FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, November 19, 2004

Generation Tech (or, Why Can't Mom Make Her Computer Work?)

Ever since the dawn of personal computing in the late '70s, it's been an assumption that young people are more adept at technology than their elders. The division between the savvy youngster and the clueless older person echoes the old joke about sex education:

DAD: Son, it's time we had a talk about sex.
SON: Sure, Dad. What do you want to know?

A clever article in the current issue of Newsweek illustrates the problems both young and old folks face with today's technology. The author, Brad Stone, discusses how millions of older Americans rely on their children and grandchildren to troubleshoot their computers and other technology. Indeed, anyone under the age of 40 has surely had to come to the rescue of a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or older neighbor who had some gadget or doo-dad that was just beyond their ability to comprehend.

My first experience with this was when I was about 10, when an elderly friend of the family couldn't get reception on the TV in her apartment. I immediately found the problem; it had come disconnected from the central apartment antenna (this was way before cable). Within five minutes she was back in business... but the problem had her completely flummoxed.

The subtext of Stone's piece is the thoroughness with which the Internet has penetrated American society. No longer the domain of young geeks, the Net has become an equal opportunity platform. Hence, the issues that are beginning to ensue.

Stone argues in his article that technology shouldn't have to be so difficult, that our elders should be able to master it just as well as we can. A large part of the problem is that much technololgy is so poorly designed, without regard to the end user. Stone uses digital phones as a case in point:

[T]he headaches keep escalating as digital technology infiltrates new, once simple appliances. Take the newest digital phones. Phones used to be simple and easy to use, didn’t they? Over a year ago, I fell for a new Samsung mobile phone offered by Sprint. The phone, the i500, combined a Palm Pilot into a seemingly well-designed compact handset. It looked great, and I could carry one device around instead of two. Even today, 14 months after I bought it, the silver clamshell gadget elicits amazement from friends.

But the only thing that amazes me now is how crappy it actually is. The graffiti pad on the phone stopped working soon after I bought it. The screen frequently goes on the fritz. And the little stylus that slips into the handset appears specifically made to get lost in the seat cushions of my car. I recently checked a mobile-phone chat page on the Internet and found that lots of other users were having the same problems. We all paid way too much for a gadget whose primary function is to raise its owner’s blood pressure.

Stone is hardly alone in his feelings. A recent survey conducted on mobile phone usability by Wacom Communications found that a remarkable 85% of those surveyed felt that they were "too dumb" to use their mobile devices properly, and that only a third were taking full advantage of their devices' features!

Phones are a perfect example of what's so often wrong with technology. Our parents grew up with a very basic phone -- most likely the Bell System's Model 500, created by legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfus and considered a masterpiece of clean, functional design. The Model 500 was "the phone" from its introduction after World War II until the dawn of touch-tone dialing.

The Model 500, for its part, was an outgrowth of the equally legendary Model 302:

No one ever needed a user manual or tech support for the Model 500 phone. It just worked. Granted, it had no real "features" to speak of, but for the one function that counted -- making and receiving phone calls -- it was without equal. Same thing with our elderly friend's television, minus the disconnected antenna. She jus turned it on, selected the channel, adjusted the volume... and she was done.

So why can't today's designers get it right? Even one of today's more elegant examples of functional design, the iPod, can be vexing at times. One problem is that everyone wants to develop that "killer device" that's going to do everything, and eliminate the need for any other device. By doing that, these vendors want to be the ones to set the standards, and be everywhere, all the time. The result is increased complexity, illustrated in yet another old joke that imagines a certain well-known software company in the car business.

It's a myth that all young people are tech savvy while all older people are tech ignorant. The reason why younger people are generally more comfortable with technology, I think, is that we have to understand it in order to survive. PCs and networks are just as much a fact of life in the workplace as phones and Rolodexes were in our fathers' and grandfathers' offices. If you can't master them, you can't do your job. Our elders never had to learn about all this technology; aside from certain career paths, their lives were largely technology-free.

But those days are over... and it would benefit IT vendors to more carefully consider the products they develop. Following the example of the Model 500 phone, they should strive to:

  • Focus on one function and get it right.
  • Keep the technology "under the hood" as much as possible.
  • Make usage intuitive. Can a small child use it? Can great-grandma?
  • Don't just make it idiot-proof. Make it life-proof.

This way, Mom and Dad can enjoy their technology... and won't have to rely on their kids for tech support!