Generational Cultures in Apps: Tools vs Modes

The scene may be familiar to many of you. A chat in your family’s app of choice— LINE, WeChat, etc— is created to get everyone in one centralized communication channel. It was meant for logistics and updates. Was.

Now it’s full of clickbait links and the “um”s and “ah”s of audio messages. A 1254 notifications badge scares away any hope for a visit.

Why does it seem like there’s such a wide disparity in how chat apps are used? It seems like on one hand there are the young— with curt and succinct responses, punctuated by heavily contextual content like memes— and on the other, are the older— superfluous and verbose, preferring audio, and seeming to replicate real life conversation directly onto chat.

We know different users use services differently, but for something like communication— which is so basic and foundational to our species— how is it so reliably different? Is it just an issue of age?

Tools vs Modes

What finally shined a light on the topic for me was analyzing a list of the different styles. In particular, it was realizing that it was actually the older’s use of the tool that seemed the most natural. Their conversations were the most faithful and coherent with real speech: the preference for audio, the filler words, and the lack of tech-contextual abstraction (Animojis, GIFs, etc).

For them: they are fitting in their conversation to the application. Everything that they will and want to say, they stuff into the chat— no filter, no additions, no transformations. The app is just a tool for them to now literally throw in their sound waves.

But what about the other side? For the saplings that reserve specific use cases and styles for the chat app (“Don’t ask someone out over text,” “Keep messages short,” etc), if it is not a tool— what is it? As the title gives away: I’d like to think that for those of us born in or living deep in technology, we see them as a mode or environment as real as the room we sit in. Like the different behavior we exhibit in a classroom vs a cafe then, so are our speeches and expectations.

An example of this difference may the fake news crisis. A study by Pew Research showed that those older are more susceptible to believing in false information. Most telling perhaps is the difference in ability of recognizing opinion statements versus facts. Though the experiment did not present the statements via a simulated tech service, I can’t help but think that their familiarity/daily habits with online news and broadcasts have influenced their results.

After all, tools are dumb. No one distrusts a hammer, whether that hammer is a news station or your Facebook/Twitter.

But seeing the internet and its technologies as more of a context would differ from that. Entering a context is like entering a new world: it causes a subconscious change in mentality, a raise of guard, and a shift of expectations. To put it simply: it’s knowing that the tool has baggage.


So then what does this mean? Users are adopting fundamentally different attitudes and subconscious expectations for technology— isn’t that normal? It’s why user personas exist after all.

But it’s not, because this dives much deeper into the very core of how the user interacts with a service. It’s not just about how to optimize their workflow and education, but putting the entire environment into the right context and frame of mind. Depending on the service, it may literally mean defining a user’s world and their definition of fact.

Take the feeds on platforms like Facebook, and why they have such a large and varied effect. Do users see it as a tool to check on people– and everyone you check on seems to be having fun? Or do they see as a context– where the feed is a room where people show off times they’re having fun just like a billboard or trophy case?

For the former, we only need think about what it needs to accomplish. For the latter, we have to think about what moods we want to elicit and expectations to bear. To rely on persona design only pushes off the responsibility onto the user.

Whether we’re building or using these products, we should bear this in mind. Tech companies everywhere are facing the storm now because at their time of inception, they didn’t have the clearest understanding of what impacts their services would have. And so they built hammers.

Little did they know, they should have made workshops.

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