Nintendo Fluency

With today being the first day back to school after the winter break, peace and quiet has settled back in, taking the place of the tinny music of Pokemon, as played on not one but two Nintendo DS handheld game devices. This torture was of my own making: Santa brought a new Nintendo DS Lite to take the place of a slightly wounded original DS, the latter of which has now passed down to my younger child. Double the pleasure, indeed.

We weren't the only recipients of Santa's largesse. Some 1.53 million of the devices were sold in the US in November alone, according to data from NPD. This meant the DS outsold the season's "hottest" item, the Wii gaming console, in that month alone by over half a million units. This success was due both to the lack of Wii units available and parents probably buying the DS to make up for failure to acquire the "golden ticket" that is Wii. Certainly shoppers didn't have to be gouged on eBay in order to get a DS as they were largely easy to find, at least until the week before Christmas.

From a parenting perspective, the DS can be a real disruptor to our family's intergenerational interactions, but as a frequent observer of a child for whom the Nintendo DS is a constant companion (I jokingly call it his third hand), some interesting insights about topics of keen interest to me professionally—mobility, sociality, communication, collaboration among them—have come into focus over the past two years. Watching young DS owners play, connect, interact, assist, communicate and even learn with their devices shows a fluency with technology—a second nature behavior with and around it—that researchers, anthropologists, designers and product marketers dream of instilling or invoking in adult users of new technology.

While similar fluency has emerged with young consumers and other digital technology such as PCs, Nintendo's sense of play and design seems to have differentiated the features, games and activities available for the DS to encourage fluency, particularly the ease with which the devices can be networked locally or tap Wi-Fi for a global connection. I watch my son and his friends move smoothly from environment to environment (such as house, to car, to mall, to restaurant, to sports practice) gliding along on a mixture of game play, information exchange, competition and connectivity. They play with one hand while listening, talking and a myriad of other things with the other hand. They make friends based on similar technology behavior (the closest thing to this for adults might be the knowning glance, or catty sneer, between iPhone owners on an airplane) by openly approaching, talking to and playing with other players who enter their line of sight.

Just for a moment, can you imagine this open socializing with an unknown person triggered by and based around, say, your new Dell laptop? Not the same thing. You may share a gripe about its weight or poor battery life, but it's doubtful that you would suddenly start collaborating on a QuickBooks problem or share a software application just because you were in Starbucks with another Dell owner. Watch two young Pokemon or Mario fiends meet for the first time, listen to them swap intelligence, and then wish your adult life was like this. Fluid, social, cooperative, playful, seamless.

There will be argument with this critique, but my experience as a consultant has shown me that many designers and product developers think of technology usage as still being set in, and somewhat unique to, fairly defined locations or usage scenarios such as working at home, texting in a taxi, or sharing pictures with friends in a cafe. This is a legacy mode of thinking that springs from our experience as adults with technology growing out of, or within, these "islands" of usage, particularly in the US where we have the space for these islands to develop as independent environments, each with it's own technology flora and fauna. We use a PC at work or home. We play console games in our living rooms. We use a mobile phone when we are not at home. While these behaviors have begun to blend in the past decade due to advances in networking and mobility, and the changes in behavior they have enabled, most of us as adults are still in a transitional state of usage, adapting to being able to leave our island and go to the next. So, many product designers show us usage as depicted in these locations. And, I might add, a lot of design research still appears to focus on behavior within these individual settings instead of across them as a whole, driven by the agenda of one product, instead of emerging human behaviors.

There is a lot of progress in this area, but my main point is that while we try to piece future technology usage together by stitching up the seams between these settings or moments, the younger users I watch daily don't know anything but seamlessness. We've given them this behavioral capability, but like a lot of what kids do with "adult" technology, they've unconsciously innovated and it becomes their lifestyle. Play, collaboration, constant nibbling at connectivity, etc. IS their lifestyle, and they don't even know it.

In this way, we can look at these types of behaviors around us from their point of view and see that the next wave of usage behaviors is, more often than not, right there in front of us. We don't always need to overlay the adult point of view onto younger consumers, add a dash of the hottest new tech fad, take a snapshot and run with the resulting product idea. We need to change points of view and see more clearly the phase change—generational or otherwise—that is sitting right there for us to observe.