navigate user interfaces for entertainment and social media with ease, teenagers lacked important skill sets (e.g. the time management, planning, digital literacy) needed to complement their use of digital services for more functional tasks (financial management, education). 

Our research highlighted that younger teenagers struggled with the use of digital calendars because they weren’t familiar with the concept of scheduling their tasks and online classes independently. They also found it challenging to use trackers or graphs to monitor their saving progress over time, needing more concrete visualisations of information. 

For older teenagers, they were unaware of the cues that could be used to judge the credibility and security of websites. The lack of this knowledge and the guardrails that go with it can create undesired risks and issues during their initial experiences of using digital services like banking apps, financial tools, e-learning services and more. 

In essence, the uniqueness of teenage users come from their high-tech savviness but lack of functional skill sets to use digital tools for purposes beyond entertainment and social media. Based on this, here are three ways to leverage design to help teenagers prepare for the use of other tools which also improve functional skills that enable them to make full use of these digital services.

1. Using social interactions to empower teenagers to learn and support one another

Teenagers are familiar with social applications and the features within them; take the sharing of photos and videos, chatting and gifting in online games or even getting recommendations or feedback from online communities. 

When used appropriately, these social interactions and experiences can be a form of motivation and validation for teenagers. Designers can tap into this to instil or promote new habits and behaviours.

For example, the use of polls and avatars helped to break the monotony of lecture-style online learning, established a sense of connectedness between the teacher and the students, and in turn helped students complete their online learning tasks. 

When it came to financial applications, teenagers also wanted to understand how they compared to their peers or siblings in terms of their savings. This represented a craving for friendly competition elements in savings apps that could motivate teenagers to save more whilst benchmarking their own progress against their peers.

2. Match the online world to the physical world to make learning easier 

Matching worlds is especially helpful when aiming to encourage teenagers to grasp abstract or intangible concepts that cannot be touched or observed. A good example is learning about money. In their younger years, the teenagers we worked with were exposed to physical cash. Learning about money and counting money was tied to physical cash. 

These teens struggled with the switch to digital wallets and e-money as they were unable to physically count and understand how much money they have in their possession. However, the use of digital money pots and graphical data visualisation helped teenage users understand the amount they can spend, or have in their savings. 

In a similar way, learning platforms that mimicked how physical folders were used to organise printed worksheets and notes helped students to easily locate and retrieve online assignments and lesson materials.

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3. Let parents/guardians/teachers set the parameters to create safe learning environments

It’s also important to highlight that teenagers are at an important turning point in their lives - the transition from being “children” to “young adults” is when they learn to be independent and responsible for their own actions. 

During this time, parents often find themselves having to navigate the fine line between granting too much freedom and being overprotective. In the same way, digital services targeting teenagers need to give them a fairly large degree of autonomy and flexibility to practice, but at the same time, take measures to protect them from potential risks and mistakes. 

Allowing guardians to set and adjust the boundaries and parameters of the digital services their teenagers are using can create a safe sandbox for them to experiment and explore independently. 

In the case of banking apps, we found that parents typically gave teenagers the freedom to spend within the allowance allocated to them, as a means for them to learn financial responsibility. However, banking apps need to allow parents to set guardrails and boundaries (e.g. limit spending on big-ticket items, limit budget on certain categories). This means evolving these financial applications and their features with that in mind. 

Similarly, in the education space, teenagers who were encouraged to use the internet for their own learning and exploration benefited from guidelines on learning objectives and things to look out for. This helped to make their learning more targeted and relevant. 

Thinking differently about educational and financial platforms 

Teenagers today are adept users of social media, entertainment and gaming apps. However, they lack important skills that help them complete functional tools on certain applications. In this sense, design can sometimes fail them. This often resulted in teething issues and undesired risks being taken when initially using digital services like banking apps, financial tools and e-learning services.

To facilitate the smooth onboarding to these functional digital services, tap into these design principles:

  1. Use social interactions to empower teenagers to learn and support one another.

  2. Match the online world to how the physical world to make learning easier.

  3. Let parents/guardians/teachers set the parameters to create safe learning environments.

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