I’ve been hearing and thinking a lot about Generation Y for the last few weeks — those young people born roughly 1980-1992. There has been a lot published and in the media spelling out their characteristics and tendencies. A few weeks ago, I had an interesting discussion with a Gen Y person about his cell phone and how he uses it. Being a baby boomer myself, I am more than a little fascinated by the intuitive way that generation absorbs technologies into their routine lives. It makes me realize that somewhere along the way in the past five years, I’ve lost the burning need to have the newest or latest gadget, and that I don’t really care anymore whether Microsoft creates a better Outlook. That feels a little strange when I think about it. I’ve always been enchanted by “new” and wanted to have it. I justify my shift in consciousness by saying I’m trying to rise up above the fray of the latest advertising blitz for the iPhone 3G or the newest Wii gadget, to gain a perspective on the technology hype cycle at work. People are doing what people have always done throughout history — they are adapting to the circumstances present in their environments. Today we have more technology available than we could have dreamed of 10 years ago, and it is powerful in ways we couldn’t have imagined. (I heard just tonight that there is more technology in our cell phones today than they had to put the men on the moon!) It is affecting our children profoundly.
According to research by Donald Tapscott’s New Paradigm Learning (2006), there is a global youth culture (many more children born worldwide than in the previous decade) and these kids are awash in information:
- 3 billion cell phone users
- 1.1 billion Internet users
- 850 million social network members
- 100 million blogs
- 80% of active Internet users will have a ‘Second Life’ by 2011 (meaning an avatar in a virtual world, not necessarily the Second Life platform)
Just think about it. Ten years ago, Amazon.com and eBay and Google didn’t exist! Neither did iTunes or iPods or Napster or digital rights management or virtual economies or Facebook. According to Morgan Stanley Research, of the Top 10 Most Visited Web Sites in 2007, six were social networking sites, and of those, only MySpace existed two years ago! (The top 10 were yahoo.com, google.com, youtube.com, live.com, msn.com, myspace.com, Facebook.com, Wikipedia.org, hi5.com, and orkut.com.)
We have no idea what is out there just over the next hill, or which two guys sitting around a kitchen table somewhere are dreaming up the next Guitar Hero or personal GPS system or laser projection device or robot that will create a tektonic shift in how we perform routine tasks.
Gen Y is now reaching their maturity and beginning to take leadership roles in the workplace. This is going to change a lot of things. Most of them swim in technology as easily as they do water, and as a result of growing up immersed in technology, they think differently about work, life, the world and the future. It’s very exciting to think about where they will lead us!
This week I have been talking to some Gen Y people I know. These young people may not be an accurate reflection for their generation, but two thoughts have struck me from their commentaries. (1) Maybe the bulk of Gen Y is not as tech-savvy or dependent upon the technology as the media leads us to believe. (2) We probably need to remember that people this age have not really had much money of their own to use for buying electronic gadgets. They are in college or just out of college, many with college loans to repay, and probably don’t have their own apartments yet. Perhaps they have played X-Box games with friends or games in arcades, but they may not own the latest and greatest phone or MP3 player themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t *want* to — but just that disposable income is an issue at this age.
Here are some excerpts from the conversations I had that resonated with me (or that represent how I believe the Gen Ys think about technology). Note their heavy emphasis on being able to interact with people rather than the technology. I have cleaned up the comments just a bit, but I am deliberately leaving in the expressive color and personality in the messages. We have to get used to that, too!
1. (26 year old male, game designer) “Here’s an example, which I’ll codename “Snarf” just for fun and simplicity. Assume version 1.0 of the Snarf UI utility is running on your phone (a ubiquitous tool for young people), with minimal but nice-looking 2D graphics and an easy-to-understand interface. You have a buddy list in Snarf populated with personal friends, business friends, and ****s you have on ignore (which masks your presence from them). At about 9:00, you decide you’d like to go to Noodles & Company for lunch (don’t argue with me, Noodles & Co is awesome). It’s a location that you go to semi-frequently, so you write a very concise entry in your Snarf blog about it, using a Noodles & Co keyword that you have set up to indicate a specific restaurant location. At 11:30, you bring up an in-Snarf top-down map of the block that Noodles & Co is on. The people on your buddy list have also told Snarf where they’ll each be having lunch, and two of your business colleagues happen to be eating at Pizza Hut across the street. This is indicated to you by a little Snarf icon on the Pizza Hut building which you can select (touch-screen would be good) to open a window showing the names of these people. It’s essentially like doing a “/who Stormwind” in WoW, but based upon your buddy list and looking at an area in meatspace.”
“Making a 3D application for this kind of thing is fine, but as far as the dreaded Bottom Line is concerned it’s just icing. For a version 1.0, it would be good to get the 2D interface and data management done first. Then in a later version, the Snarf brain could be incorporated into a cool 3D environment. We’ll call that v2.0. v2.0 would be good for a PC with a mouse, keyboard and plenty of monitor to show it all, but if you want to access it with a phone they’re just too small and awkward to really handle all that. You’d want a Snarf v2.0 Mobile, a somewhat stripped-down version, which can still communicate with Snarf v2.0.”
2. (19 year old female, college student) “Do they really have a GPS thing where you can see where your friends are!!!?? i never knew that. If so, that is definitely something that should be added!!! but then can’t it be dangerous!! people knowing where you are???…Now a days handhelds can do just about everything a computer can, and anything beyond what a computer can do is beyond my mind!!!! I mean i am perfectly content with my flip phone that has none of the fancy features!! ha!”
3. (24 year old male, business analyst) “Usability is king. I think one of the reasons that devices like the iPhone are popular is that they are very easy to use, have a simple interface and easy to access menus. I like the touch screens for this aspect, because it gives you much more freedom in how people can interact. Integration with existing apps is also very important. Having to reenter your information in new sources can be very annoying and a barrier to adoption, for example the ability to enter profile information from a source like face book. Personalization is huge, especially with mobile devices. They are almost like a status symbol for the younger generation. When you are 14 you can’t have a faster car than your friends, but you can have a cooler phone. Anything that users can change easily from a menu to make the device more “theirs” goes along way. Finally, being able to easily share content with others. For example I don’t really use the camera on my phone, because if I want the pictures on my computer, I have to go and jump through hoops to access them via the service provider’s website.
It would be cool to have an app that would get location information from either like facebook, or phone gps, and display their house, or current location using something like google maps. You could then use it as something like a gps navigation system to get there. That kind of service could also be nice to find places of interest, like if I searched for hotels, and then I could see a picture of the hotel, read reviews or thoughts about the place from an existing site with a large number of reviews, and then go to their website and book a room.
With the small screen and relatively low power of mobile devices, having a rich 3D experience would be difficult, especially since expectations around 3D graphics are quickly rising all the time. Having N64 quality graphics actually rendered on the device would probably not impress people much, but maybe some sort of pictures, pre-rendered using cloud computing and sent as a compressed picture or small video file, could be very impressive. For example if I wanted to walk from my house to a friends house, having an application that would show me how to get there in some sort of 3D environment could be very cool. This would help a lot too in explaining directions that are sometimes difficult to give, like roads spitting or hidden entrances/exits. This is a service that could be used for regular desktop computers as well. I think that an easy to use application like this would be a good way to get more people interested in PDA type devices as well.
There is a lot of crossover between desktop applications and now mobile applications. For example I’ve been using Pandora (pandora.com) for at least a year, maybe longer. This has now become available on the iPhone and is actually a pretty big positive for me if I were to get an iPhone. I think another viable strategy might not be so much to focus on creating new applications, but drawing people in by integrating with the applications they already are familiar with — you save the step of selling people on new applications, because they already know what they can do.”
4. (21 year old male, college student) “Antisocial behavior is a big problem for my generation because we spend so much time on the Internet and e-mailing instead of talking to each other. I think that IS why we also spend so much time e-mailing and texting each other! It’s important to have a lot of friends, and most people have busy lives. That’s a conflict! Technology like cell phones and Blackberries make it a lot easier to touch base with a lot of people in an efficient way. Any technology that is simple to use, interesting to look at, and lets me connect with my friends quickly is great. Oh, and it should work on an older phone! Mine is two years old and I can’t afford to get a new one right now!”
5. (25 year old female, architect) “This technology question is difficult for me because I’m probably the least connected technology wise out of all my friends. I’ve never lived in a place with a fast internet connection, so I’ve found 3D websites annoying (b/c they either take too long to load or they crash the connection). I watched my little cousin on Club Penguin once. It was cute and he’s obsessed with that virtual world. Since I have always found myself so busy with work and school, I’ve never gotten into anything “cool” computer-wise. I mainly use my computer to look up information, send emails if necessary, look up movie times, and look up maps. I drive and travel a lot so google maps have saved my life. I love looking at maps. I really like the 3-D maps and “street views” that you can find of many cities so that I know exactly where I’m going (and where I should not go).
I had a friend finally convince me to sign onto Facebook a yr or two ago, but I use it as little as possible. My phone dials numbers ONLY. Isn’t that sad . I requested texting capabilities to be removed from my phone. My aunt and uncle gave me a PDA two or three yrs ago, and I never got past playing solitaire on it. I realized that the PDA was only going to be useful to me if I spent money on accessories, programs, the internet, a fold-able keyboard (since it takes forever to type something with a little stick), and I was too poor and/or lazy to put that much effort into a device I never asked for or thought necessary. When it comes to computers, I’m great compared to my parents (which isn’t saying much), but compared to my friends, I’m way behind the times. I purposefully forget my cell phone at home at times so that I can’t be reached. Personally, I think it’s horrible that we all now find it “irresponsible” to not have your phone or check your email everyday. I enjoy technology a lot, but I also see it as a nuisance. When my dad first bought me a cell phone in college, I saw it as a leash. Unfortunately I can’t function without it now, but I still see it as a leash sometimes. I am one that turns it off quite frequently.”
6. (21 year old male, college student) “In today’s world that’s always connected and where everything can be done or accessed electronically, i think it’s essential to have a device or way to access all that is out there. the iphone is a huge step. i even saw somewhere recently that with all the smart home technology combined with the iphone, you can whip out your phone and turn on lights at home while you are out of town. you can turn on your tv, etc. i think that’s wonderful. I think portability is essential. i don’t know that any of this is new information though. everyone is creating things that are portable. i think, for me, the biggest thing that needs to be kept in mind when doing stuff like this is how personal it is. you should be able to express who you are through it. i think that’s the big boom with myspace and facebook. you build your page and fill it with information on you. and its great to use them to find information on other people. pictures, phone numbers, birthdays, etc. i know our world makes access to all that information dangerous, but from the perspective of someone who would use it only for good, its wonderful. i think the ipod touch/iphone’s screen is a great size. and the touch screen is incredible. i think its great. i think its almost necessary to save space on the device that buttons would take too much of.
i’m not sure about incorporating all that with a virtual or 3D world though. that’s just not really me. i like getting out and seeing people. but i can see the benefits of a virtual world. like disabled or handicapped people being able to move around and have a life they wouldn’t be able to have. i definitely think a virtual world would be a wonderful addition to online shopping. you can almost “test drive” a product before ordering it. it would include videos of it, pictures, reviews, etc. everything you could possibly know about it without touching it.”
7. (19 year old male, physical therapy intern) “My phone is a PDA, and not one of the newest ones…it’s a little beat up, but it has Internet connection and I use it for IM and email and texting. Mostly for texting and IM. I don’t have a camera. I would love to have GPS ability! That would be very cool!”
So will Generation Y be the first 3D-immersed generation? I think it still depends on many things. For sure their incomes and willingness to spend on technologies will increase, as will their impact on culture and the work place. Their houses will be ecology friendly and wired (and wireless). Until there is a clear platform leader (or two) in the 3D metaverse, though, it seems unlikely to me that 3D worlds will have more than a novelty impact. I think 3D is going to be something the so-called Millenials will push forward.
Gen Y needs time to acquire the latest hardware and make their demands known for software, and then we will see companies emerging that will be the Amazons and Facebooks of the future. If I had to hazard a guess now, I’d gamble on Google. The general love of and perceived need for GPS services practically push them to the forefront. Take Google Maps and its annotation layers, add Google Earth‘s topographic features, and then lay over that 3D models created in SketchUp, and one is only missing a simple chat interface and an avatar to wander around in that virtual space and feed back what the user wants to know. (And avatars are on Google’s radar, too!) I may not be Gen Y, but I’d buy it, and I’d use it! If you are a Gen Y and want to share your point of view, I’d love to hear from you!