Kathryn Showers

When writing technical materials, should we approach writing for an audience of digital natives in a different way?

Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” in his work Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, published in 2001. In the article, Prensky describes students enrolling in educational establishments who were born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies as digital natives. The basic premise is that digital natives, through their interaction with digital technology from an early age, have a greater understanding of technical concepts. Does this mean that someone born into the digital age has an advantage over someone who was not?

Chew on this for a moment: Long ago, people who could decipher symbols or glean information that was scratched on scrolls or carved onto stone were thought to have powerful magic. With the advent of the printing press, the written word became available to those affluent enough to afford schooling. Knowledge was available to anyone with the means to afford it; however, world news still arrived via sailing ships. The discovery of electricity did more than shed a little light, it made things like telegraphs, telephones, and radios a means of dispersing information to a wider audience more efficient. While television has been around since the 1950s, how we interact with it has changed considerably. Slick interfaces let us record and watch shows at a more convenient time or stream video on demand. Oh, and we’re no longer tied to the TV in the living room. We can get our movie fix on the road via a number of different devices. Surely I’m not the only one old enough to remember when faxes, ATMs, or answering machines were new. I’ll be the first one to admit that telephones, TVs, and cash machines are still pretty cool toys.

It has been quite a journey from the Stone Age to the Digital Age. However, does it follow that someone born digital has an inherent benefit only because they have cooler toys? Don’t smart devices simply provide different opportunities for a child to explore cause and effect? Just as when you turn the crank of a Jack-in-the-Box enough times a clown will pop out, so it is true that when you press a particular sequence of buttons or tap a specific icon in a hand-held device, you can do things like make Angry Birds appear. Turning a crank or tapping an icon is an example of cause and effect. Understanding cause and effect is the building block of cognitive development. No magic there.

Technology allows people to access information quickly and in large quantities. Digital architects have worked long and hard over decades to make devices that are smart and easy to navigate. So it appears that while the objects of cause and effect have become more sophisticated, the mental acuity needed to process and comprehend has not. Cognitive development still progresses along the same stages observed by Jean Piaget over 90 years ago.

Soon, the novelty of being born digital will wear off and some new magic, like flying cars, jet packs, and teleportation, will steal the limelight. Regardless of the technology behind the latest innovation, people will use their brains to understand and use a cool new toy. Meanwhile, when designing information models and writing technical information, the audience to whom you are writing has a broad spectrum of digital fluency from very low to very high, regardless of when they were born. Learning styles haven’t changed nor have our brains evolved to assimilate or process information differently. Our audience still wants information organized logically with enough details to give sufficient context, regardless of their digital fluency. Therefore, when writing technical information for user consumption, writing to an audience of digital natives doesn’t require any special consideration.