fantasy founder - elder interfaces

Continuing an occasional series about products and companies that I’d like to see built, or build.

Over the years, I’ve tried to teach my grandmother to use computers, dumb phones, smart phones and tablets--with no success. She will learn one or two things (command sequences) to get something done for a little while, but nothing sticks.


  • English is her 5th language (depending on how you count subcontinental languages).
  • She hasn’t had much schooling, up to 5th grade maybe.
  • But she’s sharper than most people I know, having cogent conversations about geopolitics and doing relatively complex financial math in her head.
  • Her formative years were in a developing country, traumatized by mob rule, lynchings and the like.
  • Her first personal exposure to computers was in her 40s, and her first attempt at using computers was in her 60s.
  • Recently, she had a stroke and lost some significant English comprehension circuitry.

Desktops, folders, files, that there are different kinds of files, applications, trees of objects, windows, visual controls, input controls, control contexts, focus, local vs remote, online vs offline, different affordances in different mediums, different affordances in different contexts on the same medium, contextual clues built into small variances in visual presentation, the boundaries that separate one object from another, the different kinds of boundaries presented for different kinds of objects in different mediums or contexts—are all bound to and presume a certain cultural context and assume a certain set of preexisting models of how the world is organized and works.

The cultural assumptions built into our interfaces render them incomprehensible.

How we might overcome them:

  • No files: If you didn’t grow up with computers or with desks and file folders, the metaphor doesn’t work. It doesn’t translate into the model which tells you that this thing is an object and the same form of object can have different content, etc. Better would be just apps which find and organize related content, the Apple way — stepping away from having to know how things are made and work to only needing to know what it is you want to do.
  • No exposure of the filesystem: An extension of the last point: no folders, no browsing, no object tree, no files—just actions. That’s what the machine exists for and that’s why we go to it, to do something. Tool and action are fundamental enough concepts to transcend cultural context.
  • Feedback on every action: I noticed that my grandmother would frequently do something on a computer or tablet and not know that she had done it or not believe that it had happend, especially things that are ephemeral like copying text. When you don’t have a model for how the system works, you need explicit feedback that the thing you’re trying to do was done or that you’ve done a thing, period. Strong visual, tactile and/or audio feedback for every action taken to tell you not just that you have actually done it, but that the intent has been registered by the system.
  • Larger tolerances: Because fine motor skills deteriorate with age, getting shaky fingers right on a button is an unreasonable expectation, soclose enough has to be sufficient.
  • Space between things: Corollary to the last point, what defines close enough should be consistent and big enough that it becomes intuitive (as an affordance) and feels easy. Which means sufficient space between all control elements to allow for not getting right on the button — as in, the whole grid square where the button is present is an active control.
  • No menus: Big buttons with big words and/or big icons, all the way; because glaucoma, macular degeneration, etc.
  • Less distractions: Wallpapers with objects in them or that could be confused for objects, window-dressing, flashy-visual-effects that look pretty but don’t help in navigation, orientation, or feedback create noise that makes it harder to adapt to a new environment. It’s like when you’re learning a foreign language—it’s much harder to understand what’s being said in a crowded, noisy cafe than it is in a quiet setting where you can focus on the one signal that matters instead of on trying to filter out the dozens that don’t.
  • Click or no click: The whole overloaded clicking — left, right, middle, double, triple, click+drag, blah blah blah — imposes a significant burden on the user to understand and remember all the things that can be done with a single input element. Pair that with deteriorating fine motor skills, deteriorating sight, and lack of clear feedback on whether or not an action was taken and you have a recipe for confusion. Better: there is just click, or no click.
  • Limit controls and contexts: Even when I would teach my grandmother something successful, frequently how I showed her to do something in one application would not translate at all to a different application or to a different context, like manipulating files. This is challenging in the extreme when you have no way of knowing that the context has even changed because you don’t have a mental model for the thing you’re looking at. The number of controls available in any given app should be stripped to the minimum, so there’s less to remember; the number of contexts (app vs app vs system) stripped to the minimum so there’s less to remember; and the variances between contexts (different control in different contexts) stripped to a minimum so there’s less to remember.
  • Fullscreen everything: That apps need to be opened or closed may even be an unnecessary metaphor. If every app took up the whole screen, was open all the time, and there was an ever-present mechanism to switch between them—then that’s a few more things that don’t have to be remembered. We could reduce the cognitive burden down to: which of these dozen things do I want to do right now/next -> select.

Mobile interfaces are moving in the right direction.

If I put my product hat on and make my grandmother the target user, what she really wants out of a computer comes down to a managed communications experience which empower her to:

  • Get in touch with the family and friends easily. Contacts as actions, the faces of the people she wants to contact as buttons on a screen that get in touch with them via video, phone or text. We, as relatives, need a way to remotely keep those contacts up to date via push to her device or a centralized service that propagates to her device.
  • Keep up with loved ones when we’re not talking. Facebook without the Facebook, a timeline of updates from loved ones, pictures and videos and text, shared directly to her device, in a single app, blown up full screen. A feed that any of us can push content to or that can consume and present content from things like Facebook.
  • Have important information and reminders without having to look for it. Emergency and medical information as collaborative app, pushed to the device by doctors and loved ones for consumption by all parties involved in care, including her for things like “Hey it’s 10am, take the blue pill!”.
  • Let loved ones help. Shared calendar that loved ones and caregivers can push events onto, like appointments and birthdays. Delegation of control for all apps and services so she can say to her banking app that I am designated to make sure her bills get paid. Or, so I can have an Uber pick her up to take her to the airport and have the notifications go to her device instead of mine. Or, so a caregiver cantake over her device and it’s capabilities (like the camera) and show her things on it remotely or check in on her.
  • Stay in touch with the world. News and entertainment, in one of the languages she understands, including: newspapers, streaming tv and movies, and games. The usual stuff that everyone enjoys. ☺

Why this doesn’t exist is beyond me. There’s a fortune to be made for someone with the single-mindedness to build interfaces for people who are older or didn't grow up with computers or lack our cultural metaphors or have zero exposure to computers outside of phones etc.