Monday, June 6, 2011

Usability failures created the digital native/immigrant divide

I've been working on an idea for a while now, that today's "digital immigrants" are really just badly-burned early adopters from the 80's.


"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" is a 2001 article by Marc Prensky that tried to explain part of the awkward relationship between schools and computers. The main idea is that the K-12 students of the time (born 1984~1996) had always known a world with tons of personal technology. They had computers at home, learned to use them at a young age, and got increasingly comfortable with using them as they grew older. Those are the natives.

The immigrants, then are everyone else. Anyone who grew up without being surrounded by computers sees them as a new thing to be learned. The fast-moving cultural shifts probably passed them by, unless they're pretty techie.

There was a fair amount of discussion about the idea online in the mid-to-late-zeros, as teacher blogs exploded in popularity. Most of the talk was pointing out the exceptions: it's not impossible to find students who can't cut/paste and teachers who write PHP from scratch. As a whole, I'd say bloggers know not to treat it as a hard rule, but begrudgingly admit that native/immigrant is a rather appealing concept that we can't help but keep bringing up.


My spin, then, is that native/immigrant gives a bad rap to people who actually deserve to be recognized as the early adopters. "Digital immigrants" born before 1980 were there when PCs were being rolled out to schools and businesses in droves. They were gradually introduced to computers, they had training, and they were assigned tasks, which they accomplished. They did it before anyone else, before it was cool, and they deserve recognition for that.

The problem is that early computers were sometimes horrible to use; a small error could easily cause a catastrophic, unrecoverable failure. It was harder to make backups, because there weren't hard drives, and you couldn't upload to the cloud/network drive or email yourself a copy. So, when you saved over your only copy of your report, or kicked the powerstrip under your desk, your work was gone. If you dropped or broke a piece of equipment, the replacement cost was high. Even as things advanced, it was still possible for one simple mistake to infect your computer with a virus that would cause any kind of problems it wanted.

Young digital natives, on the other hand, benefit from years of usability and technology improvements: space is plentiful, backing up files is easy and cheap. Parts are cheap and standardized. Firewalls, email virus scanners, and countless built-in protections in web browsers do a lot to mitigate viruses and worms. Google Docs saves your work every few seconds -- you'll never lose a report when the lightning takes out your power. (If you're connected via cell network, you might even be able to keep working.)

First impressions are everything. Many digital immigrants never got comfortable with computers because they couldn't see past the risks associated with them. They kept their distance, but that kept them from appreciating that computers have become much safer and easier to use.


Now, when I'm helping a textbook "digital immigrant" setup a website, I always focus on building the idea that it's safe. They won't delete everything in a way that we can't undo it; they won't ruin someone else's website. I set them loose to experiment and check back with them later. So far, it feels like it's helping people take a big step past the mental barrier that's kept them from becoming a "native".

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