Designing for Life Stages

futurelab default header

by: danah boyd

People often ask me why designing for teens or older folks is different, why age matters. There are many different ways to slice up age and life stage. Mooshing together various theories, i have my own hypothesis about three critical life stages in Western culture that affect a lot of our social technologies. The first is identity formation; the second is contributive participation in society; the third is reflection and storytelling.

Identity formation

When youth are coming into a sense of self, they move away from the home and look to the social world to build a socio-culturally situated identity. In other words, they engage in the public in order to make sense of social boundaries/norms and to develop a sense of self in relation to the broader social context. Youth go to the public to see and be seen and they negotiate a presentation of self depending on the reactions of peers and adults. Public performance is about getting those reactions in order to make sense of the world.

A main role of things like MySpace and Facebook is to produce a public sphere in order for youth to negotiate their peers and learn about the social world. People often ask me why teens don't just go out in a physical public. Simply put, they can't. We live in a culture of fear where most parents won't allow their children to go anywhere without supervision. Youth no longer have access to the streets or even neighborhood gathering spots. They are always in controlled locations where the norms are strictly dictated by adults – this is not a public sphere in which teens can make sense of sociability. Thus, they create their own. (Note: the production of a public and its implications is the cornerstone of my dissertation.)

Peer groups are critical to identity development and the technologically-enabled always-on culture supports that process, especially when the bulk of youth's lives are spent having to play by adult rules with only 3-minute passing time for sociability. This process typically starts in the pre-teen years and goes strong through high school and into post-high school years with a fading of core identity development occurring mostly in the mid-20s.

Contributive Participant in Society

And then we become adults. The bulk of adult-hood is evaluated based on contribution to society, participation, what you can create and do. It's about being a good citizen, laborer, parent. It's about the act of doing things. Your identity gets wrapped up in how you contribute to society ("So, what do you do?"). We ask youth about their hobbies and friends; we ask adults about their jobs and children. When we speak, we think that we have to produce information, be relevant, be efficient, be contributive. (And people wonder why growing up sucks.)

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than blogging land. While youth are doing identity production in terms of sociability, adults are creating new tasks for themselves – documenting, informing, conversing. It's all wrapped up in being part of the conversation, not in simply figuring out who you are.

Reflection and Storytelling

There comes a point when people stop thinking that they need to give give give. They're done and they want to reflect and share and just be. Older people are proud of what they did do and they tell stories. They share with their children and grandchildren and they find utter joy in watching them grow up. They talk about their children and grandchildren to friends with proud voices, sharing the joys of their stories. Older folks are no longer invested in working and being productive citizens. It's more a matter of life maintenance and reflection.

While storytelling is the cornerstone of most social technologies, little has been done to engage them with the technologies or to make it relevant to them in a direct way. While youth are motivated to repurpose adults' tools for their own needs, older citizens have no investment in such repurposing. The way that it's always been done is just fine.

Note: This does not mean that older folks are not being productive, just that they're not invested in producing for a broader society in the same way as the mid-range folks. For example, there is a lot of genealogy work done (and it's a big use of technology), but it's mostly about fitting one's life story into a larger narrative. Hobbies pick up (from knitting to gardening to traveling). It is not that life is over – priorities just change.

Design Issues

Admittedly, this description is very coarse and not fleshed out (::cough:: wait for the dissertation!) but i still think it's relevant for design. How do these groups think about the public differently? How do they engage with information and sociability differently? Their practices differ because their needs and goals differ. What would it mean to design with life stages in mind?

Of course, some folks are definitely thinking about this problem. I was ecstatic when i read Mena note that "it's not just about ease of use: I want to make a product that my mom actually wants to use." Mena's dead-on. It takes understanding the social practices and needs of a given group. It doesn't matter if it's usable if it's not relevant.

(For those wondering about my dissertation, i'm working on the proposal… but this entry is a good teaser.)

Original Post: