Technology and the Elderly

I have a lot of thoughts on UI and UX that I’ve been wanting to organize into a coherent series of posts, but I feel like that may be too onerous and paralyzing a task, so I will try to tackle topics as I think of them. I am not a credentialed UI/UX designer, or a trained designer of any kind. I’m a software engineer who has specialized in UI, from desktop to web to now mobile interfaces, and I have a degree in psychology. Dubious qualifications. My thoughts are informed as an implementer of UI/UX designs, a mindful observer, and someone with the honed ability to whine constructively. Take with a grain of salt.

Most recently, I’ve been thinking about my changing relationship with technology as I get older. (For this discussion when I say technology I mean our consumer electronics and the software that runs on them.) My delight in new technology is waning, and I have some thoughts on why.

Learning requires two things: mental plasticity and energy. Unfortunately, as one ages both come in shorter supply. Our brain simply isn’t as flexible as it once was. Learning something new takes more energy than it used to. And that energy is in shorter supply. Even if you’re one of those Centrum Silver dudes jogging gleefully on a beach during his golden years, your energy budget is spent differently. You have different priorities of what’s important to you than when you’re younger. What you get invested in, what you make time for are much different. You can learn new things, but they need to be worth it, and with a lifetime of enriching people and interests competing for that energy, that’s a very high bar.

The problem is new technology requires a lot of learning. Very often needlessly. The market rewards innovation, innovation means changing things, and changing things requires users to learn. This alienates those who do not budget lots of time and energy for learning new technology (i.e. older people).

Those of us unfortunate enough to be roped into helping a parent with their computer have heard exasperated phrases such as, “it worked yesterday,” or, “why can’t I just send my email the way I used to?” or, “they keep changing things.” Computers are not a fascinating thing that captivates their attention, motivating them to learn a ton about them. They, quite accurately, see computers as a tool, and tools are always a means, never an end. Tools are static, predictable, unassuming. Our modern celebration of tools has lead to intricate, ornate, artistic creations that are wonders to behold but which increasingly fail at being effective tools. It’s no wonder some people are alienated by technology.

Imagine you want to take a shower, but every night someone silently replaces the fixtures. One day you’ve got a separate hot and cold knob. The next day it’s the kind with a lever that goes up and down for pressure and left and right for temperature. The next it’s the single axis knob that both turns on the water and changes the temperature. And the control for diverting the water from the faucet to the shower head is different each time. And each time you have to hunt for that sweet spot that’s just the right temperature all over again. And the shower head changes from high flow, low flow, 3-setting massage, 8-setting massage, too high, too low. Maybe you would find that kind of novelty interesting, but it would be short lived. Tell me how exciting it would be on that morning you miss your alarm and are rushing to get ready for work. Tell me how pleased you would be to behold the dynamic art of fixture design. You aren’t a shower fixture enthusiast. You just want your shower to work. When you are done using it it should occupy exactly 0% of your waking thoughts. But instead it’s demanding your attention, making you solve an unnecessary new puzzle to get the exact same results you got yesterday.

This is what technology is like for people who don’t give a damn about technology. They’re trying to get something done, and our obsession with innovation makes it all but impossible. And mind you, these are solved problems. Email has been around for decades. Graphical user interfaces have been around for decades. Digital cameras, cell phones, web browsers, and so on. And yet they continue to be in flux. Why? The problem is not that we haven’t found a good solution to these problems, but that we can’t settle on any. The single most important tenet to making technology accessible is consistency, and consistency seems to be anathema to modern technology design. Try releasing a mobile app using the default widgets and colors that come with the operating system. You will be laughed at. People will say, “Yes, that’s a nice prototype, but when will it be finished?” “Can you make it skinnable?” “We want to brand it with our colors.” “Those buttons are drab; let’s do something more modern.” This is death to the creation of a good user interface!

I could go in about a dozen different directions from here, but I’ll save it for future posts. I’ll end with a bit of advice for the aforementioned miserable offspring stuck with helping a parent, or anyone put in the position of assisting a technophobe. Do not try to instill a deep understanding of the technology. If they’re asking you how to do a task, treat it like an incantation with a rote list of inscrutable steps. Click on this icon, click on this menu item, type your message here, click here to send. Literally write down the steps for them as literally as possible. That is all they want. If you try to help them understand you will both be frustrated.

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Programmer, sorta-kinda-sometimes artist, admin/mod for Felicia Day's online communities