Any time Jakob Nielsen’s people talk, it’s noteworthy; but when they focus on .EDU’s target user “sweet spot,” we really have to sit up and take notice. We need to be aware of what influences our users, even when they’re not visiting higher ed websites, which is most of the time. They’re constantly accumulating habits, expectations, and preferences that will hugely affect how they respond to our content and interfaces.

So here are some key points from the Nielsen Norman Group’s article, “Young Adults/Millennials as Web Users (Ages 18–25)” (by Kate Meyer, 4/10/16) with commentary on how they apply to our work as producers of higher ed web content.

Millennials are “digital natives” (they grew up with stuff that we had to learn)

We pre-internet dinosaurs have had to acquire our online habits. These people live online, and they always have. In order to develop experiences from their points of view, we need to let go of our old ways of thinking and adjust accordingly, even if we don’t quite know why. I mean, these people wear their underwear on the outside, so we can never hope to understand them completely, can we?

They “commonly engage in several activities in parallel, but tend to perform them linearly, rather than simultaneously.”

This is a new take on what we tend to call “multitasking.” When young people pull out their phones at a family dinner — that’s multitasking. But when they are visiting our websites, they may be skipping back and forth among other experiences and devices, or opening separate tabs with no intention of reading them until later. These tendencies, which the industry is calling “parallel browsing” and “page parking,” respectively, come naturally to millennials. But please don’t confuse them with “parallel parking”—as the father of a teenager, I can assure you that that doesn’t come naturally to them at all.

They’re not impressed by cool interactivity unless it helps them get things done

We are often asked to make certain tasks and functions “more exciting,” based on the argument that “the young folk like that sort of thing.” Before doing so, we need to be sure that it will actually contribute to users’ objectives and seamlessly integrate with the task at hand. More often, it becomes a deterrent. If your boss is insisting on it, just say “we can test that.”

They don’t like to be “talked down to,” and “will notice if the site is trying too hard to appear cool”

A good rule of thumb: be sensitive to who they are and try to reach them where they live, but don’t ask to borrow their jeans.

They’re skeptical

You’d be amazed how often I hear students react to content with comments like “that’s just marketing,” or “that’s for my parents.” Anything you say that is not on point, not logically supported, or seemingly less than sincere is likely to be dismissed, and you will probably only get a few chances before they dismiss your site altogether.

They are “extremely confident” in finding their way through websites

How often do we debate, test, and sweat over the wording of our menu items and key links, only to find that students click on them (or something else) before they even read them? They browse the way they play video games—and pretty much the way they drive—trusting their instincts and ignoring the signs if it means they can get there more quickly. So we have to be as careful with our visual cues as we are with our words. Use familiar conventions, put things where students expect to find them, and get rid of options that are off-task.

They blame you if they can’t find what they’re looking for

Millennials are more likely to fault your website than to “blame themselves when things go wrong.” As aggravating as this may be, we can’t base our concept of “right” solely on what we expect them to do. In fact, whenever they do the unexpected, it simply means we guessed wrong.

Let’s talk about this

If you have thoughts or questions about this, please get in touch with me. And if there’s another article or study that you’d like us to visit next, feel free to provide a link to it.


  • To reach millennials, try to think like them, but don’t act like them
  • Remember what you expect is not a measure of what is “right”
  • Never stand in the way of a teenager learning to drive