Computers and senior citizens

By Nighty on 19 December 2009

Last summer my neighbour expressed interest in getting a computer and onto the Internet. He wondered if I could help him get started. Tiny detail: the man turned 70 a couple of weeks ago and has never worked with a computer. Nor with a typewriter, as I've since come to find out.

So, this was an ideal opportunity to get the imaginary corvette out from under the tarp, pop that T-roof, roll down the windows and make a leisury trip down memory lane. Cue the crappy 90's music playing on the car stereo (Vanilla Ice anyone?) and let's head back to the place where it all began for me. Back to the time computers were still fresh and new, experience those awkward first steps all over again by proxy. Or so I thought...

The thing is, by the time I got my first computer I was already well versed in all things tech. I knew all sorts of magicka obscura that baffled even my parents, long regarded as the source of all wisdom but quickly falling from grace as I was entering puberty. I knew how to program the VCR and how to set the time and alarm on a digital wristwatch, pick any model you like. And those were just the cheap tricks to impress the peasants so to speak. This guy however is more akin to what's often refered to as a "blinking 12", albeit not quite as disastrous as the term implies. He can probably set the clock on his VCR and the cellphone is a casual appliance he's fairly well acquainted with. But working with a computer is something that falls completely out of his realm of experience. So you can see, this wouldn't exactly be a replay of my first enthousiastic steps into the digital kingdom.

And let me tell you, for someone who never worked with a computer, these things are hard. He's eager to learn, gotta give him credit for that, but it's painful and sobering to see how unintuitive a computer is if you've never worked with one. If you're not already part of the in-crowd that knows how to operate an email client or a web browser. The poor man is currently overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information one must absorb before even touching a computer. The prerequisite knowledge we all take for granted. You'd be amazed how hard computers are when the most complicated device you've ever used is a desk calculator, DVD player, or a cellphone - and even then, just the basic sub $70 models that can dial and send text messages, and perhaps even have a camera on board which goes mostly unused.

But yeah, we're having fun, taking baby steps. In the week since we started we've covered turning the computer on and off, adding people to the address book, sending emails, replying to emails, forwarding emails and attaching pictures to emails. For the last part we used the examples that come with Windows 7 because I don't want to drown him in information by teaching him how to import photos from his digital camera at this early stage. Web-wise we've only done a very short introduction to Google. When I showed him you can search for images as well, the first query that came into his mind was "beautiful women". An involuntary smile crossed my face: some things will never change...

Working with him though, I came to realize one thing: Windows 7 is a godawful operating system for someone who doesn't know the first thing about computers. In their search for a more attractive graphical presentation Microsoft has forgotten the basics of human interface design: it should be intuitive and clear what all the elements on the screen are for. The labels and buttons may be immediately recognizable by someone with years of experience in a graphical shell. But for someone who's never seen a computer it's not immediately apparent that some text that doesn't stand out from the rest of the page (unless you hover over it) is actually a clickable area that may trigger an action. And who's the idiot that came up with the idea of hiding all windows when your mouse hits the bottom right area of the screen, and turning it on by default? Seriously, the times he suddenly saw his new email disappear when all he tried to do was to move the mouse out of the way so that he could see what he was typing...

And if you think that "Help" in Windows means anything remotely associated to what you'd understand it to be if you haven't been tainted by computer lingo, think again. The "Windows 7 tour" explains jack. If I remember correctly, it does that right before explaining shit. Then there's the valiant attempt of the laptop manufacturer to do better: an animated presentation that goes over the important washing instructions for the computer. For those that haven't read it yet, here's the summary: not machine washable, not hand washable, don't iron. In other words: you're taught all the things you'd better not do with a computer, but not a word is wasted on telling you how to actually use it. Even power drills have better manuals!

Although, to be fair, Linux (in my case Gnome) makes some of the mistakes I've seen him get frustrated about as well. Maybe those ugly 90's interfaces weren't so far off the mark after all. At least they were clear: a button was a button, a text input field would not confuse you by offering a hovering suggestion that just so happens to overlap exactly with the input field below it. Try explaining "these are suggestions that hover above the window and belong to the text field you're currently typing in" to a 70-year old and you'll see why that's a bad idea. He kept thinking that as he typed the first character of my name in the "To" field, somehow the computer felt the need to fill in my complete name and email address in the "subject" field. As I was thinking of the best way to explain overlapping windows and the z-buffer to a man who'd just learned to type an @ (it requires the use of the special alt-gr key on a Belgian keyboard), Mike Myers' famous onions vs. ogres speech echoed through my head...

Watching him struggle to come to grips with this new shiny and expensive device he just purchased, I came to ask myself why computers still aren't simple enough "for grandma to use"? I don't know. I admit it's not exactly a question I've often considered since my normal day to day activities take place in a circle of IT professionals. In the big migration towards greater and greater technological innovations I'm situated somewhere at the front, so I seldom talk shop with the stragglers in the rear. One could argue that it doesn't matter since it won't take too long now before the people who can't grok this technology are all extinct. They're already an endangered species if you consider the percentages. But computers and the Internet have become so commonplace that they've become necessities these days. And if grandpa wants to video chat with his grandchildren, keep in touch with his fellow club members on the forum, or find information on the best time to prune those new roses he just bought, who is going to tell him he can't? Besides, I don't want to have to explain computers to elderly people for the next 30 or 40 years untill they've all died of old age, and I suddenly find myself in their situation: too old to grok whatever the next big technological innovation may be. Because of this I'm fairly certain: that day will probably come, no matter how savvy I consider myself right now.

I'm all for having all kinds of bells and whistles for power users, but common tasks should be simple. There's no reason why videochatting with your grandchildren should require you to know how to install a webcam driver and configure the camera for use with your chat software. Your peripherials should just be something you plug in and then configure themselfes without bothering you with stupid questions. Windows 95 promised us plug and play; we're now 15 years later. Why is it still plug, install, configure, curse, uninstall, reinstall, fail, curse some more, call the local guru, and then finally if the digital gods approve: play?

Let's please progress beyond the notion that computers should be hard to use so that we can stop investing all this mental power in something that should be as easy as boiling an egg. Let's make sure the geniuses of this world can focus on the really hard stuff instead of teaching the inexperienced the new way of writing a letter to their daughter in Madrid.