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net.wars: Your grandmother's phone

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 September 2011


In my early 20s I had a friend who was an expert at driving cars with...let's call them quirks. If he had to turn the steering wheel 15 degrees to the right to keep the car going straight while peering between smears left by the windshield wipers and pressing just the exact right amount on the brake pedal, no problem. This is the beauty of humans: we are adaptable. That characteristic has made us the dominant species on the planet, since we can adapt to changes of habitat, food sources, climate (within reason), and cohorts. We also adapt to our tools, which is why technology designers get away with flaws like the iPhone's “death grip”. We don't like it – but we can deal with it.

At least, we can deal with it when we know what's going on. At this week's Senior Market Mobile, the image that stuck in everyone's mind came early in the day, when Cambridge researchers Ian Hosking and Mike Bradley played a video clip of a 78-year-old woman trying to figure out how to get past an iPad's locked screen. Was it her fault that it seemed logical to her to hold it in one hand while jabbing at it in frustration? As Donald Norman wrote 20 years ago, for an interface to be intuitive it has to match the user's mental model of how it works.

Wendy M Grossman

That 78-year-old's difficulties, when compared with the glowing story of the 100-year-old who bonded instantly with her iPad, make another point: age is only one aspect of a person's existence – and one whose relevance they may reject. If you're having trouble reading small type or remembering the menu layout, pushing the buttons, or hearing a phone call what matters isn't that you're old but that you have vision impairment, cognitive difficulties, less dextrous fingers, or hearing loss. You don't have to be old to have any of those things – and not all old people have them.

For those reasons, the design decisions intended to aid seniors – who, my God, are defined as anyone over 55! - aid many other people too. All of these points were made with clarity by Mark Beasley, whose company specializes in marketing to seniors – you know, people who, unlike predominantly 30-something designers and marketers, don't think they're old and who resent being lumped together with a load of others with very different needs on the basis of age. And who think it's not uncool to be over 50. (How ironic, considering that when the Baby Boomers were 18 they minted the slogan, “Never trust anyone over 30.”)

Besides physical attributes and capabilities, cultural aspects matter more in a target audience's than their age per se. We who learned to type on manual typewriters bash keyboards a lot harder than those who grew up with computers. Those who grew up with the phone grudgingly sited in the hallway, using it only for the briefest of conversations are less likely to be geared toward settling in for a long, loud intimate conversation on a public street.

Last year at this event, Mobile Industry Review editor Ewan McLeod lambasted the industry because even the iPhone did not effectively serve his parents' greatest need: an easy way to receive and enjoy pictures of their grandkids. This year, Stuart Arnott showed off a partial answer, Mindings, a free app for Android tablets that turns them into smart display frames. You can send them pictures or text messages or, in Arnott's example, a reminder to take medication that, when acknowledged by a touch goes on to display the picture or message the owner really wants to see.

Another project in progress, Threedom is an attempt to create an Android design with only three buttons that uses big icons and type to provide all the same functionality but very simply.

The problem with all of this – which Arnott seems to have grasped with Mindings – is that so much of these discussions focus on the mobile phone as a device in isolation. But that's not really learning the lesson of the iPod/iPhone/iPad, which is that what matters is the ecology surrounding the device. It is true that a proportion of today's elderly do not use computers or understand why they suddenly need a mobile phone. But tomorrow's elderly will be radically different. Depending on class and profession, people who are 60 now are likely to have spent many years of his working life using computers and mobile phones. When they reach 86, what will dictate their choice of phone will be only partly whatever impairments age may bring. A much bigger issue is going to be the legacy and other systems that the phone has to work with: implantable electronic medical devices, smart electrical meters, ancient software in use because it's familiar (and has too much data locked inside it), maybe even that smart house they keep telling us we're going to have one of these days. Those phones are going to have to do a lot more than just make it easy to call your son.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).