It seems like every company is trying to tap into the Millennial market. And for good reason: this year, Pew is predicting they will overtake the Baby Boomers in number, with around 75 million people in the U.S. under 34. And they are reaching an age of independent consumption, starting to have children, and becoming a presence in the workforce.
So when research comes out showing that Millennials behave differently than the rest of the population, it’s no surprise that everyone’s ears perk up. Gallup, for example, recently published survey results that showed 44% of U.S. Millennials believe firms will keep their personal data private all or most of the time, compared to 32% each of Gen X and Baby Boomers. Does this mean, then, that Millennials are willing to share more of their personal data and digital exhaust in exchange for you’re your services? And should you design your products and services with this information in mind?
While this line of thinking is seductive, we think it is misguided. Millennials, like all generational cohorts, have as much that divides as unites. Treating them as a homogenous entity is likely to fail—or worse—backfire.
At frog, a product strategy and design firm, we recently conducted a global study on attitudes to personal data, which included a question similar to Gallup’s. We asked respondents if specific brands could be trusted to do right by their personal data. Within our U.S. results we found almost no relationship between age and trust that companies will keep personal data private. In our global results, other factors, such as one’s tech forwardness, were stronger indicators of trust than age. Even the Gallup study shows that the number of people who don’t trust firms with their personal data (across all generations, including Millennials) exceeds those who do. While Gallup’s headline—”Millennials Most Trusting on Safety of Personal Information”—would suggest that companies do not have to work nearly as hard to earn the trust of Millennials, we found that the starting principle for product and service designers is the same across generations: We have a trust deficit that we need to overcome in order for people to share information with us.
Going beyond the issue of trust, however, we believe there is limited value in designing for generational cohorts because there is so little that unites them other than perhaps life stage. And when companies do attempt to place a generational lens on a product or service, we find that the outcomes are either meaningless or potentially damaging.
Take attitudes about potatoes, a foodstuff the U.S. Potato Board recently conducted a study on (titled “Understanding Millennials—How do Potatoes Fit into Their Lives?”). In the end, and after what must have been a fair amount of time and effort, the authors concluded that, “When it comes to potatoes… Millennials are not significantly different from the rest of the population.” In other words, there’s nothing that unites this portion of the population; if the Potato Board were to try and focus their efforts on people under 35, they would be designing for everyone and no one at the same time. We see companies and brands taking this approach far too often.
Applying a generational lens can backfire. Whole Foods was recently criticized for announcing a new chain of stores targeted to Millennials desire for “modern, streamlined design, innovative technology, and a curated selection” of lower-priced organic and natural foods. As Robyn Bolton aptly pointed out in HBR, “Whole Foods is essentially saying… [that] Gen X and Baby Boomer shoppers are fine with old, cluttered stores that sell a confusing array of stuff at high prices.” The history of product design is littered with similar examples that fail to take into account that emotions, wants, and needs of people vary greatly within and across generations.
A better approach is to design for archetypes that are representative of certain attitudinal and behavioral traits, and then combine these with social, market and emerging technology trends—all things that transcend age or generation. Defining an ideal customer for a potential product or service using broader human themes allows you to create solutions that resonate with a larger group of people.
In our own work, we find it hard to identify one emotional or functional aspiration—such as the desire for adventure or well-priced goods—that is exclusive to a generation or age group. As we define these archetypes, we may look to particular age groups to inspire and inform our thinking around specific attitudes, beliefs, and marketplace behaviors, but we quickly expand this view to include the broader emotional and behavioral aspects that unite us as humans.
For example, a financial services firm recently worked with us to redesign their tablet experience. This company segments their customers by wealth, an approach that generates groups that map closely to age as older people have had longer working lives to save. The client asked us to design for their most attractive segment, which was this wealthy and more elderly customer. Yet our design research showed that the people who wanted to interact with the bank via a tablet were those who were technologically savvy and financially literate, an attitudinal group that was spread across age and wealth. What started as a fairly simple app project turned into a company-wide rethink about how they should define and interact with their customers.
In the end, this is how product design should work. Far too many companies take a “product-out” view of segmentation, where they essentially ask their customers to line up around their products by demographics such as age or income. They should take an “outside-in” view that orients its products around their customers’ attitudes and behaviors instead. Meeting the functional and emotional needs of a group of people is much more likely to generate transformative results than targeting a generational cohort with tenuous links.