Article in Connectivity, Product Development and Strategy categories.

Gen Z Are Onto You: The Likes, Dislikes, Needs and Wants of Digital Natives

Gen Z-ers are positioned to become the most valuable consumer group. Learn how to make a successful app that understands their quirks, habits, and wants.

Millennials may think they’re the ultimate tech-savvy generation — as modems grew up, so did they — but Gen Z is truly digital native. Kids born after the year 1997 grew up snatching their parents' phones and watching YouTube videos. As they entered their teens, they took Snapchat to superstardom, launched the careers of YouTube celebrities like Damn Daniel™, delivered TED Talks, and created internet startups that made them overnight millionaires. Not only are Gen Zers tastemakers — in many cases, they popularize tech that then filters upward to their parents — but they are in many respects an untapped market. In 2015, 10% of apps in the App Store were aimed at children 18 and under. As this cohort matures and enters the workforce, their spending power will be increasingly valuable to brands that can grab their attention (Amazon is already the most popular app among millennials).

So, if you want to make a successful app with mass appeal, you want to be keenly aware of the habits, preferences, and needs of Gen Z.

Obviously, they want speed. Gen Z’s attention span is estimated at only 8 seconds (yikes) — they want their information, entertainment, and communication all in the palm of their hand in the time it takes to skim the opening of this article. But a bigger trend we uncovered in speaking with Gen Zers is a sophisticated understanding of how personal branding works — Gen Zers want control over their public and private personas. This might mean functionality to allow them to toggle between public posts and private DMs, or generally a higher tolerance for keeping personal information private when onboarding new users and setting up their "profile."

Corporations certainly are aware of the self-curating skills of Gen Z and offer transparent attempts to latch onto a teenager's floundering search for identity, but these kids are wise to it. In the words of college student Coleman Walker, from Fort Worth, Texas, "Social media has put so much emphasis, sometimes unintentionally but often precisely calculated, on the need to define a 'me' who has existed, currently exists, and will exist in the future, that the fluidity of our being gets lost."

When Gen Zers are socializing through technology, they want it to feel meaningful, fun, novel. They do connect with peers more so than any other generation through apps and social media; finding ways to improve the interactive, connective experience will attract users.

Let's take a deeper look into the generation that popularized disappearing photo messages.

Visuals Visuals Visuals

Fewer and fewer teens are drafting 180 characters of their thoughts on Twitter and more of them are crafting pictures and videos. The lines between entertainment and communication are blurring as teens use more emojis, effects, and filters to convey what they want to say. While Facebook and Twitter are huge for millennials, Gen Zers prefer Snapchat, Instagram, and fun editing apps like, Bitmoji, Boomerang, and VSCO. Text is so undervalued to them that they don’t even care to keep a record of some conversations. Whatever they’re chatting about can disappear after it’s read, and they don’t seem to mind (*cough* Snapchat *cough*).

So if your app offers communication capabilities, consider motion or visual effects to dress up plain text.

These tech natives still want to communicate but they’re needing more and more visual stimulation in order to do so. Just look at Facebook’s addition of gradient posts.

The Nav Bar Is Key

Gen Z has grown up with phones and apps being ever-present in their lives, so they’re not gonna fall for poor design. Not only does it need to look great, but it needs to operate seamlessly. It should be intuitive enough that they can start using the app with little to no explanation. Use layouts and buttons that they are familiar with. One design element that Gen Z seems to interact flawlessly with is the bottom navigation bar. The reason for this is more obvious than you’d think. Rule of thumb — they use their thumbs. If we’re scrolling with one thumb, often multitasking, the main tabs need to be within thumb's reach. Nav bars should also include simple, understandable icons, sometimes in combination with text.

A nav bar should be so simple a baby could operate it.

If icons are too obscure, if actions are out of reach, or if functions are hidden in cryptic menus, they’re not gonna use the app for very long. Don’t think they’ll take the time to try to figure things out on their own, because they can just as easily go back to the app store and find an alternative that gets their need for speed and efficiency.

Give Users Control

A recent study performed by Generational Kinetics found that Gen Z is 5% more likely than millennials to be concerned about security on apps. They are more reluctant to put their credit card information into a new system and more selective about the information they will put on the internet. Despite their reputation as selfie-obsessed showboats, Gen Zers are actually quite shy about what they put out for public consumption. A savvy teenager told me that it was "embarrassing" to receive less than 50 likes on an Instagram post and that she would without question delete the post if it failed to clear this bar.

picture of girl with photo stuck onto her face
Your Instagram is who you are pretending to be and your Finsta is who you really are. Never the twain shall meet.

Privacy is also a major concern of many millennials. You may be familiar with the rise of the "Finsta," a Gen Z invention that is a "fake Instagram" followed only by close friends. Young Instagrammers have gotten smart about how they portray themselves online. Many potential employers and colleges will look at candidates' social media to see if they are a good fit for the community. The idea is that Finstas allow users the freedom to post whatever they want, free of the fallout from content that is sexual, illicit, or used to bully other users. Finstas can have practical uses. Many college students find Finstas helpful when they are leaving home for the first time. College sophomore Rebecca Coster says, "It can be a great way to let your friends from home know what you are up to. It's a non-invasive way to give quick updates on your life, without clogging a group message." Finstas can also provide users with a platform for bullying, however, as it is a private and seemingly secure platform for incriminating photos and gossip.

If you choose to build an app with privacy features like Instagram, it is important that other users can flag malicious content.

Connecting with Friends

Gen Z is more connected than ever before. While sitting all alone in their room, they can connect with tons of friends in group chats, games, video chats, and so much more. Group-chat apps like GroupMe have become popular among their age group for the ability to have massive groups of people in one chat with all of the messages, media, events, and polls relatively organized.

Gen Zers rely on tech to build real relationships.
Gen Zers rely on tech to build real relationships.

Chatting with friends isn’t the only way they like to connect. Many apps offer the option to share invite codes with their friends to bring them to the app. This ingenious feature motivates them to get the app users and earn promotions or credit towards the app. It’s a total win-win. Everyone loves free stuff. Consider adding a feature like this if you want these users to bring their friends to your app.

Keep It Small

With so many photos and videos, it’s easy for anyone to run out of storage — teens especially. So when making your app, consider how much storage it will take up. Studies show that one of the top reasons teens part with apps is because they take up too much space.

Storage space is more precious than gold to Generation Z.
Storage space is more precious than gold to Generation Z.

Work Out the Bugs

This may seem like obvious advice to consider when creating any app, but if you’re releasing an app for Gen Z, you better make sure you’ve worked out all the kinks. While they’re known for their quick uptake of technology, they’re certainly not known for their patience.

Making sure your app is suited to the Gen Z user is going to become more and more important as they start to spend more of their own money. It is also important to consider that eventually, Gen Z will be the developers building the competition. Another key takeaway is that you do not need to dumb down the interface. Baby Gen Zers are able to operate apps by age one.

Keep It Positive

Given the correlation of social media usage and mental health problems for teenagers, the issue of cyberbullying, and the slim likelihood that teenagers will give up their phones, positive online experiences are an area of opportunity. The latest app to make a move in this space is tbh, an affirmation app currently available in nine states that lets users locate their school, and respond to fun, uplifting polls about their classmates anonymously. A sample poll might be "Who makes the most extra matcha lattes? a) Rob, b) Cindy, c) Thomas, d) Ruby." The person who "wins" the poll gets points. Aside from creating an explicitly affirming product, you can build in ways to detect and filter out online abuse, or use notifications and language to buoy users.

A part of the larger puzzle is inclusion. Gen Z are a diverse cohort and looking for tech that is representative of them. They are sensitive to gender binaries in user profiles, gender stereotyping (pink apps for girls), appropriative language (see: Spotify), and customizable avis (skin tone, hair, and gender expression options in apps like Bitmoji).

wireframe of tbh positive app for gen z teens showing a poll

When in Doubt, Ask a Gen Zer

There's a reason that Gen Zers are going into consulting. They're capable, they know how to code, and they're savvy marketers with an incredible understanding of the personal brand. The success of Rookie Mag, an ambitious online media site created by the teen Tavi Gevinson (now 21), rested in part on the fact it was for-teens by-teens. Users can whiff out anything overly art-directed (think that fatally un-woke Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial), and are looking for authenticity.

The Effects of Technology on Gen Z

With the growth of technology and the rise of social media, the way Gen Z has grown up is different from all prior generations. After the Great Recession, the number of people that owned smartphones surpassed 50% and the use of such technology naturally had a big impact on young people. Many members of Gen Z cannot remember life before smartphones and almost none of them can remember life before the internet.

No demographic has been immune to the effects of a life revolving around smartphones, but young people can spend more time communicating via phone than they do in real life. Many Gen Zers admit to spending a majority of their downtime alone, in their rooms, on social media, or texting friends. This has given rise to the phenomenon of delayed milestones. Because they spend so much time engaging with their phones, they are spending less time at parties or in social settings. This has led to fewer teen pregnancies and overall safer habits, but it has quietly changed the rites of passage for a generation. Many young people drive later, are sexually active later, and are less likely to date than their parents and grandparents were at their age. Rates of depression have also risen among members of the iPhone generation.

The lack of face-to-face interaction and the inability for children to communicate with their parents without glancing down at their phones has caused a major gap between young people and their surroundings. They are more likely to feel detached or left out (see: FOMO). There is constant pressure to be up to date on everything happening on social media and constantly contributing to the various feeds. It can be overwhelming and it is no longer fair to say that "It's not real it's just the internet" because, in this lifetime, the internet has become just as "real" as the rest of life.

Just as Gen Z is aware of the negative impacts technology can have on culture, they are also acutely aware of the power their smartphone holds. Walker sees how Gen Z personalities can be shaped by social media. "We are more than just our body, our thoughts, and the way we are perceived." He has also noticed a dramatic increase in compassion through social media, "Social media's benevolent power has been shown most recently during times of natural disasters where the entire world can send aid and love to the places and people that need it the most." Generation Z is aware of the positive and negative impacts technology has on their lives. They may not have ever experienced a world without the internet, but they are smart enough to know what is aspects of their lives are a product of a high-tech environment.

Gen Z Represent the Biggest Opportunity and the Biggest Challenge

Gen Z represents a huge growth opportunity for brands pushing into a new demographic, and for new products targeting true digital natives. But the most addictive app can ultimately be bad for users. Finding a sweet spot in which you create something attractive to Gen Z, and something that does good is a challenge we all need to grapple with. We are believers in the long game — if you build something great, you'll have those users for life.

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