Courting Millennials vs. Just Plain Good Design

Yes, this is yet another article about Millennials written by someone who isn’t a Millennial.

The fascination—obsession, really—with the Millennial generation often makes me shake my head. For fair disclosure, I’m an early Xer. As a kid I had an Atari gaming console, the Apple II in various flavors, and learned BASIC programming in junior high. My mom was a teacher and my dad was in corporate and bank IT when it was still called “data processing.” I ended up with a blend of both in my career. I get technology and change.

I think half of the Millennial obsession in the United States is really about people trying to woo a large, easily-identifiable market segment. This “segmentation thinking” applies whether people are actually promoting a product or service, attempting to explain market behavior, or trying to find and recruit talent. The other half seems to be about Boomers trying to understand their kids. The Millennials grew up in a world that was different from the one in which Traditionalists, Boomers, and Xers experienced as children. The Boomers were there while their Millennial offspring were growing up, of course, but their formative years’ experience was very different, and many of them haven’t pushed themselves to understand their kids. (This is no different than any previous generation, of course, here in the USA or elsewhere in the world.)

The differences are real, but they aren’t that mysterious or magical. We make way too much fuss about them. As a friend of mine, Debbie Magnuson, wrote in her book, “Work with Me: A New Lens on Leading the Multigenerational Workforce,” the differences between generations aren’t as important as the common expectations and needs that most people in each generation share. Put simply, there are some newer expectations that we should meet just because it’s good learning practice. That serves everyone’s needs, instead of just being a gimmick to court the Millennial market segment.

Here are some things that we know are important about Millennial experiences and the “So What?” best practices that my colleagues and I have created over the years to respond to them.


What we hear…What it means for learning
“You can have it good, fast, and cheap… but it will be disposable.”Millennials have always had a huge variety of decent quality, low-cost product and service choices in the United States. That is what they are used to. They expect things to be used for a limited time, thrown away (or recycled), and replaced. This applies to learning, as well.
• Make it good enough, fast, and cheap
• Expect it to have a limited shelf life
• Expect buyers of learning to demand high quality, low-budget learning produced rapidly using technological tools*
“Popularity means credibility.”Millennials have grown up in an era where media personalities have more wealth, power, respect, and credibility than people who have hard-won expert knowledge and skill. There is an implicit logic that if a person is popular, they must be successful, and therefore credible.
• Where possible, rely on popular, established concepts and personalities to provide credibility to learning points
• Counter common misconceptions with believable examples, and not just research citations (show why)
• Have a credible social media presence
• Be entertaining whenever possible, but in a way that supports the learning
• Recognize that convincing sound bites are often as good to your audience as peer-reviewed research
“It’s better to be lucky than hard working, but I’ll do what I need to until I get lucky.”Compared to previous generations (although Xers may be in the same boat), hard work will not guarantee success in the Millennial mindset. Income equality has been growing and many Millennials see luck far overshadowing hard work as the key to getting ahead.
• Help the learner focus on the specific “Why should I learn this?” rationale and “Exactly what do I need to do with this?” knowledge or skill
• Expect learners to put in the minimum required effort to achieve the learning goal
• Engage the passion that your audience has for the topic whenever possible to promote persistence
• Be realistic—instead of institutionally optimistic—in your presentation of benefits, challenges, obstacles
“A picture is worth 1K words. Video is worth 1M.”The Millennials are the first generation to have nearly universal television and media exposure—to the exclusion of books. (Books were and are still there, but the excitement of media far outweighs the value that print used to have for previous generations.) Effective images convey much more information, faster, and in more graspable format than words. The culture has become more visual and less patient with (or capable of) reading.
• Use images—and especially video—to teach and convey information
• Limit words, especially when the topic is complex
• Do not expect learners to go read on their own
“We have a lot to do. Everything is always in motion.”Like other generations, Millennials have a lot going on all the time. It feels unnatural to spend a lot of time focused on a single task. (With the exception of recreational activities, which usually offer immersion that alters the perception of time.) Switching from task to task and back again feels more natural.
• Provide learning in small, “bite-sized” chunks of 5-15 minutes
• Modularize learning and provide a way to track and show progress
• Create immersive training when the skill must be inside the person
• Provide instant performance support to bypass the need for training

* Interestingly, I find Millennials more tolerant of the limitations of technology than their Xer or Boomer peers. When a Boomer or Xer learning manager asks for training, they often give us custom requirements that go beyond what authoring or development tools can easily do. They have the expectation of good, fast, cheap, AND unique. Then, they are surprised when we tell them how much time and effort it will really take to develop for their unique set of requirements. Millennial learning managers seem to accept our advice about what we can do with the current tools. It is typically good enough for now, with plenty of creative room within the tool limitations. Often, they figure that by the time they need to build the next version, tools and capabilities will have improved.

These things we hear are not just from Millennials. We hear this from everyone, regardless of generation. This is because it is our current reality and everyone is dealing with it. Our challenge as training and learning providers is to understand the expectations, challenges, and limitations and to use the best design methods to deliver effective solutions that meet client needs and expectations.

Keeping this list of best practices in mind, we are much better able to deliver results. It’s not just a Millennials thing; it’s just good design.