Drawing no line between their digital and non-digital lives, teens may elude us.

Drawing no line between their digital and non-digital lives, all happening in real-time, teens may elude us as they are more private online while at the same time kinder than we may expect. iiD is currently creating a mobile app for social teenagers that we believe will be a real category changer. At the moment I can’t say more than it’s for a San Francisco-based non-profit focused on helping teens nurture healthy relationships online. In our user centered design process, we’ve done a number of collaborative workshops and focus groups to get to know what young people today value in their digital experience. To focus on users transitioning to “teen hood”, we’ve worked with a mix of public and private school teens, age 13 to 15 years old. Being a dad of a teen myself, some findings were obvious while others were real eye-openers. Many in fact changed the course of our creative concepts. Here’s what we learned in no particular order.

1. They want advice from adults

Without being prompted, many of the adolescents we spoke to say they wanted advice from experienced adults rather than asking other teens. The idea was that adults could give them an idea of how to navigate relationships better. In essence, adults already grew up and our teens showed interest in content or features that gave them those insights. This doesn’t mean talking down to teens but instead providing real tips, ideas, advice and otherwise informative content in teen-friendly (short and sweet) formats. The HOW this advice should be given still requires exploring but teens showing interest in role models from the older generation is a key insight.

2. Teens love color

This visual design finding was based on our concept prototype testing which we did with 30+ teens in San Francisco. Of the three prototypes we had teenagers user test, the one that got the most positive reaction featured very saturated (close to primary) color cards. When asked why they liked this concept, the strong color used in the design was one of the main factors. Our researchers went on to ask if they would prefer just a single color app design and the answer was that they preferred each card having a different color since it made it more fun and surprising. This actually challenged our original assumption that teens would like simpler, more subdued colors as popular teen apps such as Instagram and Facebook have simple colors. That said, Snapchat’s yellow appears to fit with our findings.

3. Anonymity in social can’t be trusted

This was a pretty surprising finding considering recent success that anonymous social networking apps have had (ie. Ask.fm, Secret, Yik Yak and Whisper). In workshops with teenagers, while brainstorming social app ideas that could be trusted and support positive relationships, the consensus among our teens was that anonymous social apps often lead to negative, bullying, and even hostile communications. The majority of our teens said users should have real identities to be held accountable for one’s actions. This obviously contradicts all of the buzz anonymous apps have received in the past year. That being said, it appears to explain the more recent poor growth in these apps due to a bullying backlash as reported in recent articles like this one on Techcrunch. Can we go so far as to say anonymous social app just aren’t cool anymore?

4. Teens want to be nice

The teenagers we spoke to showed a strong affinity towards digital experiences that support being nice to their friends in different ways. With the ubiquitous ‘like’ button in social, giving positive feedback is a given today. Yet a ‘like’ can be pretty meaningless if left at that and with proliferation of strategies for receiving likes and follows, this behavior has become more about increasing status and popularity than showing true kindness. When shown “a good deed” app concept that encouraged positive behavior among their peers, a large number of our inner-city teens said they liked that it gave them ideas for how to be nice to friends in their non-digital, real life. They even went so far as to say that their favorite deeds would be giving a friend a hug, helping a stranger, and telling someone they’re beautiful. Are these the cynical, angst-ridden teens of our childhoods? Definitely not, if your 20s are behind you. One seemingly related trend is that in 2014 we saw a 40 year low in alcohol, tobacco and marijuana usage by teens as reported in this article. It appears that teens today put social capital in being good.

5. Mobile is about being personal

First let me start by saying that in our workshops and focus groups, without even bringing up mobile, it was immediately assumed by the young people we spoke to that any digital experience they would enjoy using would be a mobile app. The reason has to do with the tasks they spend the most time doing – photo sharing and texting. At the same time, with teenagers moving away from the “open” social network Facebook for “private” apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp, teens seem to prefer a more personal experience. With social becoming more about 1-to-1 communications, the teens we worked with told us they would prefer mobile apps that connect with specific users rather than taking a Twitter approach to reaching the masses.

If you take away only one thing…

We learned a great deal from our user centered design process – listening and watching how adolescents think about digital experiences. If only one thing is taken away from our user research, it’s that teens today draw no line between their digital and non-digital lives as it’s all happening in real-time and one is as natural as the other. Teens live a handheld, social life but just as easily share there experiences in person. They may elude Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers as they are more private while at the same time kinder than we may expect. This exercise has made us realize that startup founders, brand marketers, educators and even parents can learn a great deal from these soon-to-be adults. And as always the younger generation challenges us to do things and think differently.