Technical communication and Millennial madness

The Millennial generation born to baby boomers in the 80s and 90s came of age in the 2000s. This swell in the population now represents a big portion of the labor pool; by 2020 Millennials will make up 46% of the work force. Because of their size and their distinctive buying, learning, and work habits, this generation is the subject of much discussion among marketers, educators, and personnel managers. Recently I did a little thinking about how to communicate with Millennials about technical topics.

Characteristics of Millennials

Self-confident. Some writers criticize Millennials as over confident, with a sense of entitlement instilled by “helicopter parents” who encouraged them to feel good about themselves even when praise was not earned. But there is merit in confidently approaching a task (or a document, a help system, or a user interface) with the assumption that you have the wherewithal to accomplish it.

Wired. Millennials are “digital natives,” and they’re savvy with social media. They use smart phones. They are expert gamers.

Social. According to Susan M. Heathfield in an article, “Millennials are the most connected generation in history and will network right out of their current workplace if these needs are not met.” They like working on teams. They make an effort to seek peer approval before making decisions. They like to talk. They are socially conscious and civic minded.

Lifelong learners. Millennials expect to learn new things as part of their everyday work and personal interaction. Recently I asked a Millennial what he didn’t like about his job. He hesitated a moment, then said sadly “I’m not learning anything.” For Millennials, even ads need to teach something.

Scanners. Millennials are “scanners” who can take in a lot of visual information at once – they believe themselves to be true multitaskers.

Value work/life balance. They don’t want to spend all their time struggling over their work.

Penny pinchers. Most surprising to me, Millennials are frugal. Their salaries are typically lower than those of their predecessors. To purchase high-ticket items (like electronics) and more education, they scrimp and save. Wired and big on learning, they have perfected the art of comparison-shopping. They join car-sharing organizations to avoiding buying cars. They’re socially conscious so they demand green products and packaging.

How to engage Millennials

Common advice to those who manage, teach, and sell to Millennials:

  • Provide structure
  • Emphasize teamwork
  • Use their electronic literacy
  • Change assignments or give them multiple assignments
  • Make the workplace, learning experience, or ad campaign fun

How to communicate technical info to Millennials

Gamify. A leading proponent for gamification in technical communication is Oracle’s Marta Rauch. Rauch says that gamification “uses game techniques in non-game situations to motivate people and drive behavior.” Technical communicators can manage user interfaces and assistance for gamified products. And we can gamify our own communication products by providing goals, rules, feedback, and rewards.

I attended a session on winners in the International STC publications competition, and one winning entry was a training video for a fast-food restaurant. Trainees play a fun game, receive rewards and positive feedback, and generally learn how to do their jobs in a way that would be fun for anyone, no matter what generation you happen to be born into.

Note: Follow Marta Rauch to learn more about gamification and other cool things at

Emphasize structure: Helicopter parenting created a generation of people accustomed to structure in their lives. Establish the purpose, learning goals, and structure of your documentation product and then test users to be sure that they have met expectations.

Make your documentation accessible at a glance: If you’re using “slow” media, remember the way Millennials read. They scan, taking in lots of visual information at once.

  • Make online information uncluttered and easy to view
  • Properly index print documents
  • Tag and bookmark online documents
  • Provide logical navigation tools in help systems
  • Label text, tables, and graphics with meaningful headings and captions

Listen to your users. Millennials are accustomed to talking and being listened to. Mine wikis, message boards, and social media sites for information. Seek feedback through social media and focus groups to take advantage of Millennials’ social nature.

Spruce up your writing style. Be direct, pointed, spare, and casual. Ideal strings of text in a gamified product, says Rauch, “are the length of a tweet.”

What’s good for Millennials is good for everyone

These are just a few ideas for effective communication to Millennials, and they work well for everyone. What trainee would prefer dry pre- and post-tests to a fun game? Who among us has not given up on the manual and turned to the message boards for answers to what seems like easy questions? Heck, I often skim the novels I read for fun, especially when the writing is verbose; I’m unlikely to read every word of a technical manual. And whether you are a Baby Boomer or a baby, you’re probably acquainted with electronic communication. Even my
Greatest Generation dad reads books on his trusty iPad.

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