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Use These 6 Principles to Design for Your Future Users

Gen-Z is different. Here are six design implications for your design and research process.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

Gen-Z doesn’t care about celebrities.

In fact, the research shows that Gen-Z doesn’t care about most of the (often trivial) things they’re branded to care about.

What they do care about, on the other hand, should start being of concern for us. The next generation of users are going to have different needs, wants, demands, and expectations, which will be critical to our design and research processes.

Here’s how you and your company can best prepare.

These findings resulted from a dscout study Brilliant Experience’s John Whalen ran. If you want to know more about the results, or his methodology, you can hear him walkthrough it on this stream-on-demand webinar.

Gen-Z: A lay of the(ir) land

Before diving into the specific ways this cohort differs—and how those differences may affect your experience design—there are three few top-level findings worth sharing.

  1. Much of Gen-Z was exposed to mobile internet devices (e.g., phones and tablets) and they were forced to figure out social media while it was still in its formative stages. As such, Gen-Z have mastered the art (and with filters, the science) of presenting oneself online.
  2. They matured during a time of international conflict and recession, which has lead them to be gritty, savvy, side-hustle entrepreneurs. This cannot be decoupled from their expertise with social media, which affords immediate and expansive reach to peer networks (i.e., buyers!).
  3. If you thought Millennial attention spans were quick, buckle-up. Gen-Zers are blazing fast in their consumption, perusal, and exploring digital experiences (again, aided by their preference for mobile, one-handedness).

Natural aggregators

Gen-Z are expert curators, almost painfully so. They share, but they do so with extreme intentionality and within certain, specific, app-based environments.

This is why we see Gen-Z leverage such a variety of platforms: message-based apps like Messenger or Snapchat, streaming apps like Twitch, and video/photo apps like Instagram, and Pinterest.

Gen-Z curate, aggregate, and share with intention (roughly) matching the intention of the app. Moreover, within these apps, Gen-Z are co-opting multiple accounts for even more granular uses. For example, a single Gen-Z'er may have their Insta (main account), Finsta (fake/secret account), and a Sinsta (for nefarious or joking behavior).

Design implication: How much control over posting, sharing, viewing, and messaging do you offer your users? Even within the confines of a system like Snapchat, the use of stickers, filters, and groups offers Gen-Z the curation they crave. If your system is too narrow, you may not appeal to tomorrow's users.

How and where could your experience be visualized? Think about the text-heavy places like account sign-up, troubleshooting, or on-boarding and ask “How might we…” make those more visual, interactive, or otherwise less in text.


As design- and human-centered thinkers, we shouldn't be surprised by the role of visual design as a primary motivator for Gen-Z users. Despite this, it's still worth reiterating the sheet importance and attraction of and to visuals, broadly.

Their proclivity to curate and control is often manifested in audio/visual formats: video, photo, and combos like GIFs. Whether it's news, sports, or hobbies like fashion or food, Gen-Zers would rather look and interact that read and stew.

Design implication: How and where could your experience be visualized? Think about the text-heavy places like account sign-up, troubleshooting, or on-boarding and ask "How might we..." make those more visual, interactive, or otherwise less in text. This will benefit not just your future users, but current ones too, especially for mobile experiences where screen real estate is already shrunk.

Ceaseless explorers

Don't let this very fast, very visual, very curated behavior fool you. Gen-Z heavily engages. A Snapchat story leads to checking out what an influencer mentioned is up to on Instagram, which leads to browsing articles on Google, and back again.

Gen-Z searches for inspiration, and because of this group's sheer volume and diversity of apps, that can lead them in any number of different directions. Because they're carefully curated, their expectations for inspiration are high: they're scanning for people like them, products made for them, and information that fits their problem or question exactly. Exploring, researching, and discovering fit is a regular part of this group's behavior.

Design implication: Strive to get a blinking light, a source of inspiration, or something that will cause a Gen-Z user to stop their search and linger on your experience for a time. If you've conducted persona or Jobs-to-be-Done work, you'll likely have an idea of the hows, whens, and whys to folks using your experience. Now it's time for expert tailoring, customization, and (again) communicating that visually. Maybe this means stronger, more seamless integrations with the places and brands this cohort already engages with.

Spell out how your experience can, does, or will solve a problem or answer a question Gen-Zers have. Look to your organizational mission and brainstorm ways to more clearly imbue that throughout the experience.

Always learning

They may not be wholly "into" influencers in the traditional sense, but Gen-Z really like and seek out experts for information...they are always learning!

Beauty tips, fitness regimes, recipes, tips on buying this or that—all the way to cognitive or mental health, Gen-Z is hungry for educational and informative content (especially video and photo tutorials).

They especially like content that's both educational and entertaining. Haul videos (i.e., walkthroughs of purchases made by folks) showcase personalities of hosts and serve as reviews/information/second-hand experiences with the products.

Design implication: Spell out how your experience can, does, or will solve a problem or answer a question Gen-Zers have. Look to your organizational mission and brainstorm ways to more clearly imbue that throughout the experience. These should align with jobs-statements or personas of most users, and Gen-Z are hungry for multi-channeled and diverse content that helps them solve, learn, and grow.

Seeking Authenticity

Gen-Z are super consumers of experiences in many forms. As such, they know an ad, sponsored post, or paid Tweet when they see one—and because of their side-hustle, entrepreneurial spirit they get it. However, they seek transparency, especially when consuming content created by an "influencer" or sponsor.

Specifically, Gen-Zers want to be told how the reviewer obtained the product (e.g., was sent X, purchased X after receiving a discount). This is important. Amid a milieu of sponsored content, Gen-Zers seek authenticity in information (think about how much of these folks' lives have heard the phrase "fake news" compared to other generations!). They know folks make money reviewing products, they just ask for transparency in return.

Design implication: Explicate why you've made what you have, and when you update or change the platform, offer reasons (above and beyond the immediate "benefits" a user may experience). If content marketing is part of your brand, be honest and up-front with what is posted by your company, versus outside writers about your company. The more transparency you offer within an experience as to why it does/looks/feels the way it does, the more you're resonate with Gen-Z and improve your standing with them.

Exacting Online Shoppers

Like many omnichannel shoppers today, Gen-Z follow a similar pattern of 1) Inspire (see something on a blog or social media) 2) Investigate (research, dig), 3) Educate (can I use/implement this thing?) and 4) Purchase. In addition, Gen-Z goes wider and deeper within each step, and have specific preferences about the online shopping experience. Specifically:

  • They do exhaustive research spanning sites, social media, friends, and videos. They research quickly and across multiple channels and sources, often tailored to the purchase category.
  • They love a coupon. Coupons spur most of the last-minute or quick purchases for this group. Lower salaries or access to capital explains some of this; finding a "deal" explains the rest.
  • In a world of hidden fees, they want the "true cost" of things. Give them the real, final cost of a good or service (and remember to spell out why it costs that!).
  • Free shipping = purchase. This is the single strongest predictor of a purchase. Gen-Z hates paying for shipping and feels that doing so violates a basic contract between you and them.
  • Experiences > things: Adventures fuel spending. These are folks looking to experience and document.
  • Leery of mobile payments, especially because they fear the ease of purchasing something by accident because their banks/credit cards were already on-file. Taking the extra step to add payment info is a plus for Gen-Zers.

Design implications: If you sell to consumers, take each of these in turn and compare them to your e-shopping or in-person experience. Have you spelled out fees and described why you're charging them? Are flexible payment options offered? How are you positioning and marketing your products?

TL;DR, here’s how to change your thinking to design for tomorrow's users:

  1. Think nano-influencer
  2. Move from words to rich media
  3. Capture attention for deep diving
  4. Be authentic and transparent
  5. Help them learn or grow as people
  6. Tell them how you make money

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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