How Seniors Learn Technology

Photo of elderly couple proudly showing off their new iPadToday’s neck-snapping pace of innovation threatens to leave older members of society on the outside looking in through the twilight of their lives.
But what can we do?

That was the sentiment of Get old, tune out: Is technology leaving the elderly in the dust? I stumbled upon this article and had to comment, because I thought it missed an important point. The article was written from the perspective of a 30-year-old after assisting his 60-some-year-old father-in-law and gives you insight into how younger people view seniors.

“These older folks lack the base-line understanding that people of my age (early 30s) received,” he said, and he was right. But it has less to do with basic understanding and more to do with how older people learn and adopt technology. Product designers, especially young ones, need to understand this lesson.

My response

All product designers should see It’s a short video of a cute elderly couple trying to use their new PC and includes a link to a related article presenting the Apple iPad as a much simpler solution. Using any new technology can be daunting because of how seniors learn, and that contrasts with how young kids, or adults who grew up with tech, learn.

I noticed this 40 years ago as an IBM systems engineer shortly after the PC was introduced. We wanted to show it off to teachers and also showed it to some 3rd graders, and there’s where the stark contrast was first noticed.

Opening the demo room to about 8 teachers, we had to coax them over to the new PC, where several chairs were placed in an arc around the keyboard and display. They stood behind the chairs, reluctant to take a seat, as if that was a commitment. No one wanted the center seat. As we convinced them to sit down, some even pulled the chairs back.

Now contrast that to what happened when we let the kids in. They went immediately to the PC, sat down and pulled their chairs closer. They fought to get the middle chair or to put their paws on the keyboard, even before we told them anything about this new computer thing.

I also  learned important lessons about how generations learn by watching my 2-year-old son on the new PC that I bought. Even with an IBM employee discount, it was still about $5,000 for a “full blown” system with 4.77 MHz processor, 64 KB of memory, two floppy diskette drives, a monochrome monitor, a matrix printer, a 300 bps (bits per second – not Kbps, Mbps or Gbps) and some software. I sat him on my lap to play Early Games, with a piece of cardboard covering up most of the keyboard (all but the 10-key pad).

The game’s first lessons were designed to teach him how to recognize individual numbers, that a “3” looked like an “8” but with the loops open on the left, and that a “3” represented the number of blocks or animals on the screen. If it showed three blocks and he pressed “3”, he’d get rewarded with a chirping bird that hopped across the screen. But if he pressed “8”, he’d hear a razz-berry sound instead. Actually, he got just as much enjoyment with the razz-berry and sometimes would hit keys just for fun, to see what happened, even though he knew which ones got him rewards. He’d try the others too. No adult would ever do that.

My next major observation was watching him play the Mario Brothers game when he was about five. I noticed that kids his age had immense patience and curiosity. He’d play for an hour to get to level 4 and then miss a challenge, and his character would fall off a cliff. He’d start again, and again, working his way up to that challenge before finally mastering it and moving on to level 5. I could never do that – not enough patience. But what really blew my mind was watching how and when he’d make Mario jump – often to hit a star and earn more points, but sometimes with no visual clue. He seemed to jump at random places, but sometimes there was a hidden reward that I couldn’t see. He just discovered these hidden rewards through trial & error, since kids play that way. Adults don’t.

Adults of my generation tend to learn new products, not by trial & error, but by reading the manual. So to encourage seniors to use products and all of the features, designs should minimize the learning curve, eliminate the manual, encourage exploration, and do as much as possible automatically with no user interaction. The Apple iPad does a good job of that, but still I find that I mostly use a core set of apps and seldom explore others already installed or browse the iTunes Library searching for more that I “might” like.

3 thoughts on “How Seniors Learn Technology

  1. Wow. Nice post. I enjoyed reading, and I would like to share a fantastic iPhone game app with all of you:

    Oil Baron Black Gold is a game for iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPod touch in which users can register to set up their own virtual oil business. Oil Baron is both an entertaining and educational game on the iOS platform. Player is initially given a default amount OB Cash $500 and one oil well to start off the game. As the time progresses you’ll see your in-game cash grow on daily basis with an interesting summary of the past day.

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    1. Thanks for the nice comment, but I cannot endorse the iPhone game you mention. It was developed by Suave Solutions, a software development services company that writes software to “help clients identify, define and realize their business objectives.” This game was designed for an undisclosed client and has an unknown business objective that I expect has less to to with providing a fun gaming experience and education for seniors and more to do with softening the public’s objection to Big Oil’s political objectives, including the transcontinental pipeline and the controversial fracking technique of drilling for natural gas.

      I also don’t like the fact that users have to register, and likely provide some personal information, in order to play. Be cautious of apps like that.

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