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Not just older adults – everyone lost the tech user interface war

Once upon a time, a new technology user interface was just annoying.   It’s almost quaint to look back at what we complained about – though some of the famous user interface disasters are well-described in a Scientific American article – Windows 8, BMW iDrive, TV remotes.  At some point, the user gets mad. The BMW iDrive example prompted some drivers to turn around and bring the car back to the showroom.  Consider the whining from this site in 2012 about smartphones and again in 2013. But a poor UI doesn’t always guarantee poor sales. It’s quaint to read the complaint about the Apple Watch interface, which is quite annoying and 100% dependent on a smartphone app. But it may turn out to be Apple’s most popular product (30 million sold in 2019) and enjoys great popularity in 2020.  Furthermore, its fall detection validated the market transition of caregiving smart watches replacing PERS pendants.

Today, user interface obfuscation is inversely proportional to product utility.  We struggle, even the most techno-determined, to master user interfaces of products we own – like TV remotes, stoves, or smart speakers. And the novice user is no longer considered in the 'getting started with' whatever.-it-is. Too expensive to have focus groups or usability testing spanning broad age ranges?  Too time-consuming?  Too much potential for conflict with designer vision?  Or are designers are driven by a completely different goal – competing with each other – leaving the user to plow through online forums?  This is particularly disheartening when considering today’s designs for products we want all generations to be able to use.  Study the minimalist remote control for Apple TV that only a designer could love; the non-obvious ‘feature’ for texting a Google Photo (28,000 views of this single forum question).  And look at this depressing list for setting up an iPad prior to giving it to an elderly relative. Simplicity – once the firm’s motto – is now lost in translation.

We want to turn on a 'voice first' device and have it welcome – not abuse us.  Voice interfaces may be the biggest breakthrough ever for older adults, but good luck with that very first step. Match what you now own with this daunting list of Alexa devices and read the help identifying YOUR device -- or look through the comparatively brief list of Google Nest ones.  And then there’s that need to first download an app.  Okay, we deal with all this because we love to talk to our devices.  But asking us to opt out of a privacy feature (versus opt in) which shares your network with your neighbors?  Just having a company say that it has taken steps to preserve user privacy – should we believe them?  Who would know to opt out unless they are readers of tech forums?  And despite all of the noise about privacy protection, for example in Europe, users are regularly blindsided.  If you really want to have a private conversation near a listening device today, turning off the device's microphone is just a beginning.  

The truth -- we are not the tech customers -- if we ever were.  There is a frenetic feature race underway, and we can only try to keep up with what's changing or find a way to opt out. Device purchases and ads are the currency for the race, and despite half-hearted or non-attempts among governments, the winners of the race are now and will likely continue to be a tiny handful of giant companies. We know we are all hooked on the devices. And 1.5 billion users depend on Google's free email.  So we suffer their arbitrary and capricious changes and disrupting outages. Then we sigh, search the forums or download the mandatory update. And if all else fails, we restart the device, the software, the 'smart' TV -- and hope.


Is there a Digital bill of rights, especially for Agetech?

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