July 26, 2014

Apps and old people

I’ve recently had the honour of hanging out with my two favourite grandmas. I heard about their frustrations with online shopping, why Facebook is trivial’ and how much they love getting new mail.

One of the reasons the iPad is successful is the level of complexity is lower, the risk of getting into trouble is lower.”

To start with, I’d assume the majority of the elderly wouldn’t refer to themselves as computer-people’. But it’s fairer to say most computers are not human-computers’. The iPad is different, and was loved dearly by both grandmas.

I think it goes without saying that you should never underestimate anyone’s intelligence, young or old. Especially the old. But I couldn’t help but be a little shocked by the critical, clear thinking of both my grandparents. The problem for them is that their body and minds are kind of moving in different directions. Think about it. You still want to catch the bus to go shopping, but you can’t run to catch it, you can’t read the timetable to see when the next bus is coming, and your hands can’t find coins or a bus card. How do you feel about going shopping now? The same applies online. Same motivations, less ability, higher frustrations.

The positive stuff. What characteristics do the elderly value? Here are some basics: Thoughtfulness, respect, tone, inclusiveness, consideration, manners, helpfulness. The world lacks these values. People don’t have manners anymore.” People don’t take the time.” This doesn’t mean they experience more negative experiences, but they are more sensitive to them. Similarly, a positive experience not only stands out, but will be talked about, treasured. It’s illuminated by a golden ray of light. If something works in your 20’s it’s a good app’. In your 80’s it’s a fucking miracle.

For Grandma A, the world is scary, fast, rude, unforgiving and unkind. With no thanks to unpleasant people, unluckiness and CNN, that belief is constantly reaffirmed and a big ingredient of daily stress. For her, the computer can provide a safe haven but can conversely reflect and magnify this negative attitude. For example, if customer service at a shopping centre can ruin her day, attempting to get a refund from Amazon can be either a delight, or a complicated nightmare. It goes both ways.

I hate the cloud’ declared Grandma B. She was a much more skilled user than A, and enjoyed a range of apps like Dragon, Spider, Paper and routinely powered through 300 page books. Cloud computing services? Not so much. Until iCloud works magically for normal users, there’s no way you’re getting Grandma on board. Most users would (and do) appreciate iCloud’s powerful backup, but it usually only takes one bad experience for users to be distrustful.

We talk about changing behaviour and creating habits, but it’s no easy task. For a long time I struggled to stay in contact with A. Something that helped was watching her reaction to the new message ping from mail.app. Pure delight! For someone who might not see their family much, or live alone, the significance of an alert tone can’t really be overstated.

Do you use Facebook?” A asked me. What followed was an interesting conversation. I said I used it mainly for messaging friends. That didn’t make anything less complicated for her, as I attempted to explain the difference between a facebook message, a sms, an imessage, skype and an email. She didn’t care about all that nonsense’, but did care that her friends and family were sharing valuable photos with hundreds of strangers/followers but not with her. As far as she’s concerned, social networks are a big stupid party that she’s not invited to.

I showed A how to make an audio call on FaceTime. She shook her head as the app dialled. I can’t believe no one showed that to me.” To call, I had to click an (info) button and then a (phone) icon. But it really wasn’t clear, and I had to be very precise with my touch. Explaining this feature to her was like describing an international phonecall. It was mind boggling and exciting all at once.

There’s nothing new to learn from all this, but it’s worth repeating this: Like the rest of us, the elderly deserve and appreciate usable, intuitive software.


technology software ui design product design ux user experience


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