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User stories imageIt’s intriguing how long it takes for a concept to rise and fall and the persistence of some ideas in the face of evidence that contradicts them.  Digital natives, the idea (suggested by Marc Prensky) that younger people are intrinsically able to function effectively in a digital world, by dint of being born at a time of digital abundance, is an idea that has spread out from the academic world and now seems established in the minds of many, for example quoted in this article from the BBC, and in this piece from Goldman Sachs taking data from Pew Research.  Yet within academic research this concept has been shown to be a myth.  A new paper by Kirschner and De Bruyckere ‘The myths of the digital native and the multitasker’ (abstract available at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.06.001) reviews much of the recent research and concludes that there isn’t evidence that younger people are digital natives.  In their words

“though learners in this generation have only experienced a digital connected world, they are not capable of dealing with modern technologies in the way which is often ascribed to them (i.e., that they can navigate that world for effective and efficient learning and knowledge construction).” (Kirschner & De Bruyckere 2017)

So Digital Natives – it’s not a thing.  It’s more complicated.

I wonder whether part of this might be a misunderstanding by non-academics when taking concepts from the academic world.  The ‘Scientific method‘ where researchers create a hypothesis that they test and then refine or change as a result of testing seems to confuse lay people into thinking that academics are always changing their minds, when it’s a process of enquiry where knowledge moves forward by theorising, testing and refining.

So it makes me wonder about typology, a process of categorising things into types.  Another example from recently suggested that there’s a linguistic method of distinguishing between Baby Boomers and Millenials by noting how they respond when someone says thank you.   Baby Boomers (defined as people born 1946-1964) are likely to say ‘You’re welcome’, while Millenials (1982-2002) are likely to say ‘No problem’ and there’s the suggestion that saying the ‘wrong’ response could be seen as annoying.  It interested me as I’m likely to respond with ‘No problem’ yet theoretically sit in the earlier category but am conscious that I probably wouldn’t have used ‘no problem’ when I was younger.

Typology is particularly prevalent in work around personality types and you see it most frequently in psychometric testing.  Much like digital natives it has become quite pervasive and established, with tests like Myers Briggs being regularly used.  Yet psychology researchers have moved away from this approach in favour of thinking about personality traits such as Big Five now.  Although practitioners seem convinced of the value of these psychometric tests the research pretty consistently sheds doubt on the validity, describing them alongside learning styles, as neuromyths. (e.g. eDekker et al ‘Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers‘ Frontiers in psychology 2012).

But it is fascinating how these theories get embedded and adopted and then become difficult to shake off when the academic world has moved on to something else, has abandoned that theory as it doesn’t seem to fit the evidence.  The attractiveness of typology is also interesting.  I can see how there is a convenience factor at work here of grouping into types and I see it in the tendancy in web analytics for ‘segmentation’ and the use of personas in UX work to stand as a representation of a ‘user type’.   But…  this all increasingly suggests to me that when you are looking at categorisation you are looking at something much more fluid, where users might move from category to category, depending on numerous factors – what they are doing maybe, and we’re using the categories as much as a use case to test how a product might work for that scenario.

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