The Harmful Myth of ‘Tech Savviness’

How many times have you thought that you, or someone you know, is not particularly ‘tech savvy’?

 

If you work in tech or on a related product, you’ve most likely worked in a team that sought ‘non-tech savvy’ users to test their experience with.

Or maybe you’ve conducted a user test or interview yourself where a participant is quick to admit “I’m not very tech savvy” all the while interacting with an app on his or her phone quite successfully.

Or perhaps you’ve been in a product development meeting where someone referred to whether his or her mom or grandma could use the product as a measure for its usability.

  Cringe.

 

Cringe.

 

Have you ever stopped to consider that this may be a harmful stereotype, or just plain untrue?

Moments like these are frustratingly persistent conventions in tech product design and development. They reflect a deeper societal standard, a mindset that not only reinforces sexism, ageism, and classism already prevalent in tech and our greater society, but which ultimately serves to limit what we consider to be the capabilities of others and the technology we build. We need to break this mindset.

 

Why it Matters

As the owner of a UX research firm, I consider it both my job and my life’s work to develop research that helps teams understand the wants, needs, and behaviors of people they wish to serve with their product — usually customers or app ‘users’. I am often seated squarely at the intersection of engineering and design, helping to determine the future and scope of devices, apps, and online services. And I can tell you this myth of 'tech savviness' is one of the most pervasive misconceptions I’ve come across.

I frequently receive requests from clients to help them test their product with ‘non-tech savvy’ users. At it’s core, the intention behind this request comes from a good place. My clients want to make sure their product is usable by a broad range of people, so as not to alienate any potential customers or people from realizing their product’s value (if there is one). 

However, both practically and conceptually, this ‘non-tech savvy’ user doesn’t actually exist. And it matters that we use this terminology because it’s harmful. It’s a stereotype that implies there are two types of people: people who generally ‘get’ technology and people who don’t. 

At best, this view is going to hold you back from seeing possibilities with people who don’t currently use your product. At worst, it reinforces a sexist, privileged world view wherein only some people are capable of ‘getting’ technology that teams so emphatically value as the future (see VC Marc Andreessen's 'software is eating the world'). The idea of 'tech savviness' not only limits one’s perception of self and others, but in doing so inhibits one's own ability to see and realize new possibilities. 

This is also an idea that doesn’t hold up once you take a moment to really examine its meaning and purpose. Here are a few different ways to break it down.

“Tech savviness’ is a stereotype that implies there are two types of people: people who generally ‘get’ technology and people who don’t. This not only limits one’s perception of others, but inhibits own’s own ability to see and realize new possibilities.”

TECH FLUENCY Based on Use

First, a practical explanation. As a very basic definition, technology is a thing you interact with, a tool which one utilizes to either accomplish a goal or get things done. Therefore one way to define tech savviness is by measuring people’s behaviors and engagement with technology to date, such as which devices and apps people have used an how frequently. This empirical approach seems logical. But it immediately starts to break down once we try to pinpoint where technology use (and therefore tech savviness) begins and ends. Does tech savviness begin after the use of one mobile app? After the intentional purchase of a smartphone? Both of these activities combined? What about the ability the ability to navigate an iPad nearly effortlessly? Do these activities make one particularly ‘tech savvy’?

Taking it a step further, does experience with digital or consumer objects with a chip in them also count as technology experience, such as the home use of a Smart TV, a digital watch, a car, or a stove? (With the exploding consumer space of Internet of Things, this question has become an ever more pertinent consideration, and one which defies a generic classification — but I’ll save that longer discussion for another post).

Now let’s see what happens when we add demographics to these behavioral, or use descriptions, to make these examples more real. Consider for a moment, which of the following people here do you think would be considered ‘tech savvy’:

  • A 3 year-old boy deftly navigating an iPad in order to watch a Bob the Builder cartoon
  • A 60-year old woman in learning to use her first iPhone
  • A 20-something man experiencing difficulty adjusting the temperature on a stove

When you start to include age and gender into the description of tech usage (not to mention culture and ethnicity), the expectations and stereotyping of people immediately start to form.

 

TECH FLUENCY Based on Knowledge

Next, let’s consider a potentially more literal definition of tech savviness: the idea that it can be represented as a degree of knowledge or understanding of how technology actually works. Again, this sounds logical but doesn’t hold up upon deeper consideration. Consider whether an electrical engineer is justifiably ‘tech savvy’, or perhaps that distinction is reserved for only a developer of the latest iOS release. What about children who may have the opportunity to play with a youth-oriented engineering starter kit such as LittleBits? Are they considered more tech savvy than children who have not begun to learn ‘the fundamentals of coding’? 

Inextricable from this logic is the degree of exposure to and comfort with STEM fields in order to learn the inner workings of technology. We already know this area is fraught with institutionalized sexism and lack of access for minorities — in the areas of both education and practice — so making this association to tech savviness would only further reinforce those societal boundaries limiting progress and innovation.

 

TECH FLUENCY BASED ON SELF-IDENTIFICATION

Alternatively, we can take a totally different approach to this classification and consider a more subjective explanation of tech savviness, one that is based on a self-identified level of comfort with technology. In practice, this is doable. A researcher or product manager can recruit people to test a product based on where participants indicate they feel they fall on a spectrum of ‘tech savviness’. But how can this approach be useful, if at all?

Let’s say a development team has received the responses of a tester who self-identifies as ‘not very tech savvy’. First, it’s important to consider where that person’s self perception is coming from. In this context this person likely has a smartphone and is already using some forms of technology in their lives. But still they perceive that there is some sort of standard or expectation they do not meet (not coincidentally, in my experience, this response is most often provided by females). 

More practically, what do you really know about how this self-identification impacts their likeliness to use your product, which is the very goal of your testing? Very little unless you can deconstruct why this person identifies in this certain way. Do they mean they are someone who avoids unnecessarily complicated or complex solutions? Do they mean that they identify as someone who would prefer not to optimize an interface to archive a certain level of customization? Or have they had a prior bad experience with a smartphone, which they blamed on themselves? Once again we are circling back to identifying behaviors in order to predict use of technology.

Self-identified non-tech savviness is actually a deficit for product developers and society as a whole. At minimum, you’ll need to help them get over this hump if you want them to adopt your product. At best, we as a culture can start to identify this as a real problem and work towards eliminating this expectation and the boundaries it creates.

 

ALL Humans are Equally Complex and Inspiring

The bottom line is, humans themselves are complex. We should be considering not only users’ behaviors and demographics when understanding their relationship to technology but also their varied experiences, interests, and world views which make them uniquely motivated to do things like purchase a Kindle or download apps.

It is exactly these unique and rich life experiences and perspectives that are the very fuel that inspires and drives us to build innovative products. When teams persist in using broad-stroke, convenient generalizations like ‘tech savvy’, we the miss rich human qualities that are critical to innovation. Even if people continue to define themselves as ‘non tech savvy’, then isn’t that an opportunity for technologists to reject and break out these perceived barriers, rather than reinforce them, leading to a future of technology that can empower anyone, or everyone?

“When we persist in using broad-stroke, convenient generalizations like ‘tech savvy’, we the miss rich human qualities that are critical to innovation.”

 Here are a few examples of those qualities and moments that motivate us to create ideas, dream, and build new things. Which of these people would you consider to be ‘tech savvy or ‘non-tech savvy’:

  • The 3-year old son of a migrant labor worker deftly navigating an iPad in order to watch a Bob the Builder cartoon (in English)
  • The 60-year old female physician in New York learning to use her first iPhone, in order to share test results more quickly with her patients
  • The 20-something engineer working in Silicon Valley, learning to cook for himself, who experiences difficulty operating a new GE digital stove interface

And how about:

  • A 16 year-old teenage math whiz in Seattle attempting to drive a car for the first time?
  • A 14-year old girl in Columbus who loves fashion and watches makeup tutorials on YouTube almost daily, and is inspired to start posting videos on her own channel?
  • A 73-year old male movie buff in Indiana setting up his Tivo in order to enjoy his favorite film with friends and family coming to visit?

As you can see, the ‘tech savvy/non tech savvy’ generalization doesn’t hold up when we consider and respect the richness of the human experience. We miss seeing, respecting, and understanding the people and society we wish to empower with the future of our technology products. It holds us back because by leaning on a convenient stereotype of what we expect from others we miss the rich contexts, needs, emotions, and perspectives of the people who inspire us, people whom we seek to serve, and who help us build the future.

 

Don't Sell Yourself, Society, or your Product Short

Each and every one of us has prior experience with tools and technology. From a toy set of blocks, a pencil, a book published in braille, a microwave, a camera, an iPhone, or even a drone. We are all average everyday people — technology users — who are richly dynamic in experience and motivated to use apps and devices in many different ways and with varying capabilities. It’s way past time we rejected traditional notions and assumptions about what makes someone open to or able to use technology.

It’s time to focus instead on the fact that each and every individual has a more complex story and context to consider, an individual along a spectrum of experience in technology, and that each and every one of us is an opportunity to deeply learn from and build a future for. Otherwise, you are simply selling yourself, your product, society, and the future of technology, short.