Teens as Digital Users

By Steven Hoober

Published: March 10, 2014

“We know far too little about most types of users, so we work off anecdotes, popular-media portrayals, and gut instinct all too often. … There’s one huge segment of the population that is a total cipher: the teenaged digital user.”

These days, everyone nods and agrees when I talk about the need to design for every type of user. But, as UX professionals, we know far too little about most types of users, so we work off anecdotes, popular-media portrayals, and gut instinct all too often. Recently, I participated in some great discussions about designing for inclusiveness, and I’ve seen good examples of the actual issues that people living with vision or mobility challenges encounter. Nevertheless, there’s one huge segment of the population that is a total cipher: the teenaged digital user.

Teens as digital users are the subject of much discussion, but almost everything that we think we know about their usage of devices and their preferences is completely anecdotal. The vast majority of articles that dig into teen motivations and usage trends rely on an interview with a single teenager—usually one who is related to the author, is moderately or even very affluent, and is surrounded by technology. I don’t much care how those kids work, in the same way that you wouldn’t care how my kids work. I care how all teenagers work.

Hardly any of the conventional wisdom seems right, and previously buzz-worthy articles on these new digital natives are demonstrably wrong. For example, the teenagers in my neighborhood still know what VHS and audio cassettes are.

To fill this gap in our knowledge about digital users, I gathered a small group of teenagers—including friends of my kids, neighbors, and others—and asked them some questions about their mobile devices and their behaviors when using digital devices. I didn’t include my own kids because I have way too many devices and different access policies, and I didn’t want to skew the results. I also determined that none of the kids who I interviewed have parents who are too involved in the mobile, design, or technology industries.

Even after my having interviewed this larger group of teens, be aware that I don’t think my data represents a statistically meaningful sampling. I won’t be fudging the data I’ve got—for example, declaring that 74% of teenagers have a smartphone or anything like that. In fact, you won’t find any charts or graphs at all in this column. However, I think the data that I did obtain is interesting, and it’s already serving as a reminder to me of how much individual users can vary from our expectations—even if they live right next door.

The Participants and Their Devices

“To make sure that the information I obtained was as true and unbiased as the data from any group interview could be, I first gathered a little bit of basic information—some of it by direct observation.”

To make sure that the information I obtained was as true and unbiased as the data from any group interview could be, I first gathered a little bit of basic information—some of it by direct observation. In most cases, I confirmed each participant’s actual device name and OS level by having each of them poke around in settings. I also compared their impressions regarding their most used mobile apps to the apps actually running on their device.

In addition, all of the kids provided a bit of basic demographic data about themselves. All of the participants live near my home in the suburbs of Kansas City. All of these teens live in single-family homes or duplexes. Most live with both of their parents, neither of which is a technology worker or UX designer.

Now, let’s meet the teens who participated in the interviews.

Lucas is in the 7th grade and attends middle school.

He brought along his iPhone 3 (iOS 6.1.3) in an Otterbox. It’s his first phone and was a hand-me-down from his mom. He does not pay the service fees. He said, “I like it, but it’s really slow because it’s an old one. It was passed down from my mom. When she buys a new one, her old one will go to me.”

Lucas also has a tablet that he didn’t bring to the interview and couldn’t adequately describe. He has an Asus notebook computer at home, running Windows 8, which he prefers to the previous version of the operating system. Most of his friends have smartphones, and most use Android.

Elijah is also in the 7th grade and in middle school.

He has a Samsung Galaxy Exhibit, an entry-level smartphone running Android 4.1.2, that his mom and older brother bought for him new.

Elijah also has a Nintendo 3DS with Internet access and can use a desktop computer at home that he shares with the rest of his family. His dad has a notebook computer for work that Elijah cannot use.

Isaiah, brother of Elijah, is in the 9th grade and a freshman in high school.

He carries an LG Optimus Prime, running Android 4.1.2. He picked out the phone, but did not pay for it. His first choice—which had a bigger screen, a better camera, and a faster processor—was too expensive, but this phone was a good second choice for him.

Isaiah also has access to the shared desktop computer at home.

Kyle, a friend of  Isaiah’s who tagged along to the interview, is also a freshman in high school.

He told us that he has an iPhone, but in fact, it is actually an iPod Touch 4G that he bought with his own money when he was 11. It runs iOS6 and has a case because, as Kyle said, “These things like to fall and crack and break, and I don’t want mine doing that. I’ve had it for three years, and I haven’t broken it yet.”

Kyle’s iPod is rooted and has been otherwise hacked. While he has many phone features installed, the device relies on WiFi. There are both a desktop and a notebook computer in Kyle’s home that he can use. One is running Windows XP and the other Windows 7. His dad refuses to upgrade to Windows 8.1.

Elaine is in the 8th grade and attends middle school with one of my daughters, who I kicked out of the room during the interview.

She has some sort of LG text-centric, prepaid feature phone that has a slide-out QWERTY keypad. She does have Internet access, but it uses up minutes so she rarely uses it. Her plan is to buy her own phone when she gets a job.

Her tablet is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, running Android 4.0.3. She received it for Christmas a couple of years ago, in a case with kickstand. She is aware that she could attach a keyboard to it, but never does so. Elaine’s friends almost exclusively have smartphones, but she doesn’t feel left out or shamed because she likes her “small phone.” There is no computer at home, and Elaine does not feel that she needs one for schoolwork.

Lily is a 16-year-old Junior in high school.

She has an iPhone 4S, running iOS 7, that she selected herself, but that her parents pay for. This phone replaced a Galaxy S3, and she had several other phones before that.

Lily selected the iPhone because, after breaking her Galaxy S3, she decided Samsungs are too fragile. She received her first phone when she was in the 4th grade. She also has a MacBook of some sort, which is hers to use exclusively.

Brent, Lily’s boyfriend, is a 17-year-old senior in high school.

He uses a Galaxy S3, which he keeps in a big case. He selected and paid for the phone himself, replacing a Galaxy S2. He was also given his first phone starting in grade school. He pays for the phone himself, but sometimes cannot afford the bill so, as during the interview, he must rely on WiFi for connectivity.

Brent has no computer at home, but uses friend’s computers such as Lily’s or stays at school if he needs to use a computer.

Mary is 15 years old and a sophomore in high school.

She has a 10-key-style feature phone of an unknown brand, on a prepaid plan, that she uses only for voice and text. She has had mobile phones since she was in the 6th grade.

Mary also carries an iPhone 4, running iOS7, with no service plan. Her plan is to buy a SIM for the iPhone when she has sufficient income to replace her feature phone. She also has access to a Windows 7 desktop computer at home, whenever she needs it.

Sydney is Mary’s friend and is a 15-year-old freshman in high school.

She has an iPhone 4S, running iOS7.

Sydney also has a Kindle Fire that she did not bring to the interview and her own MacBook Pro.

Communicating About Digital Device Use: The Interviews

Steven: What do you use your different devices for? When you’re at home, do you use your phone? When do you use the computer instead?

“I go on Instagram, and I text people to find out if they can come over or we can go to the park. I play games and watch YouTube on the computer, and I also play games on the tablet.”—Lucas

Lucas: “I go on Instagram, and I text people to find out if they can come over or we can go to the park. I play games and watch YouTube on the computer, and I also play games on the tablet.”

Elijah: “I’d sometimes use the Internet on the 3DS, but that was before I had the phone. Now I use that. I mainly use the computer when typing something for school. I only have one friend connected to my phone. And some other friends connected to my Steam account I talk to in my games.”

Isaiah: “The computer is mainly for gaming. The phone is mainly contacts and portable gaming. Most games on the phone are games that I play myself. I have an emulator for a friend’s GameBoy and play games for free on my phone.”

Kyle: “I use the computer quite a bit, for gaming mainly. I text on my phone, and when I am on the computer using games, I also use Steam chat to talk to friends who are also gaming.”

Elaine: “I use the phone for texting. I call and text, but mostly text. On the tablet, I use YouTube, Tumblr, and Internet. To look stuff up like Japanese”—showing off some characters she’d written on her arm. “Tumblr has ruined my life. I sit on there a lot—blog and reblog stuff.”

Lily: “I use Netflix and do typing stuff for school on the computer. Social stuff and texting is on the phone.”

Mary: “I text and call people on the [feature] phone, but when I have WiFi, I can text other people who have iPhones and iPads and stuff like that. I also Snapchat people and Facetime people. The computer is for schoolwork and updating iTunes.”

Steven: What do you use most on the phone?

Lucas: “Texting, I think.”

Elijah: “Probably YouTube.”

Isaiah: “YouTube, my [game] emulators, Words with Friends, and a [Doctor Who] sonic screwdriver app, which you point at people and make noise.”

Kyle: “TextPlus, which is how I can text people since it’s not a phone, and Cydia, which lets me program changes to the phone.”

Lily: “Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Flappy Bird, Facebook….”

Brent: “Twitter.”

Mary: “Besides Snapchat and Facetime, Pinterest, Music, Tumblr. I hardly ever post to Tumblr.”

Sydney: “Messaging and Pinterest. On the Kindle Fire, [I have] over 1,000 books—though I don’t read them as much as real books—and about 20 games. And I watch Netflix on it.

Steven: Okay, now let’s prove it. Open up the list of apps running on your phone, and tell me what you see there.

Lucas: “Messages, Instagram, App Store, Game, Safari, Camera, YouTube, Music, Phone, Kik for messaging, Settings, Mail, iBook, Notes, Clock.”

Elijah: “PG Viewer [a game of sorts], YouTube, Chrome.”

Isaiah: “Browser, JetpackJoyride, YouTube, Messaging, Monster Shooter, Contacts—which I don’t know why,” removing it from the list—Email, Facebook, and Play Store.”

Kyle: “I kill everything since they drain [the] battery. But I use iCleaner Pro every night before bed, Tumblr, and SmartGlass for the Xbox, which makes the device a controller for the Xbox.”

Isaiah: “But not a very good one.”

Elaine: “YouTube, Internet, Play Music, Play Store, Calculator, Gallery, Tumblr, New Music, where I download music for free, Gmail.”

Lily: “Flappy Bird, Settings, Text Message, Phone, Music DL, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Photos, Email, FB Messenger, Maps, Camera, Photo Editor, Music, Facetime.”

Brent: “Twitter, Music, Facebook, I have a Gameboy emulator, texting, Google Chrome, Flappy Bird, Snapchat, Waze.”

Mary: “I also clear my apps a lot, but Pinterest, Music, Messaging, Safari, games, Facetime, Snapchat.”

Sydney: “Messages, Snapchat, and Pinterest. If you don’t clear them out it makes your phone slow.”

Steven: How much do you use email to contact people?

“All I really use email for is to make accounts.”—Elijah

Elijah: “All I really use email for is to make accounts.”

Isaiah: “That sounds right, to make accounts. And to contact family members every now and then.”

Kyle: “A little.”

Elaine: “I use Gmail on the tablet. My friends do answer them.”

Lily: “You mean DM on Twitter? Email? No.”

Brent: “I email my teachers a lot. And I get emails from like GameStop and stuff. Which I scan over, but I usually just archive them. And my schedule for work I get over email, too.”

Sydney: “I am in photography, so I have to email my editors about story angles and so forth.”

Steven: What else do you use to contact people?

Kyle: “Facebook. I don’t have any others. No one sends me any.”

Elaine: “No, my mom won’t let me have a Facebook account yet. And nothing else like Snapchat or Twitter. I am forever alone in this world. Not many of my friends have Snapchat either.”

Elijah: “I get a Vine sent [to me] every now and then. But then I have to delete it because it takes so much space. I need one of those mini SD cards.”

Lily: “Twitter. Facebook.”

Brent: “Snapchat is less like, open, where everyone can see it. You just send like three-second pictures to people you know. I use Facebook a lot. The Messenger, because, if my phone is ever shut off, I just use Facebook instead of text. Because everyone has a Facebook, so it’s easy to get ahold of them.”

Mary: “I don’t use Facebook. It’s kind of dying.”

Sydney: “I hardly use Facebook anymore.”

Lucas: “I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. My mom would probably let me, but I just like Instagram. Instagram and Facebook are a lot alike.”

Isaiah: “The only social network I have besides my games is Facebook.”

Steven: So, how often do you use text messaging to contact people?

Isaiah: “All the time. Even though one of my friends takes forever to respond.”

Steven: Do you mostly send text messages, or do you send pictures back and forth to each other?

“The pictures I take either sit there forever, or I upload them to Tumblr.”—Elaine

Lucas: “Not really many pictures. Only one or two. Mainly just words.”

Elaine: “The pictures I take either sit there forever, or I upload them to Tumblr.”

Steven: Lucas, what do you use Kik for versus iMessage?

Lucas: “A lot of my friends like to use Kik. The people who don’t use iPhones use Kik, and the people who do use iPhones, the friends who have iPhones, we use iMessage.”

Steven: What do you do with Instagram? Do you share with specific people as a way to message or send them to everyone?

Lucas: “You can send it to specific people, but I don’t post that much stuff on it. I get on it to see what others are posting, I guess.”

Lily: “Instagram is for pictures. If people comment on my pictures, I delete the comments.”

Steven: When you take photos, do you keep them forever, transfer them to the computer to save them, or delete them when you are finished with them?

Lucas: “If I post something on Instagram—like I post a lot of things about baseball when it’s baseball season—I delete it after a while, if I get bored with it. But I keep some of them.”

Kyle: “I save them, actually. But that explains why I have no memory. I still haven’t figured out how to connect [the iPhone] to the computer. Because, [on] Windows, [photos are] in a different format, instead of converting it all, I just leave it on here.”

Isaiah: “I don’t normally delete anything.”

Elijah: “I don’t really take pictures.”

Elaine: “If I like them or don’t have two of the exact same thing I forgot about.”

Mary: “Sadly, yes. I just save them to my phone. Then I have different folders.”

Sydney: “I download all my photos. My MacBook has facial recognition, so I organize them by faces.”

Steven: How often do you make voice calls? Why not just message people?

“I almost never call people unless they don’t respond to text after a couple of hours.”—Isaiah

Lucas: “I’ll call people maybe three or four times a week, just to see if they want to do something. Sometimes, if their iMessage isn’t working, because that happens a lot, it’s just easier to call. Sometimes I just want to talk to them.”

Kyle: “Since it’s an iPod, the microphones are upside down and backwards. Since I jailbroke it, I can make calls, but it’s inconvenient. It’s available through an extension to Cydia and TextPlus.”

Elaine: “You can? I didn’t know you could do that [to an iPod]. I make calls pretty frequently on my phone.”

Isaiah: “I almost never call people unless they don’t respond to text after a couple of hours.”

Elijah: “Never. It’s just a text.”

Brent: “My phone is off right now”—that is, has no service. “But I usually do. I don’t even like texting very much.”

Lily: “Like, he doesn’t pay his phone bill, but for some reason Facebook still works [over the mobile network]. My mom never texts me back, so I call my mom, my dad.”

Brent: “I also use TextPlus to make calls without the phone.”

Mary: “Sametime, and I call my friend.”

Sydney: “Very much. My mom, my dad, and my brother in Virginia. Also Sametime.”

Steven: How often do you carry your phone? How often do you look at it, and how do you know when you get messages?

Lucas: “Most of the time. I usually keep it in the pocket. I also use it, if I’m not wearing a watch, I check it after a while to check the time. When I am in school, I’ll turn the volume down, so if I get a text, if my mom texts me I have this thing after school I have to do, it won’t interrupt, because that gets kind of embarrassing sometimes. So I’ll check it in passing [between] periods, before classes.”

Kyle: “Always. I keep it in my pocket. Yeah, it’s really annoying because I can’t shut off the ringer. It’s through an app that’s used with this, so I have to leave it on.”

Isaiah: “Usually, it’s in my pocket unless I’m looking at it. I have it totally silent, so it doesn’t vibrate or anything.”

Elijah: “I just wait until it beeps at me, then look at it.”

Elaine: “All the time. When I am home, I take it out to make sure I don’t miss any texts or calls, because sometimes I can’t feel it when it’s in my pocket or sweatshirt. But most of the time, it’s in my pocket. I randomly take it out since I can’t rely on noticing it vibrating. I sometimes bring the tablet to friends’ houses. I leave it in silent mode because I forget to take it off silent mode after school is over. The tablet was annoying me because it would happen at like 11 o’clock at night, while I’m asleep, so now it’s silent also.”

Brent: “I check it when I can. I am usually at school or work, so keep it muted except on weekends and leave it on vibrate.”

Lily: “I don’t even have vibrate on. I don’t like the vibrations, because they are loud.”

Mary: “Both my phones are always with me. The sound is only on when I am alone in my room.”

Sydney: “My phone is in my pocket when I am not working. When I am working, it is on the desk. Sometimes, when I go to school, I bring the Kindle because it has some of my school work. My geometry book is on it, and instead of keeping a journal, I take notes on the Kindle. I am at home, the sound is on. When I am at school, of course, the sound is off.”

Steven: Some of you have implied that phones aren’t allowed, but what is the school policy on using your phone?

““It depends on the teacher. Some are super strict. For my math class, even though I could get a calculator app, I have to use the graphing calculator they give us.”—Lily

Lucas: “You can’t have it out during class unless the teacher says you can listen to music or get on it. But most of the time, the only thing you can do is listen to music.”

Elijah: “Basically, don’t have it out unless the teacher said you can listen to music. But I take it out at lunch to see if I have texts or messages.”

Isaiah: “They say no phones unless it’s in your pocket or backpack. In reality, it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Kyle: “Exactly. Or, in my first hour, the teacher doesn’t care whatsoever. I use it to look up answers. If they don’t see me look it up, I guess it doesn’t matter.”

Elaine: “No phones during school. You cannot text or call, unless it’s the school phone. Which is dumb because those never work. The policy with no texting during school, that doesn’t work. I check between classes, and no one has stopped me yet.”

Lily: “It depends on the teacher. Some are super strict. For my math class, even though I could get a calculator app, I have to use the graphing calculator they give us.”

Brent: “I have this one teacher who encourages us to use the phone. He tells us to download this app, and we take quizzes through it. It’s called NearPod, and we take quizzes and draw pictures on it. The WiFi at school won’t let you get on Facebook [through the browser], but I have the app, and it still works to send messages.”

Mary: “No phones. Well, some teachers…. You aren’t allowed to call in the hallways, but some teachers let you text in class. It just depends on the teacher. The school says no texting or calling, but some teachers let you. If you get your work done, my history teacher lets you have your phone out, and you can play on it. And my drama teacher lets us have our phones out when we are working. We can look stuff up, and we’re allowed to like text and play games on it, if we’re getting our work done.”

Sydney: “All of my teachers, except for band, let me use my phone in class. They are put away for tests, of course. Some teachers let you use a calculator on the phone.”

Finding Empathy for Digital Natives

“What surprised me most were the differences across participants. A few were sure that Facebook is dead, but others use it because it’s perfectly reliable; all of their friends have a Facebook account, as far as they know.”

Just days before the interviews, the school district that most of these children attend announced that they would be issuing MacBook Air computers to all high-school students and iPads to all younger students. This brings up interesting questions about device usage in the classroom. Will the school allow the students to use these devices much more, or will there continue to be restrictions?

Other than the school issues, what surprised me most were the differences across participants. A few were sure that Facebook is dead, but others use it because it’s perfectly reliable; all of their friends have a Facebook account, as far as they know.

A few of the rumored trends seem to be true: Teens rarely use voice communications, and if they make calls to people other than their family, that’s restricted to exceptional conditions or just a few close friends. Email is for work and family, but the teens don’t seem to hate it. It’s just the work-grade messaging tool, so may not disappear or change in any significant way as people belonging to this generation become information workers.

I also found the large number of devices that the kids have and the ways in which they are using them interesting. No one appeared to be ashamed of his or her device choices, and platform choices seemed to be incidental, or accidental. When choices were available, hardware was more important.

Some of the participants found various tools or even games indispensable, but others have barely heard of them. Use of Snapchat, for example, is not common, and my impression is that teens would use it less if it became more popular. The exclusivity is key.

Device use was also diverse. Most participants seemed satisfied even with device selections that were imposed upon them. Carrying a second device and being reliant on WiFi for connectivity was not a deal-breaker. Despite the high usage of connected services, there was no evidence of the addiction that we’ve all been warned about. When there’s no connectivity, the teens get by.

The key lesson is about diversity, choice, and flexibility. There are trends, but teens have their own preferences and opinions, and individuals differ in their device usage. Just as we cannot assume that all business people or all moms use digital devices in the same way, neither can we make assumptions about teens using devices. In the digital marketplace, there is room for a broad range of products, and there are many solutions to the problems and needs of any audience—including teens.

I strongly encourage you to get out and do your own research. If you’re worried about how teens perceive or use your product, do some research and find out.

Notes

Madden, Mary, Amanda Lenhart, Maeve Duggan, Sandra Cortesi, and Urs Gasser. “Teens and Technology 2013.” Pew Research, March 13, 2013. Retrieved February 16, 2014.

Miller, Josh. “Tenth Grade Tech Trends.” Medium, January 4, 2013. Retrieved February 16, 2014.

Campbell, Scott. “Giving Up My iPod for a Walkman.” BBC News Magazine, June 29, 2009. Retrieved February 2014.

Robertson, Joe. “Shawnee Mission Will Provide Take-home Computers to All Its Students.” The Kansas City Star, January 28, 2014. Retrieved February 16 2014.

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.