Jan 232014

The Consumer Electronics Show brings new and amazing technologies each January. The show featured devices right out of 1960′s cartoon hero George Jetson’s space-age living room.

The Las Vegas Convention Center floor bulged with  television sets the size of my childhood hometown’s movie screen, with screens so sensitive they can detect an errant hair on an aging newscaster’s chin.

While the common wisdom is that the younger generation is the target of marketers hawking the newer versions of everything from cell phones to GPS and televisions, a recent Washington Post story dispelled that thought.  Boomers are attractive to technology marketers because of high and prolonged usage of electronics, explained Blog Tech writer Cecilia Kang:

“Boomers are helping drive a rapid growth in mobile social media, doubling their rate of adoption for Facebook, LinkedIn and other networking apps over their smartphones in the past year

“In its social media usage survey, Nielsen said in May 2011, the number of Internet users 55 and older using social media sites over mobile devices grew by 109 percent from a year earlier.”

Terrific.  Glad to know we Boomers are still good for something. Or maybe our disposable income is higher for such toys?

While I have access to and use technology, I often feel disconnected from it.  There are  too many choices. In my mid-fifties, I regularly use a laptop and a tablet/ Without a corporate expense account, I’m reticent to put out the dollars for a Smartphone.

When I pick up a friend’s Smartphone, I’m overwhelmed by the incredible amount of applications, choices, and really tiny buttons.

And it’s worse for my father, who despite having a master’s degree in science, at 83 is baffled by the additional choices on his new television remote. While Boomers and members of the Greatest Generation may be driving the electronics industry in the future, I believe there’s a huge disconnect between developers  and aging end users.

I talked with Dr. Robert St. Amant, author of “Computing for Ordinary Mortals” about this disconnect. Dr. St. Amant  agreed to answer some questions about usability as we age:

The Broad Side:  I’m often frustrated when I get a new version of something, when a familiar aspect of the prior version  is missing or completely changed. I’m hanging on to my current operating system, terrified of the new touch screens. I’ve destroyed three tablets in two years with heavy-handedness.

Why isn’t there a greater connect between design and usability?

Dr. St. Amant:  For interactive software, design should be all about usability—but usability is hard.

We can draw an analogy between a software system and a house. Architects and engineers have years of experience building houses of different kinds. There are proven designs for almost everything you might want built into a house. But, unless you can afford to have a house designed to your specifications,   house hunting involves looking at dozens of different possibilities, in person.

You’ll probably find a reasonable house, but it won’t be perfect.You may be annoyed with a  window that would be better placed , or a room that’s not quite big enough. Even if you have designed your own house, once you move in you’ll discover things you may not like.

Designers are building complex environments for a much wider range of activities than living in a house, generalities often aren’t enough, though.  People are different. Even custom software built to a user’s own specifications will turn up problems, because users typically can’t express exactly what they need, and they discover new needs as they experiment with a new system.

Some developers don’t even recognize the importance of usability. It’s relatively easy to write a program for a set of fixed requirements, but as I’ve suggested above, such requirements are hard to pin down for interactive systems. You see this whenever you come across a tablet or smart phone app with icons that convey information perfectly well but are too small to touch with any accuracy.

The Broad Side: Many Boomers/seniors are frustrated and overwhelmed by the plethora of choices offered on devices.  Why do you think Smartphone’s makers today don’t get this disconnect?

Dr. St. Amant: I think of an analogy with movies. In part, it’s because of how the industry has evolved since the studio days, but probably more because the people who spend money on movies tend to be much younger, and they have different tastes. Smartphone makers and app developers pay most attention to the people who want what they offer, and they’re mostly younger people.

The Pew National Research Center carried out a survey of attitudes about cell phone use. In it, we see some stark differences between age groups. The Baby Boomers in the study (born between 1942 and 1956—not a perfect match, but close) are less engaged with their phones than younger people. They don’t personalize them as often with ringtones or wallpaper; they don’t talk on the phone as much during their idle time; and so forth. Perhaps more important than attitude is that Baby Boomers don’t do very much with their phones compared with younger people: text messaging, taking pictures, playing games, surfing the Web.

Certain platforms, such as the iPhone running iOS or an Android phone, will impose only very light requirements on how well an app needs to play with other apps and even with the operating system itself. For example, with my eyesight fading, I recently tried to make the icons and text on my iPhone a bit bigger. I didn’t have much luck. Apple gives me control for setting the size of text dynamically—but only for apps that support such adaptations. (Even Apple’s built-in apps don’t all support different text sizes.) As for larger icons, I was completely out of luck. I suspect that this is a visual design bias based on looks over function. Bigger icons might be ugly, even if they were easier to touch without error. (Android is apparently better on this front.)

The Broad Side:  Our numbers and usage as Baby Boomers is apparently increasing. Maybe we’ll have more clout for the designers and manufacturers. How can we as consumers get the message to the designers that some of us don’t know what the hell we’re doing?

Dr. St. Amant: I can see a few possibilities:

Proselytize. One of my Ph.D. students is blind, and he works in the area of accessibility, which is concerned with making computers usable for people with disabilities. He’s passionate about the subject, and he travels around the country giving talks whenever he can about its importance. This kind of consciousness-raising can be important, in that the average (young) software developer or designer may be unaware of the scope of the problems that older users face in using their software. It has to be hammered in.

Gather behind a thought leader. I’m imagining a knowledgeable tech person with a public platform who regularly writes about what needs to be done to make systems more usable for Boomers. This is to some extent the same point as above, but proselytizing can be diffused or focused, and I think that a few well-known people can make more noise than a lot of non-famous people. The idea would be to get someone who’s already famous interested.

Complain when things work badly. Given the distributed market of app development, this probably won’t be too effective in improving individual apps, though it might in some cases. But if enough designers and developers receive reports and feedback that their work is not up to snuff for an important and under-served market, they may start paying more attention. Some may even see an opportunity.

The Broad Side: What advice do you have for Boomers/seniors who want to at least keep up with technology changes in their own lives?

Dr. St. Amant: Talk to people who like to keep up with technology. This may sound condescending, and some might say, “You mean I have to ask my kids how to do everything?” But I think it’s the best answer, and it’s not just aimed at tech novices. Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, has written a nice essay titled “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years”, in part to counteract the notion that you can learn to program in a very short amount of time. He writes, “When asked ‘what operating system should I use, Windows, Unix, or Mac?’ my answer is usually: ‘use whatever your friends use.’”

To generalize a bit, finding other people interested in a given technology is of more lasting value than understanding the technology itself. This isn’t a new idea. One of the largest historical figures in the creation of the Internet, J.C.R. Licklider, wrote about the potential of “online communities” back in the 1960s. The human element in computing. Face-to-face communication is also an important part of dealing with technology, even if it’s just figuring out how to use it.

Dr. Robert St. Amant is the author of “Computing for Ordinary Mortals” published by Oxford University Press in 2012.  He is an associate professor at North Carolina State University.

Amy McVay Abbott is the author of “The Luxury of Daydreams” (2011) and “A Piece of Her Mind” (2013).

Published 01-23-2014 at The Broad Side.  Please comment there.

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