Today’s young adults (aged 18 to 25) are a subgroup of the Millennial generation (which includes people born from 1980 to 2000). Most of them are digital natives, meaning they grew up with access to digital communications technology. They are a critically important user group: many of them are studying for degrees, or beginning careers. Some of them are starting families and buying homes. They’re starting to earn more money, and they’re comfortable with spending it online.

Online design and marketing blogs are rife with speculation and stereotypes about young adults, but few of these are based on fact. In an effort to provide a research-based alternative, we conducted a comprehensive study involving 7 countries, 91 young adults, and 4 different user-research methodologies. This study built upon and expanded our earlier research with college students.

Our findings shed light on:

  • The unique ways that young adults use browser tabs
  • How young adults multitask online
  • The differences between young adults and teenagers
  • The differences between young adults and older adults (and why popular myths about Millennials are wrong)
  • How young adults use social media
  • A lack of international differences among young adults
  • Young adults’ expectations for all aspects of websites, including content, interaction design, and visual design

The Research

All of the participants in our study were aged 18–25. We intentionally recruited a mix of educational and occupational backgrounds. Each of the participants fell into one of 4 categories:

  • Young professional (e.g., sales coordinator or business-solutions consultant)
  • Graduate student (e.g., pursuing a Master’s in Exercise Physiology or Doctor of Medicine)
  • Undergraduate student (e.g., pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology)
  • Young adult without an undergraduate degree (e.g., someone who began an undergraduate program but withdrew without completing it, or someone who never attended a postsecondary program)

Our earlier editions of the report included only current graduate and undergraduate students. Expanding to include recent graduates and those young adults without postsecondary degrees enabled us to study a richer set of participants, with a wider variety of interests and backgrounds. We found no substantial differences between the educational/occupational categories.

We conducted multiple rounds of usability testing with 91 participants. Of these test sessions, 79 were conducted in person, and 12 were conducted remotely. These tests involved a combination of open-ended and site-specific tasks, using 372 different sites.

The usability testing took place in 7 different countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Germany
  • The Netherlands
  • Singapore
  • United Kingdom
  • USA

We supplemented our usability testing with:

  • Naturalistic recordings: Participants recorded their online activities for two days on their own laptop at home, and then sent us the files to review.
  • A diary study: Participants documented 4 online activities per day for 4 days using a mobile app for diary studies. Activities varied in granularity — from quickly looking up a question on Google, to spending hours streaming video.
  • A survey: We surveyed 229 young adults and 228 older adults (35 years or older) to find out their opinions on the attractiveness of flat design.

Multitasking and Browser Tabs

Young adults are often stereotyped as exceptional multitaskers. Our findings indicate that they commonly engage in several activities in parallel, but tend to perform them linearly, rather than simultaneously. They may alternate quickly and lose context, but they don’t attempt activities all at once. Like other user groups, they suffer from reduced efficiency when they engage in this context-switching behavior.

Young adults are extremely comfortable flipping through browser tabs. Sometimes they use browser tabs to support multiple, unrelated tasks (a behavior referred to as parallel browsing).

We discovered that they also engage in page parking — an information-seeking strategy that utilizes multiple browser tabs to support a single task. Young adults tend to use browser tabs in this way much more intensely and frequently than older adults, but some individuals are more inclined to use the tactic than others.

How Young Adults Differ from Teenagers

It’s tempting to assume that the guidelines provided in our report on how to design for teenagers would apply just as well to designing for young adults — particularly since the youngest young adults (aged 18) are technically teenagers.

However, we found that young adults exhibit different behaviors as compared to the teens we’ve studied.

  • While teens enjoy sites that provide interactive features like games and quizzes, young adults like interactivity only when it serves a purpose and supports their current task.
  • Teenagers tend to be poor readers, and they prefer nontext alternatives like multimedia content. Some young adults, particularly college students, are strong readers, but they still don’t enjoy reading large amounts of text online. They prefer content that is easy to scan.
  • A site targeted to teenagers will not hit the right tone for young adults. Young adults are sensitive to tone. They will feel insulted if they suspect the site is talking down to them, and will notice if the site is trying too hard to appear cool.
  • Young adults are much more skeptical of the information presented on websites. They demand more evidence to support claims than teenagers do.

How Young Adults Differ from Older Adults

Due to their upbringing with access to digital communications technology, Millennials are often the subject of widespread misconceptions. Some have even suggested that digital natives have brains that are literally hardwired differently from older generations. To some extent, this can be attributed to the age–old phenomenon of stereotyping and moral panic about the failings of “kids today.”

In many ways, young adults are just like other adult user groups — they want easy interactions, straightforward content, and an enjoyable experience. However, there is some truth to the idea that Millennials have slightly different approaches to digital interfaces.

  • Compared to older users, young adults tend to be extremely confident in their own ability to navigate digital interfaces, even when encountering radically new design patterns.
  • As a consequence of their confidence, young adults are error prone when using interfaces. They often click first, and ask questions later.
  • Additionally, young adults rarely blame themselves when things go wrong — unlike older users. They typically see usability issues as the fault of the site, and will sometimes criticize the organization that the site represents.
  • Many of these young adults grew up alongside Google. They’re quick to use Google as a reference point for ease of use and simplicity.
  • Young adults may have very different opinions about the visual appeal of websites than older adults do (see our survey on flat design, which used the Microsoft desirability toolkit).

These differences underscore the importance of testing your interface with representative users.

Time will tell whether the behaviors of this group of young adults will change as they grow older. We may see that aging reduces their impulsiveness and self-confidence in their approach to digital interfaces. However, the unique childhood experiences of this generation of digital natives will likely continue to influence their preferences and expectations.

How Young Adults Use Social Media

Because young adults are heavy social-media users, designers looking to appeal to Millennials often erroneously assume they must have a strong social-media presence.

Organizations shouldn’t get involved in social media purely out of fear of being left behind. Young adults tend to think of social networks as places to interact with friends and family, or to (occassionally) meet new people — rather than as an interface to organizations and companies.

The best way to reach young adults through social media and to accumulate followers is by offering real value. Focus on building a relationship over time, and do not oversaturate your social-media outreach. Your organization’s posts should be interesting and relevant to your users — not just information that you find interesting internally.

No Significant International Differences

We tested with English-speaking young adult participants in 7 countries, and many of those participants were born and raised in yet other countries. Still, we found no major differences in the behavioral patterns of the young adults. The guidelines presented in this report hold true globally. (We rarely find behavior differences across countries in user testing.)

There are, of course, regional differences in language (for example, in the UK the word “uni” is sometimes used for “university”).

Additionally, young adults whose native language is not English often spend more effort to interpret complex words and sentences and have difficulty understanding puns and colloquialisms. Content that uses simple language and avoids unnecessary jargon helps all visitors, especially readers who speak English as a second language.

Age Differences or Generational Differences?

It’s reasonable to ask whether our research findings and the resulting UX design recommendations are due to inherent differences between users in different age brackets (e.g., 20-year olds vs. 40–60 year olds) or due to generational differences (e.g., Millennials vs. Generation X or Baby Boomers). This distinction doesn’t have any practical implications right now: if you’re designing a website and want to cater to young audiences, you should follow the same guidelines no matter whether these guidelines were based on users’ age or generation, because the two sets of guidelines are currently the same.

Twenty years from now, when many Millennials will be 40–50 years old, that will of course be another story. By then, design guidelines for young adult users and design guidelines for Millennials are likely to be different. You can check back with us then for updated research on this question, once it becomes possible to study the two groups separately.

Full Report

For the complete discussion of our findings, including 81 design guidelines to satisfy young adults’ expectations of websites, download our full report on how to design for young adults.