designing for life stages

People often ask me why designing for teens or older folks is different, why age matters. There are many different ways to slice up age and life stage. Mooshing together various theories, i have my own hypothesis about three critical life stages in Western culture that affect a lot of our social technologies. The first is identity formation; the second is contributive participation in society; the third is reflection and storytelling.

Identity formation

When youth are coming into a sense of self, they move away from the home and look to the social world to build a socio-culturally situated identity. In other words, they engage in the public in order to make sense of social boundaries/norms and to develop a sense of self in relation to the broader social context. Youth go to the public to see and be seen and they negotiate a presentation of self depending on the reactions of peers and adults. Public performance is about getting those reactions in order to make sense of the world.

A main role of things like MySpace and Facebook is to produce a public sphere in order for youth to negotiate their peers and learn about the social world. People often ask me why teens don’t just go out in a physical public. Simply put, they can’t. We live in a culture of fear where most parents won’t allow their children to go anywhere without supervision. Youth no longer have access to the streets or even neighborhood gathering spots. They are always in controlled locations where the norms are strictly dictated by adults – this is not a public sphere in which teens can make sense of sociability. Thus, they create their own. (Note: the production of a public and its implications is the cornerstone of my dissertation.)

Peer groups are critical to identity development and the technologically-enabled always-on culture supports that process, especially when the bulk of youth’s lives are spent having to play by adult rules with only 3-minute passing time for sociability. This process typically starts in the pre-teen years and goes strong through high school and into post-high school years with a fading of core identity development occurring mostly in the mid-20s.

Contributive Participant in Society

And then we become adults. The bulk of adult-hood is evaluated based on contribution to society, participation, what you can create and do. It’s about being a good citizen, laborer, parent. It’s about the act of doing things. Your identity gets wrapped up in how you contribute to society (“So, what do you do?”). We ask youth about their hobbies and friends; we ask adults about their jobs and children. When we speak, we think that we have to produce information, be relevant, be efficient, be contributive. (And people wonder why growing up sucks.)

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than blogging land. While youth are doing identity production in terms of sociability, adults are creating new tasks for themselves – documenting, informing, conversing. It’s all wrapped up in being part of the conversation, not in simply figuring out who you are.

Reflection and Storytelling

There comes a point when people stop thinking that they need to give give give. They’re done and they want to reflect and share and just be. Older people are proud of what they did do and they tell stories. They share with their children and grandchildren and they find utter joy in watching them grow up. They talk about their children and grandchildren to friends with proud voices, sharing the joys of their stories. Older folks are no longer invested in working and being productive citizens. It’s more a matter of life maintenance and reflection.

While storytelling is the cornerstone of most social technologies, little has been done to engage them with the technologies or to make it relevant to them in a direct way. While youth are motivated to repurpose adults’ tools for their own needs, older citizens have no investment in such repurposing. The way that it’s always been done is just fine.

Note: This does not mean that older folks are not being productive, just that they’re not invested in producing for a broader society in the same way as the mid-range folks. For example, there is a lot of genealogy work done (and it’s a big use of technology), but it’s mostly about fitting one’s life story into a larger narrative. Hobbies pick up (from knitting to gardening to traveling). It is not that life is over – priorities just change.

Design Issues

Admittedly, this description is very coarse and not fleshed out (::cough:: wait for the dissertation!) but i still think it’s relevant for design. How do these groups think about the public differently? How do they engage with information and sociability differently? Their practices differ because their needs and goals differ. What would it mean to design with life stages in mind?

Of course, some folks are definitely thinking about this problem. I was ecstatic when i read Mena note that “it’s not just about ease of use: I want to make a product that my mom actually wants to use.” Mena’s dead-on. It takes understanding the social practices and needs of a given group. It doesn’t matter if it’s usable if it’s not relevant.

(For those wondering about my dissertation, i’m working on the proposal… but this entry is a good teaser.)

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19 thoughts on “designing for life stages

  1. Katherine Mancuso

    I think this is good. I don’t know much about anthropology over the life-span. But I do think that it does make a difference. I’m also really curious about the transitions between the periods, and what those transitions have to do with technology literacy.

    I’m also trying to figure out: what’s actually with the millennials? I thought I would take the opportunity to ask you because you have more experience living in more places that are probably more sophisticated. I recently heard a presentation on them (my not very organized live-blogging that I’ve never had time to go back and fix is here, and I’ve read a lot in the Chronicle, and I don’t quite understand the stuff about them. My experience is that, while the so-called “millennials” use the internet for research more and creating movies and things and use cellphones and iPods and the internet for play/social networking, I’m an anomaly in the level at which i have internet stuff integrated into my life and particularly the ways in which i work and learn. in other words, i fit the definition of millennial, and i don’t see a whole ton of people around me who do. i see a few, but most of them fit the profile of nerd/geek/early adopter.

  2. kris olsen

    Yikes – I actually saw myself in the first two stages and am starting to sense the third. Nice insight, danah.

    Also a nice complement to Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs (or is that not relevant, anymore?)

  3. Tim

    > We live in a culture of fear where most parents won’t allow their children to go anywhere without supervision.

    Unfortunately, increasingly true. It will be interesting in a couple of decades’ time when this generation of molly-coddling parents dies out and people have to deal with real competition again. I predict quite a swing back to “playing out” and the ilk.

  4. Maria Tseng

    Very interesting topic — very interesting indeed. A few random thoughts:

    – Some google guy asked me the other day what’s the greatest new product I can think of. With more deliberation, I could have thought up better ones, but the one I replied with was a Personal Area Net device that you wear. It mediates the information you are willing to receive, and broadcasts the identity that you wish to broadcast. Obvious commercial value for advertisers. We’re moving toward that with RFID and bluetooth enabled cars.

    – Do you know about Mary Furlong’s and SeniorNet? I don’t know her, but it seems she’s into marketing to the third age. There might be some strands of common interest between you and her.

    – I’m first generation Chinese so I notice a lot of differences between the American stages 1 & 2 that you talk about, and the Chinese-American version. My Vietnamese friend who was in high school when Saigon fell has yet another version. There’re lots of web sites talking about the cultural differences, some emphasize racism, sex roles, political action… I agree with your three stages, but they vary greatly by culture.

  5. trish

    I’m the parent of two millenials (12 and 15). I’ve been teaching and working online since late 1997, so they’ve come of age in a geeked out household where IMing people all over the world and emailing rather than calling all is seen as normal, where I helped them years ago learn enough html to empower them to create an online world of their own, where they collect ideas and automatically think: this looks like a database, let’s just roll everything into a db.
    So. I’m sure, or assume, many many other kids their ages have had enabled early experiences with technology in a techinfused hhold.
    One has a typepad blog, the other a MySpace. They both im contsantly when they’re at home. But they have out-of-home social experiences as well; my oldest uses im as a sort of bridge between f2f social moments, a way of maintaining or deepening bonds with friends (or friends he’s jus met). He meets a girl at a party Friday night, they (and all 67 of their other friends) im all day Saturday and Sunday til it’s time to go to school together again Monday (when those with cellphones at school sneak a little btw class im-ing there as well).
    I accept and embrace this mode. It’s just the way many of us transact social engagements and interactions.
    I also accept and embrace it b/c my sons im with *me* even when we are home together. It’s such a natural way for us to dialogue that we can discuss tough things via im in a lighter way — things we could never discuss f2f. Even though we’re in the same space typing to each other from laptops twenty feet away. I love that possibility, that dynamic, that so much that might be silent in our family and social experience is instead foregrounded and made real through text.
    My 2 cents, love your work D.

  6. Matt Hutson

    Maybe a little off topic but directly relevant to the first graf of “Identity Formation”… When I was a teen I used to go to the Pheasant Lane Mall near Boston, where I would meet goths, punks, and ravers and learned to be comfortable flaunting my eccentric style and interests. This year mall officials banned unaccompanied kids under 16 and began handing out fliers with a dress and behavioral code. (Of note: studded collars–which are sold there at Hot Topic–cannot be worn.) There’s an AP article about it here.

  7. Cheryl M

    I’m glad you clarified the Reflection and Storytelling with a note. When I read the initial posting, I became very angry. I felt it was an ageist viewpoint and some of it still is. Pre-Social Security, people worked until they died, if they were mentally and physically able. There is an underlying social view that people become dumb and incapable at age 65. I bristle when I run against such views.

    In terms of social software, there is a huge gap for older people. We, too, need to safely meet people online and have fun. There’s got to be more to senior life online than genealogy (and I am also a genealogist and a grad student).

  8. zephoria

    What i’m trying to demarcate is what people are doing now (in America), not what they’ve ever done. I also think that people work without having the contributive mindset – i see that regularly. They do what they’ve always done but without the passion to actually contribute. I also agree that there are other ways to be online at different stages, but the idea that everyone wants to do it the way that most mainstream adults are is foolish.

  9. Lilly

    Thanks for posting this. I read this a few days ago and ended up returning to this framework while talking about product strategy with my good-ol’ favorite PM today. I wish you were still at Google so we could get the richer insight, but until then, hurry up and publish! 🙂

  10. Leon Cych

    Fascinating – I too am a father of a millenial – but I am approaching 50 – we podcast together for social bonding. My initial reasons for going online was him – when not teaching I was parenting so had little time for social contact with my peers in my late 30’s having been teaching small people all day…Just wonder how personal life recorders and personal life aggregators will fit into the scheme of things here? Really really interesting stuff…

  11. Guy

    The thought-provoking article linked below from the Wall Street Journal came to my attention shortly after I read this posting of yours. Identity formation issues as a source of radical Islam…..

    We profoundly misunderstand contemporary Islamist ideology when we see it as an assertion of traditional Muslim values or culture. In a traditional Muslim country, your religious identity is not a matter of choice; you receive it, along with your social status, customs and habits, even your future marriage partner, from your social environment. In such a society there is no confusion as to who you are, since your identity is given to you and sanctioned by all of the society’s institutions, from the family to the mosque to the state.

    The same is not true for a Muslim who lives as an immigrant in a suburb of Amsterdam or Paris. All of a sudden, your identity is up for grabs; you have seemingly infinite choices in deciding how far you want to try to integrate into the surrounding, non-Muslim society. In his book “Globalized Islam” (2004), the French scholar Olivier Roy argues persuasively that contemporary radicalism is precisely the product of the “deterritorialization” of Islam, which strips Muslim identity of all of the social supports it receives in a traditional Muslim society.

    The identity problem is particularly severe for second- and third-generation children of immigrants. They grow up outside the traditional culture of their parents, but unlike most newcomers to the United States, few feel truly accepted by the surrounding society.

  12. zephoria

    Kathy – i think you’ll find that some people are more bleeding edge than others. I definitely grew up online but most of the people my age didn’t so you can feel the division. Of course, i’m started to see teens who relate to technology in a far more nuanced way than i ever did so things are changing and i’m now behind the curve.

    Kris – i actually don’t know whether it would relate to Maslow’s hierarchy or how… but then again, i’m not a psychologist… i’m more interested in practices than the personal psychological ones so i don’t know how it works as fulfillment so much as how it plays out in practice.

    Maria – there’s definitely some stuff happening with seniors but not that much considering how large of a population they are. I totally agree that they vary immensely by culture – could you tell me more about the practices and patterns you see in the Chinese-American culture?

    Matt – that’s *insane* 🙁

    Cheryl – the one place where i see older folks meeting people online is in a dating context. has some amazing stories about 70+ members – people that don’t live in communities of seniors but want to engage with new peers. It’s that same problematic situation – do you go to a bar to meet people? Ugg. Anyhow, i think it would be interesting to understand when and where seniors want to meet new people and when they don’t. (It’s also important to point out that my description isn’t just about meeting/not meeting people – there are tons of folks who don’t want to meet people online of all ages… it’s a matter of how it plays into their cultural practices.)

    Lilly – thanks!! And i’m working on it. ::gulp::

    Guy – great link!

  13. Abject Learning

    Free Space

    Martha Burtis points to this welcome and heartfelt plea from Danah Boyd “capturing why it is that we need to allow space online for young people – and why we need to step aside and let them fill those spaces”: A few days ago, i started laying out how…

  14. Many-to-Many

    round-up on MySpace and culture of fear

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how anti-MySpace propaganda has been rooted in the culture of fear. Given that youth play a critical, but different, role in social software, i suspect that folks might be interested in how MySpace is…

  15. soobrosa

    Danah, can’t wait to read your dissertation, I’m basically interested in it providing practical context for electronic learning processes.

    An other good example for identity formation space is the Swedish Lunarstorm – And even Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point that during the identity formation peering matters the most.

    Talking of reflection and storytelling you should also consider the pro-am-ing that mostly will affect the elder –

    Talking about IMing I consider myself a geek, but the trend of the youngsters getting shy face-to-face worries a bit me.

  16. Maxim

    danah – great insights! I would like to add something to your thoughts and suggest a great book…
    First of all, from my point of view the life stages are more complicated than what you suggest. It is nice to generalize from the point of view of society (forming identity to fit into society; contributing to society; ‘freeing’ yourself from society). At the same time, there are plenty other concerns that arise in everyone’s life at different stages – close relationships (as opposed to generalized society), self-esteem (as a psychological strength indicator as opposed to a measure of ‘fit’ in a society), awareness and mastery of own body, emotions and intellect. Some of those concerns arise simultaneously around the point of transition between life stages, and then we notice 🙂
    Since you are concerned with designing social software, you should probably be aware not only of the social stages, but of their underpinnings – why they occur, what exactly changes and how, etc. There is a GREAT book that explains transitions between life stages: Transitions by William Bridges (
    There is also a ‘stage’ you might have forgotten – transition between the stages. Transitions might take years, and have their own attributes and challenges. Things that worked in ‘identity formation’ stage are not the same things that will work in ‘society contributor’ stage and are not the same things that work in the middle. Transitions are kind of like going back to school between stages – and school experience is very different from being settled in comfortable life.
    Good luck with dissertation – and thanks for speaking your mind in your wonderful blog!

  17. Sean

    These are awesome! Thanks for these. One of my curiosities is whether or not it is possible for people to exist in more than one stage at a time. Also – does life stage really correlate strongly to age, or more to maturity level? To that point, we may be able to generalize successfully, but we may be able to be more specific by asking questions that get at relative maturity level / maturity life stage. For instance, families are started considerably young in “red” states than they are in blue states. This might suggest that people move out of the identity stage quicker – and into the contribution stage earlier. Perhaps there is something about young marriage that smacks of both stages. I had a post not too long ago about the age / maturity level distinction at

    Maybe people can create new identities when they are in the contribution stage – as in, what if somebody has a jarring life event like a divorce – and finds themselves re-defining who they are relative to their peer groups…

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