Technology and the Generation Gap: How to Design for Your Workforce

By Evelina Tapia | Jun 23, 2016

Technology continues to revolutionize the way that work is done. For instance, digital data entry on a tablet allows users to skip paper forms, reduces errors in recorded information and provides real-time access to new data for the whole team. Sensors and connected devices allow remote monitoring, even on mobile devices, informing users about needed maintenance or repair. For a business to reap benefits that technology can deliver, high user adoption is critical.

The perception in industrial settings is that the older workforce is resistant to current leading edge technology; hence, businesses do not bother investing in tools that would make this group effective and focus primarily on the younger employees.

However, when technology is selected by considering employees’ different levels of age, comfort with technology, and work experience, the entire workforce is empowered and can drive return on investment to the business.

Age gap in attitude toward technology

“I am concerned that the digital technology will get too complex for me.  But I am also reassured regularly that by teaming together my Petroleum Engineering knowledge with other people’s technology skills will get the job done.” – 57 year old Area Manager in Oil & Gas Industry

Attitudes toward and interest in new technology differ somewhat between younger and older industrial workers. Younger employees have grown up with technology and are comfortable trying new solutions. Access to personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets, as well as increased exposure to gaming and social media apps contribute to their high confidence level of using technology. This user group also expects technology to assist in most and automate many work tasks.

Older employees, on the other hand, began using technology after college and mainly at work. Overall, in their personal lives these users do not rely on technology for entertainment, social interactions, communication and so on as heavily as younger generations do. Hence, older employees are less comfortable exploring new solutions and are more content to follow established workflows, with or without the help of technology.

The root causes of diminished interest in new technology among more senior users are:

  1. Technology is often viewed as a toy or gadget, not a real tool for work
  2. Technology is typically not intuitive nor user-friendly, and hence difficult to adopt

Contrary to popular belief, older employees are eager to try new technology. It must demonstrate real value to them, and be very easy to use. These users ask for help and learn to use technology from colleagues and family, but they are also frustrated and embarrassed to constantly rely on others. For older adults the best way to learn new tools is through repeated exposure rather than one-time training. Hence, intuitive interface and workflows are far more effective and superior to training.

Age gap in work experience

“Some of the tasks that I do could be done faster with technology, but I still have to use my brain to interpret the data and make the right decisions. There’s lots to be said for 36 years of industry experience.” – 58 year old Petroleum Engineer & Geophysicist

Older is also typically more experienced workforce that has obtained knowledge and nuanced understanding of the work that only hands-on practice affords. Such skills are irreplaceable when dealing with atypical situations, identifying root causes of unusual fluctuations in data, making decisions on how to address an emergency and so on.

Due to lack of work experience, younger employees often rely on technology somewhat more than is prudent. This user segment assumes that technology works flawlessly, automates processes more than it really does, presents information that is relevant, and intelligently notifies about unusual conditions.

For instance, a junior lease operator might initiate an oil well shut down if sensor data is out of normal range, yet his experienced colleague knows idiosyncratic oil well behavior and takes appropriate steps to avoid such a drastic action.

Empowering the industrial workforce

Companies looking to increase their efficiency and productivity by utilizing technology can greatly benefit from conquering the age gap of their industrial workforce by first identifying what technology their workforce actually needs, and then by building solutions to meet these identified needs.

Following user-centered design framework, successful industrial technology can be built by implementing these recommendations:

  1. Understand how experienced employees perform tasks
  2. Understand how rookies perform the same tasks
  3. Coach rookies to become experts through workflows used by experts
  4. Build technology as an assistive device that follows decision-making patterns of experts
  5. Design interfaces and interactions that across the workforce are rated as intuitive and easy to use
  6. Pair up rookies and experts to increase experts’ comfort with technology and broaden rookies’ work knowledge and skills

User research that uncovers real user needs and user-centered design framework for building solutions deliver high ROI and significant business impact. Why adopt technology geared towards the younger tech-savvy but junior employees when harnessing the experience and prowess of the entire workforce with is not only possible but highly beneficial to the business?

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