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Is There A UI Generation Gap? Posted on 12/11/2002.

The Supernova conference was kicked off by Howard Rheingold, who put forth a thesis based on thoughts from Smart Mobs. It was a great way to start the show, rooting it in humanisitic and sociological notions, and not simply focusing on the tech.

One thing that came up that I take issue with is this notion that there is a fundamental difference between "the kids"' abilities with new technologies, and their elders. This is a fairly hoary canard. Older folks don't get new technologies, don't understand how to use them, but that younger folks adopt it as if it were breathing. This is often put out there as a way to excuse old people from bothering to understand, and, I think, from excusing product designers from bothering to make products for people over 25.

Both notions, of course, are stupid. I refuse to believe that "the kids" are inherently better with new technologies than anyone else. We're all humans. We all have similar capabilities to understand and interact.

Yet, clearly, "the kids" do seem to have a greater facility with, say, typing on mobile phones and playing multiplayer video games than their elders. So why the difference?

I would argue that, primarily, its simply one of desire. Kids are better than adults with these tools because it satisfies a need that is greater in kids than adults -- connecting with peers. Which means, typically, that kids are willing to spend longer figuring out these stupid things, because the end result--being in communication with peers--is desirable enough to warrant hurdling over bad interfaces. Adults simply have other things that warrant greater attention. I'm guessing adults are far more facile with, say, Quicken, than teenagers are.

I just find this distinction between "those capable kids" and "those over-the-hill adults" subtly pernicious, and fundamentally lazy.

I know Don Norman has talked about this fallacy, too, but I haven't been able to find anything he's written about it.

12 comments so far. Add a comment.

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Peripatetic pundit that he is, Rheingold also spoke at BayCHI last night. Coincidentally, I just finished posting a few notes on his talk.
Posted by alex @ 12/11/2002 01:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

What's with the word "pernicious" that it keeps cropping up in IA circles? I almost had to look it up *again*!
Posted by PeterV @ 12/11/2002 03:29 PM PST [link to this comment]

"We all have similar capabilities to understand and interact." But we *do* get dumber as we get older. Less flexible or adaptable, at least. Me, anyways.
Posted by PeterV @ 12/11/2002 03:30 PM PST [link to this comment]

Isn't it more about change and habits? The older you get, the more mired you get in "how I've always done it" mentaility.
Older folks find it difficult to move beyond what they've been taught over many years (of often hard experience) while the youth of today are just starting out and experimenting with whatever they can get their hands on.
Granted, society is also a lot "freer" than it used to be, in terms of making new expereiences available and acceptable.
Posted by Scott C @ 12/11/2002 03:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think "kids" learn everything that they are capable of learning at a faster pace than that which these same "kids" will be capable of learning at a later age. That is basic biology.

Or even zoology. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but it can take a lot longer. Plants and animals are all programmed by their genes to learn certain things very quickly in order to survive. One thing not yet wired into these early programs is the thought process. Primary learning, be it a language or a motor skill does not require much thought. But as humans get older, they come to realize and depend more and more on the value of thought. And once they get into the habit of thinking, and evaluating, it slows down the easy assimilation of new things. It can even block the perception of value in new things.

Most humans are limited in what they can do well. The older we get, the more careful and concentrated we become on what we try to do well. This is not a bad idea. There is a time in our lives for serious innovation, and another time, maybe, serious commitment to processes that have been developed and proven over time.

And the standards for developing and evaluating technolgies or processes should not be generalized and geared to the rare genius or artist among us, but whatever demographic group is suitable.
Posted by BJMe @ 12/11/2002 07:42 PM PST [link to this comment]

I did my masters thesis on older adults and computers. There are some physiological and cognitive factors that differentiate them from the kids. But ultimately, I think that what may really differentiate non-kids versus kids is fear. Kids are far more fearless. They aren't worried about breaking anything. And they aren't afraid that if they have a problem, it's a reflection on their abilities. I put this great quote into my thesis from a guy who taught his 70-yr-old dad to use a computer. First of all, when a computer literate person tries to teach a newbie, you definitely get the "disease of familiarity" problem (shades of the expert skier taking the first-timer to the top of the mountain). So after going through the learning experience with his dad, the son quipped "computers cannot have been designed with human beings in mind."
Posted by Beth @ 12/11/2002 08:32 PM PST [link to this comment]

The difference between the *kids* and *grow-ups* have two variable that have a higher corrolation that age, motivation and time. Time is a much larger variable than age or motivation. Kids have more time to learn, adults that have the time to learn will pick up anything, nearly as quickly as kids. I foun many people younger than I was had a really tough time learning Palm's Graphiti handwriting, but when I got mine it was holiday time and I was in California for a short period and waking up on East Coast time and I had 3 hours each morning to freely lean Graphiti over 3 days. It was a snap. Kids have similar breaks in time. You find similar experiences in retirement communities with folks that have the time and interest in learning.

The second variable in learning is motiviation (also synonomous with priorities in this case to a large degree). Kids thrive on peer approval, which is largely driven around communication (knowing when their friends or want to be friends are going to get pizza and have the one great gathering of the year and you learn to really kiss from the cute girl down the block). I digress, kids have the time to learn and motivation. Adults have less time with work, kids, and household chore events. Adult motivations are different and more driven around efficiency and making doing their chores easier and reliable (paying bills, cleaning gutters, going to a skate park to see Tony Hawk with your kids, etc.).

Old dogs do learn new tricks. Some of the tricks may cause use fatigue injuries, but learning to type with your thumbs is what you always wanted to do in the first place, isn't it?
Posted by vanderwal @ 12/11/2002 08:44 PM PST [link to this comment]

Funnily enough, today I was reading this Pew study on Wired Seniors (14 page PDF). Quote: "Wired seniors are devoted Internet users 69% of wired seniors go online on a typical
day, compared to 56% of all Internet users."
Posted by Gene @ 12/11/2002 08:44 PM PST [link to this comment]

Our minds are sometimes our biggest assets and simultaneously our biggest enemies. Fear of failure, issues of shame and other deeply rooted psychological phenomena creep up on us with every year of life. Our belief in what we can accomplish in life slowly diminishes in breadth, depth and scope as we age. Perhaps this is nature's way of winding us down towards death. At any rate there are significant documented differences between children and seniors with respect to trying new things.
Posted by -challis @ 12/12/2002 08:52 AM PST [link to this comment]

Think about how much faster children learn languages. The young-uns' simply soak up tongues by mere immersion, up to a certain age. Their brains are like sponges, they haven't developed set ways of thinking they'd need to give up in order to accept something new.

There is some kind of inflection point after which some things are much harder to learn. riding a bike, playing the piano, etc. I do believe that children have an uncanny knack for intuiting a UI, simply by taking it for a spin.

Adults, on the other hand, sit back, scratch their heads, looking for a metaphor to apply to the UI (web browser = shopping cart, wheel of a car, etc).

We may be focusing too much on the nature-of-the-brain issue and forgetting other obtuse elements like the fact that adults are afraid of being embarassed if they do the wrong thing with a computer UI, not to mention afraid of breaking the computer. Kids have no such hang-ups.
Posted by Andy @ 12/13/2002 11:56 AM PST [link to this comment]

I appreciate your desire to believe that human learning stays rock steady across the age spectrum, but, sadly, I'm pretty sure there's evidence to back up the claim of diminished learning over age 30. I think the most recent study came out of Stanford a few years ago. I can't find a Web reference, but that doesn't mean it ain't so....
Posted by Harold @ 12/13/2002 01:34 PM PST [link to this comment]

Biology accepted, there is a large amount of "ageism" in our society.

I wouldn't want another person's perception of what I can or cannot do at an older age to actually affect and limit what I can or want to do.
Posted by Jeff @ 12/18/2002 08:02 AM PST [link to this comment]

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