Understanding Gen Z: the first digital natives

Talking to Gen Z gives you clues about how your products and platforms will have to evolve, from media to pensions so it is important to get a handle on this.

Gen Z is the post millennial generation – the eldest of whom is no more than eighteen years old.

They are true digital natives, and were just nine years old when the first gen iPhone was released back in 2007. These are people who have never had the pleasure of using dial-up. Talking to Gen Z gives you clues about how your products and platforms will have to evolve, from media to pensions so it is important to get a handle on this.

We’ve been conducting research with young people for a number of years and were recently appointed to the BBC’s Design Research Rosteras their Children’s Youth research specialist. Gen Z’s are now entering their formative years (read: influence and spending power), representing 22% of the population in the US (23% millennials). And according to a report published by Goldman Sachs, they are expected to be even more “dynamic and influential than the millennials”. It’s time brands learnt more about their behaviours and habits, which will allow them to design better products and services to meet their expectations.

The first digital natives

Whilst the millennial generation largely grew up with technology, Gen Z is the first truly digitally native generation. The technologies Gen Z have grown up with are different, so it is reasonable to expect that they have different expectations.

In terms of technology use, this generation has never had to wait for a page to load. Poking and prodding at touch screens is second nature to them; the television might as well be an ornament; and the floppy disk save icon is a meaningless anachronism.

While Gen Z are young, their behaviours and habits are quite sophisticated. If anything, we’ve found that they approach technology and online activities with a more mature disposition than previous generations when they were in this age bracket. Our research has shown that Gen Z are more aware of who can view their online activity and who is in their social networks. They are just as active as millennials but more conscious of who they are engaging with and are only comfortable sharing content with those they trust.

Omni-channel is a way of life

In terms of technology usage, it will come as no surprise that this cohort is very confident and adept at using a range of devices. Omni-channel isn’t just a buzz word for this group – it’s how they live. According to research by iiD, millennials prefer to communicate over two screens through images and words, but millennials are happy multi-tasking across five screens through images.

They watch video content on smartphones, through games consoles, iPads, laptops, on-demand TV; basically anything that can connect to the internet. Having a range of devices at their disposal is woven into the fabric of their existence, and they take full advantage of it. This group expect immediate access to the content they wish to consume, across whichever device is at their disposal.

Multiple devices, and immediate access is having another (unsurprising) effect on TV in the traditional sense – they’re watching less of it. This age group are watching up to 25% less television in 2015 than they were in 2010, which is twice the decline for all age groups (11%).

A more considered social presence

Gen Z’s sharing and social habits on the web are also different. While Millennials grew up with the spectacular rise and fall of Bebo and then migrated to sharing their lives on Facebook, our research has found that Gen Z tend to use social media that are built on messenger services. For instance, WhatsApp and Snapchat were cited as their favourite social media channels, reasons for which revolved around simply being able to talk to friends and family. This differs greatly to Millennials and Boomers who said Facebook was their favourite social media platform, saying that they use it to ‘let others know what they’re up to’.

However, this is not to say that Gen Z do not curate online personas in the same way that generations before them do; they go through a mature and considered process. And when they do share, they curate and create content that fits in with the persona they are building for themselves. Importantly, privacy and safety is front of mind for them – of those who post to Instagram, many say that they first take a photo, then upload it when they get home because they don’t want their followers to know where they are.

Realistic rather than optimistic

Linked to financial wealth, Gen Z is also generally more realistic and future-looking than Millennials. “Raised by Gen-X parents during a time marred by economic stress, rising student-debt burdens, socioeconomic tensions and war overseas, these youths carry a less idealistic, more pragmatic perspective on the world” (Goldman Sachs).

But what does this mean for us when it comes to designing for this user group? Below are some design sensitivities brands should consider if they wish for their products or services to be accessible and desirable for Gen Z.

Peer interaction
Value their Interaction

Understanding Gen Z’s behaviour, habits and motivations is key to designing for subsequent digital native generations to come. The design principles established are a precedent from which businesses need to learn and adapt, particularly now as the oldest members of Gen Z arrive in the workplace and develop purchasing power.

Here are three things you need to do in order to get to grips with this generation: 

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