"A bit of video I was looking at recently stuck with me over the past few months. It showed a toddler sitting up holding a magazine. She tries to swipe it – she tries to expand it – she bangs it to try to make it play. Nothing happens. And in frustration she throws it away. To a toddler a magazine is a tablet that’s broken. That’s how this generation is growing up. It will have a totally different set of norms and behaviours."
Director-General of the BBC Tony Hall, in a speech about the future of the BBC.
This is a refrain I've heard many, many times over the last few years (I assume that this video is the one he is talking about); todays toddlers have grown up with touch screens. They expect screens to do things when you touch them. Something that doesn't react to physical interaction is broken…
There is a fundamental truth here. Touchscreens are just a part of it — "natural interfaces" are the new category of user interfaces. Once you start using a touch screen to interact directly with content, its jarring to go back to a similar device where you have to operate a cursor with a keypad.
But… does a toddler of today think that a magazine is "broken"?
I think its nonsense. I can't speak from experience — my eldest child was playing with an iPad before he could talk — but I'm pretty sure that before 2010, toddlers were not a significant part of the Vogue/Heat/FHM audience. (Its hard to be sure, because the NRS doesn't measure readership of under 15s. But I'm pretty confident.)
I'm pretty sure that before 2010, a toddler's reaction to a glossy magazine would have been to touch it, see if it did anything — maybe try to eat it, if they were below a certain age — and then either ignore it or rip it up. (Which is one of the reasons we tend not to give magazines to toddlers unless we don't mind them being screwed up, ripped and eaten. I do speak from experience when I say that toddlers are agents of chaos, on a mission to destroy everything they come into contact with.)
Earlier this week, I attended Microsoft's Advertising Retail Forum, where I heard a great example of what not to do with in-store technology; a big "outdoor clothing" brand had put a nice, interactive thing in their stores — you've probably seen the kind of thing; a computery thing where you can browse their catalogue or see a store guide or watch their TV adverts or whatever is is that they thought their customers would want to do. All well and good.
Except… they had to put a sticker on the thing to ask people not to touch the screen, because below was a keyboard and trackball, because this was a computer, and people's greasy fingerprints on the non-touch screen were making it very dirty.
That is an illustration of why natural interfaces are important. Because grown ups, who have spent their entire adult lives (and probably more) using computers with keyboards and mouses are suddenly assuming that big screens are things to be touched. I've seen it happen with large screen installations, with non-touch smartphones, with computers in kiosks, car park ticket machines - you name it. Touch screens are now the default for many adults. Thats why anyone dealing with technology today — hardware or software — needs to be aware that expectations have changed.
Not because toddlers don't read magazines.