Our Wired World

Closing the Digital Divide Between Boomers and Millennials

How user research & testing challenged my assumptions about the online behavior of boomers and millennials

by Christina Goldschmidt

Ms. Goldschmidt has written the article below for Cake&Arrow, a digital customer experience agency that develops products and services for ecommerce, insurance and a handful of other key industries, helping brands reinvent how they do business. Reprinted with permission. Visit here.

While companies of all industries and sizes have spent the last decade hustling to keep up with millennials and their unprecedented proclivity for doing all things online–from shopping and reading to working and dating–baby boomers are still one of the largest consumer markets, and contrary to popular belief, they also spend a lot of time online.

One of the greatest challenges organizations face in their journey toward digital transformation is not simply the digitization of their businesses, but in how to create experiences–both on and offline–that meet customers–millennials and boomers (etc.)–where they are at.

The conventional wisdom goes that millennials are digitally savvy consumers and purveyors of culture who expect to be able to do everything online while Boomers are old fogeys who don’t understand the internet and want to conduct all kinds of business the old school way–in person. This is neither the whole story, nor the true one. In fact, research has shown that millennials and Boomers both expect to be able to conduct much of their lives online, and both also prefer to have certain experiences in person. The problem is not that one group prefers one experience (on or offline) over the other, but that they prefer both experiences, but for different reasons and at different times, and engage in different behaviors within these experiences. The challenge then for many companies is determining how to design experiences that at once address the disparate needs of the two groups on and offline.

At Cake & Arrow we pride ourselves on our commitment to conducting lean research quickly and using it to validate products and experiences as we prototype and design. In this way, no experience ever goes to market without having first been validated. In our research, which has covered groups from all walks of life, demographic categories,and geographic regions we have gleaned several key insights which speak to the different ways in which millennials and boomers conduct themselves online, and in turn have helped us design unique experiences that cater to both.

Millennials Are More Adventurous When it Comes to User Interfaces

One of the key differences that we’ve noticed between millennials and boomers in our testing is that millennials are more open to try new things, and are, generally speaking, more adventurous when it comes to exploring user interfaces. If an experience doesn’t look or feel like an experience they’ve had in the past, or doesn’t necessarily follow the usual conventions, they have more confidence in their ability to navigate a new experience than a boomer might, and are more open to trying new things and feeling their way around an experience until they understand it. However, when Boomers don’t immediately see what they are supposed to on the screen, they are more quick to stop trying and abandon the task.

This is why, when it comes to designing interfaces that will bridge the digital divide between millennials and boomers, following conventions can be important. If a boomer expects links to be underlined and blue, and on your screen they are pink and not underlined, they may not know what to click. And while the conventional design may not always be the most beautiful design, sacrificing accessibility for usability can sometimes be important, and UX designers and creative designers should do their best to strike a balance between creativity and usability, always erring on the side of what is best for the customer.

Boomers Will Read More Online than Millennials

when Boomers don’t immediately see what they are supposed to on the screen, they are more quick to stop trying and abandon the task...

When it comes to content, we have found that boomers are more likely to read what is on their screen than millennials. In some of our test cases, we have seen boomers read every item on a page. Millennials, on the other hand, tend to look for short, succinct messages that communicate what they need to know immediately. For this reason it can be easier to educate boomers online than millennials, as they are more apt to read what you write. And while this doesn’t present too much of an issue when selling simple products like clothing, books, or other consumer goods, when it comes to more complicated products and services like insurance, this difference between millennials and boomers is significant.

This is where omnichannel experiences, which address the needs of all customers across age, demographic, and regional barriers, can be valuable. Working with the design company, IDEO, MassMutual launched Society of Grownups in 2014, a brick-and-mortar meeting space in Boston for millennials to meet up, talk, eat and learn about how to make smart financial decisions. After much prototyping and testing, they eventually closed the physical location and have since continued the initiative with interactive online experiences that take the principals of the brick-and-mortar space and apply them digitally.

Millennials Are Skeptical Online and More Trusting Offline

Because millennials have grown up conducting much of their lives, both personal and professional, online, they are more digitally savvy than their boomer parents, and thus more skeptical online. They can more easily spot an online scam and are often more careful with protecting their privacy online. Boomers, on the other hand, tend to be more trusting,and thus more susceptible to opening suspicious emails, accidentally downloading viruses and malware etc.

Interestingly, this can also work the other way around. While millennials may be more savvy online, they might also be more naive offline to what are perceived to be genuine or authentic experiences. For the same reasons that they might be more likely to attend a social event to learn about finances than simply read about them online, as we have written elsewhere, they might also be more susceptible to being duped by Pyramid Schemes or Timeshare Resale Scams.

What does this mean for customer experience? It means that the key to building trust with consumers is seldom uniform. For boomers, transparency and full disclosure online can go a long way in their earning trust. Millennials might need more, or at least something different. Building trust with millennials will require creating experiences that connect with them on an emotional or personal level that feels “real.” This is where social selling, influencer campaigns, and social good incentives can be especially powerful.

The most important thing to remember when designing experiences that will bridge the digital divide between boomers and millennials is to have empathy. Making assumptions about users based upon their age, gender, socioeconomic bracket, geographic or region or any other demographic information leads to narrow, generic understandings of people and tone-deaf user experiences that ultimately fail There is no better exercise in empathy than conducting research and testing in order to understand how others truly think, feel, and act.