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Tablets and smartphones, too hard to learn, too hard to use, not just for seniors

An inquiry about an iPad opens the door – to a maze of twisty passages, all alike.  We like to bring our iPad when we visit my 90-year-old mother-in-law. We walk her out of her memory care unit to a quiet living room and my husband shows his mother beautiful images of kittens and cats. As we passed the 40-something concierge at the front desk, she asked us about whether she should get an iPad.  This woman does not own a smart phone and has no Internet service in her house -- and apparently no friends to guide her in this process. If you were asked this question and had just a bit more information about her situation, what would you say?

It was a simple question -- with an increasingly ridiculous answer.  "Well sure, you could buy one of these iPad 2 tablets like this one -- you can buy one online for $399 or even a bit less if it is refurbished." And then I contemplate what might be said: Well, if you want to get on the Internet and see these cat images or check the weather report, you could use it here at this assisted living facility, seated in exactly the right spot to use their poorly placed wireless access points. Or you could go to Starbucks or Panera and use their wireless access, but not at lunch time when it gets busy. Or you could get a plan from Verizon for your house… Okay, now we are north of $60/month, more if she get serious about actually using it at home. Did I mention that this was a concierge at the front desk of an ALF? Did I note that in Florida, the average pay for this job runs between $29K and $39K, closer to $29K in this particular location? If she does get an iPad, I sincerely hope she likes coffee.

The beauty of the cat image compels her – so let’s say she buys an iPad. I mentioned that the Verizon store nearby holds in-store workshops for getting started with various devices. And Apple stores (there is one 40 miles away) also hold classes for getting acquainted with an iPad.  Or maybe she inherits a bit of money, signs up for the phone-Internet plan from Verizon, buys a wireless router at Best Buy so that she can carry her iPad around her home, and after a few visits to Best Buy (16 miles away), decides to call the Geek Squad to come to her house and for $129.99 set up the network for her. She doesn't want her router to be one of the 25% that are returned to the store simply because they are too complicated to set up. This Generation X woman is quick and is eager to learn. Will she quickly grasp how to sign in to her new home network, lock her device when she takes it out of her home, connect it to various wireless access points, double or single tap with some or all of her fingers, depending on the task, save her bookmarks, and ultimately become a loyal and reasonably happy iPad user?

The Philips-Georgetown study captures the state of technology concerns as they are today. So let’s say the concierge was between 37 and 47, otherwise known as Generation X. Now take a look at this Philips study of technology attitudes of baby boomers and Generation X responders. Forty percent of baby boomers and Gen X (combined) think that technology is too difficult for their parents to learn to use. They are ostensibly referring to seniors aged 65+. They know that 80% of that age segment has no smart phone or tablet. From the study: "Respondents point to the fact that the time involved in learning to use a device and fixing potential problems discourages use." No kidding.

Respondents may have been talking about themselves. They are remembering their own time to learn to connect, configure, and use a new over-hyped and perhaps isolating device. They are remembering their time lost with tech support reps. They are thinking about the time it took to configure the whatever-it-is device with new settings and to obtain new network access. They are remembering the time they spent shutting down default share-all privacy settings, finding and saving links to important websites, finding and downloading apps that can, uh, simplify the experience. Whew. As for whether they could stay at home in their later years, assisted by technology, 67% of the responders would pay to make it happen. But they note that today's tech needs work: "95% of Boomers and GenXers think today's technology could be better developed to help people age in their homes and communities."  As I scan around me at a tiewrap consolidation of clusters of cables, noting all of the charging stations, computers, monitors and connection points, contemplating the graveyard of devices in drawers, I couldn't agree more.


You must be a fan of Donald Norman. If not, his 2013 revised "the design of everyday things" is an essential jewel for people who think as you do.

We know that the two biggest barriers to the "aging in place" population adopting our product are the cost of an Internet connection in the home and the cost of a tablet. I bet other aging tech companies are finding the same thing. I'm hoping that some kind of synergy develops in which communities, insurance companies, cable companies, foundations, and device manufacturers all discover that relatively small investments in these things can have a big payoff.

Many apps and other programs do not require all the power and bells & whistles of the latest iPad - something that's just very reliable and simple will do. If electronics manufacturers donated discontinued or refurbished models to local groups, they could have a tax write-off and some favorable publicity. If insurers would pay even part of the cost of an Internet connection, it may delay the move to a residential facility or higher-level care facility by months or more. Foundations and community groups could pitch in here too. Could cable companies offer a significant discount for the elderly (they could use some good publicity!).

It just seems like a logical step for public/private partnerships to develop around these kinds of cost breaks for seniors, which would not only enrich their lives but result in cost savings for the entire society as well.

Hi Laurie

Long-time reader and fan of your work, but in this case I have to disagree with you 100%.

Tablets are not hard to use.

I have trained dozens of seniors on how to use Android and iPad tablets, and while you need to be encouraging and have patience, every single one of them reached a level of proficiency where they could send email, see photos and browse the internet.

Even my 20 month son knows how to use our iPad, so it's simply not true to say that tablets are too hard to use.

That's not to say some people will need more help than others, but in my experience - including training people that had never even used a QWERTY keyboard before on any device - if you're patient and work slowly, people appreciate the benefits of technology.

I can give case studies if you like, including where we worked with a congregation of nuns:

Always keen to hear your thoughts. All the best.

Interesting post and comments.

Laurie, curious as to whether you think a service like Amazon's Mayday will be a game-changer for seniors and tablets.

This is the live help button Amazon introduced in September for Kindle Fire HDX tablets. Here is a write-up:


I would be interested to know what percentage of Kindle Fire HDX owners are seniors, and what percentage actually have used it.





Social Security On Line Registration and brutal complex passwords. What genius came up with this idea? To improve efficiency, was it? Were we all sold on the idea that we can check our information, change withholding, and use all that great info to pay our taxes! And then, for our "SECURITY" when we communicate with them about OUR money, we are now required to have "complex passwords" - must have upper case, lower case, numbers and symbols, that we type in blind! Wonderful idea - for who? Did this genius just sort of forget that most of the people receiving Social Security have memory problems, vision deficits, tremors - and the website doesn't show what we have typed in so at least we could write it down before we time out! In my case, its further complicated by the fact that I have a gorgeous and expensive computer purchased to accommodate my fading vision - love it - but like many Hewlett Packard computers, it has no led indicator that lets you know if you are in upper case or lower case! And the website won't allow you to view it before sending it. This has really been fun - there is no work around. So now, thanks to the insulated techies who created this, I guess I'll have to buy a second computer just to check whether to expect a check or not. Have talked to a few people when I could get through. They were predictably uninterested, and responded "Don't know what to tell ya." I guess from their narrow vantage point, we are dead already, and they don't care a hoot. bet they all had fun setting this up.


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