Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Unraveling the puzzle of demographic preferences – designing and building to meet underlying needs

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on December 27, 2010

I read a piece in the New York Times recently (Matt Richtel. Dec. 21, 2010. In Youthful World of Messaging, E-Mail Gets Instant Makeover. New York Times, Page A-1) that shared a piece of news that should already be fairly familiar to anyone involved in the online experience. Younger people tend to prefer instant messaging where their older peers seem to prefer email. This does not mean any one group would only use one of these options and it does not mean that everyone in a specific demographic cohort always follows some same stereotypic form, but rather that on average members of a younger age group prefer instant messaging more, and their parents on average are more likely to use email. Their grandparents are, by this, much more likely to prefer email.

This sounds like a simply story, and in one sense it is. But when you look at the details a number of interesting factors and possibilities come forth that also have to be considered. To cite just a few of them:

• The newspaper article argued the case that teens and early 20’s prefer the immediacy of synchronous contact and message sharing where that is more like face to face conversation. Older are more comfortable with the longer forms of email and even if that means taking more steps to send and receive messages and even if email is a more asynchronous communications tool.
• This may be true but even if it is, instant messaging works more effectively on handhelds and email is much easier on notebooks, laptops or desktops. Hardware preference can be a significant deciding factor.
• For older users in particular, thumb texting – typing primarily if not exclusively with thumbs, and typing on the smaller keys of a handheld can be problematical where a fuller sized keyboard can be a lot easier.
• Instant messaging and attached documents do not go together all that well, and that includes attached image files, text files or most any other form of file format.

The points I raise here allow for immediacy issues and the importance of similarity to conversation per se, but they also allow for hardware preferences and user abilities and limitations and certainly for manual dexterity. My point is that there are a lot of possible issues and factors that enter into any observable distinction of this type. And many probably at least incrementally enter into determining the overall demographics level distinctions observed.

Effectively making use of this type of empirical finding calls for understanding something of the how and why behind it – otherwise you will find you have developed the wrong new features in your products or services as you seek to create a unique value proposition that would support user preferences. If you don’t understand where a usage preference pattern comes from, you run the risk of guessing wrong in how to specifically develop to meet the underlying needs that it represents.

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