How many times do you leave your phone at home? I’m imagining not often. It’s becoming increasingly important to use digital tools like phones and computers in day to day life. But what if you’d not only grown up not having a smartphone, like I had, but had never owned a computer device until you were well into adulthood. Well, this is the situation that many people find themselves in, especially people over 70. People like my Grandparents.
David and Rosemary don’t regard themselves as being computer literate. But for people who don’t “do computers” they use it every day, especially Rosie. “I mostly use it for newspapers, puzzles, Daily challenge,” my Gran tells me (Daily challenge is a daily solitaire game). This is a huge change from even 5 years ago. When I first suggested a computer to them, they bulked at the idea. They told me it wasn’t for them and they were never going to do it. But as their stance softened, they started to see the utility in being connected and joining the ‘silver surfer’ community.
Rosie is very good at casually using her iPad, but for anything other than that, she and my Grandad’s confidence drops. David often has to pick up tasks like submitting energy readings and booking things online—things that have real-life consequences. For a while, they managed their savings online, but they have since stopped, as they didn’t get on with it. “My biggest gripe is that you follow the instructions and you think you’re doing it right,” David told me. “And then all of a sudden, something happens and it says, failure, you’ve done something wrong, and I’m afraid when you got limited knowledge of computers, it seems beyond you to put it right.”
And this is the problem with a lot of the systems that run our daily lives. They are all designed differently each with their own idiosyncrasies. This makes it hard for someone who isn’t digital native to traverse and understand these systems. My Grandparents particularly struggle with online forms. Each new page they find adds frustration and means that often they can’t complete what they wanted to do. Rosie adds, “It [managing accounts online] was just so annoying because every time you got so far everything disappears.” But my Gran understands the difference between the iPad UI and a website, “I don’t think it’s actually Apple’s fault, it [the iPad] is quite easy to use. But it’s when I’ve got to do any booking or anything like that. I find that quite daunting.”
My Grandparents have a good relationship with their iPad, certainly better than their first computer which was a Lenovo laptop. The laptop was underpowered from the start, the problem came from their budget which was £400. Windows Vista came preinstalled, so this PC had no chance as even the beefiest hardware struggled with Vista. We even tried loading Ubuntu Linux on the laptop when Vista became unbearably slow. It simplified things somewhat, as Ubuntu had changed interfaces so it had big buttons for each app, but it still never felt unnatural for them. The mouse could often be a struggle. To someone who hasn’t ever used a pointing device, the cursor and mouse combo can seem too abstract and hard to understand. This isn’t to discount my Grandad, he really tried. He even had lessons, “I went to the library and I had a couple of lessons. And, it was all right, but I’d find that once you come up against them [the problems] again, you’d forgotten. Things moved too fast.” So, undeterred, we decided to move to an iPad instead.
The iPad interface is tactile, and the touch paradigm is far easier to understand than the mouse; touch a button and it is selected, drag an item and it moves with your finger. The iPad hasn’t improved the interfaces of the websites they use, but it has made computing easier for my Grandparents.
There needs to be a concerted effort by website and app designers to cater to people who don’t have extensive knowledge of computers. This is hard, as most people who create content for computers are themselves very comfortable with computers. My opinion? Test those apps with older people before launching. It won’t just help older people, it will help anyone who can’t use a computer and this will help your audience create a better for everyone.
It often comes down to me to support my Grandparents with their tech, but I don’t mind. Whatever I can do to give them the freedoms I take for granted online. “It’s broadened my horizons.” Rosie told me, “If I want to find something, I can just print [type] it in and find out what I need.” And it’s the same with David, “It can answer any question that you want to ask. If you were trying to find the answer the traditional way it would take you a long time. I’ve got that many books, and probably get the same answer, but it would take me a long time to do that.” And, understandably, they don’t want to turn back time. It’s allowed them to do things that they couldn’t do before.
My Grandparents still wouldn’t say they are computer literate, but I want to tell you that they are. Sure, they get stuck on some simple tasks, and online forms can be a challenge for them, but the fundamentals of modern computing; surfing the internet, texting, writing emails and watching videos, now come naturally to them. I just wish it was a little easier for them to book things online and do their banking, but for those things, I’m willing to help.
“I think is a very handy thing to have,” David tells me, “I don’t think that we could do without it. It’s become a part of everyday life if you get used to it. So in that sense is
is a good thing.”
Interviews have been edited for clarity.