What the rise of Gen Z means for user research
Rise of Gen Z by Lisa Nguyen
13 April 2022
What does this important generation mean for the future of the research craft?
“This pizza is bussin fam. The chef high-key understood the assignment.” 
“Say less, it’s hitting different. The pepperonis are gas—no cap!” 
“Bet, this place slaps. We’re vibing. Sheeeesh!” 
It’s hard to forget this exchange from last year. I was dining out with friends when we simultaneously stopped our chatter to hear this remarkable conversation play out. We couldn’t help but smile as we attempted to decipher what sounded like a foreign language. 
A quick search revealed that these sayings are common terminology for Gen Z, the term coined to describe anyone born in 1997 and beyond. While this manner of speech might seem amusing to Millenials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and older, research indicates this current generation should be taken very seriously. 
They make up 40% of global consumers with a spending power of $140 billion and are on track to become the largest cohort of consumers by 2026, as well as the highest educated generation ever. With Gen Z serving as the first true group of Digital Natives—having grown up with digital technology their whole lives—perhaps it’s time we begin examining their implications on user research and explore how we might adapt our craft to their needs. 
Who are Gen Z? 
Aside from being born in a particular age range, what key characteristics do individuals from Gen Z possess? Firstly, very high levels of savviness—and dependency—with technology. Particularly when it comes to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Take in these Gen Z statistics that 99 Firms has drawn from IBM, the Global Web Index, Pew Research, and more:
  • Gen Z spends an average of eight hours online per day
  • 95 percent of teens own or have access to a smartphone 
  • 55 percent use their smartphones for five hours or more per day (26 percent for more than 10 hours per day)
  • 65 percent use their phones after midnight more than once per week (29 percent are on their smartphones after midnight every night)
Next, they are pragmatic, financially-minded, and shrewd consumers, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable foundation focused on improving the well-being of children established in 1948. Gen Z-ers are typically careful spenders and thoughtful investors who seek stable jobs. They lean on social networks for exploration and evaluation when making a purchase decision. Hootsuite states that 85 percent of Gen Z learns about new products via social media. Many are also entrepreneurial, leading to the rise of side hustles such as Etsy stores or creating social media channels as both a creative outlet and means to generate income. 
An unfortunate theme among Gen Z is a feeling of overwhelm, stress, and anxiety. In a 2019 interview with Refinery 29, Dr. B. Janet Hibbs states, “In the past year, 91 percent of Gen Z experienced one or more emotional or physiological stress-related symptoms.” However, many embrace frequent communication to build a sense of interconnectedness. They also champion diversity as an important value. 
How did these characteristics come to be? Many of Gen Z’s shared behaviors can be attributed to consistent Internet access from a young age (more than half of children in the US own a smartphone by age 11 per NPR) alongside the meteoric rise of social networks. The digital world has been a key aspect of their lives from a young age and has become ingrained in their daily habits. Seeing the struggles of loved ones during life-changing events such as The Great Recession and the Housing Crisis of 2008 likely left lasting impressions as well. 
Diving deeper with qualitative research   
While statistics from quantitative survey data provide insight into Gen Z’s behavior, the spirit of user research inspired me to conduct interviews with four Gen Z individuals (three females and one male aged 18 - 22). The aim was to learn more about their expectations and behaviors regarding technology. This led to nuanced discoveries about Gen Z’s tech usage.  
Constantly connected and technology-dependent—but not necessarily enjoying it
My conversations absolutely confirmed that Gen Z is attached to technology. All participants reported five or more hours of daily smartphone screen time and ten-plus hours of total screen time, including computer usage. However, all of them expressed a negative sentiment when describing their habits:
  • “I’m a raging addict.” 
  • “I know I’m addicted.”
  • “I wish I wasn’t that dependent.”
  • “It’s BAD!”     
It turns out that high screen time results from a combination of: 
  • Habits. Scrolling social media to keep up with friends and current events has become second nature
  • Necessity. Schooling and work rely heavily on technology and take place almost entirely online 
  • Boredom. Especially during the pandemic. With no better options, the smartphone was a welcome escape
There are also elements of “background” screen time, such as navigating, viewing recipes, watching television on a smartphone instead of TV, and FaceTiming loved ones instead of phone calls. 
The interview participants expressed a longing for alternatives to technology: 
  • “I wished I spent more time outside. It’s hard to quit habits. I don’t want to check my phone constantly, but it’s hard not to. If I don’t, I feel intense FOMO!” (Fear of missing out) 
  •  “My family lives hours away, so I’m not driving each time I want to talk to them. And for recipes, do you expect me to use books?!” 
Tips for researching Gen Z versus previous generations 
With all the above in mind, here are some take homes for you to consider next time you find yourself confronted with a research project involving Gen Z.
Understand the assignment 
This Gen Z phrase refers to an individual who perfectly plays their role and accomplishes a goal with great success. As user researchers, our jobs lead us to conduct research in unfamiliar fields. Studying our users and their context is pivotal to crafting meaningful interview scripts or usability test protocols.
Understanding our users often means performing research and connecting with subject matter experts beforehand to comprehend the space better. The same can be said of preparing to conduct research with Gen Z. Reading articles like this that highlight the distinct characteristics of this generation and studying their slang can go a long way in preparing for a research session and ensuring it runs smoothly. 
Go deeper with mixed methods
When time and resources allow, supplementing quantitative research with qualitative techniques can yield more actionable findings. For example: combine surveys or usage logs with interviews, observations, or diary studies. Recommendations based on an incomplete perspective could result in lackluster outcomes. In the case of this article, primary interviews to supplement statistics from secondary research provided a clearer picture of why Gen Z relies on technology and the negative sentiments that many feel towards this dependence.
Make research engaging and non-disruptive
Growing up as digital natives, Gen Z seems to possess high expectations for digital experiences. Whether it’s an app, social media platform, or website, the experience needs to be polished, entertaining, and minimally invasive. The same holds true with research. Whether in-person or remote research, ensure that you’ve tested your protocol and prototypes to ensure everything works as intended. Gen Z is also used to enthralling social media videos, so if possible, make the session exciting and engaging as well. 
Becoming the main character 
This is one final Gen Z phrase that describes becoming the protagonist, aka “main character” within your story. We’ve touched on my aspects of this special generation: from the well-advertised technology usage to their desire to feel more connected. With a further understanding of their qualities, it’s your turn to think about what things you might (and might not) do differently when conducting research with this current generation. We know you’ll do great and can’t wait to hear your insights on Dovetail’s Slack channel!

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