Why do “old folks” need technology explained, anyway?

For me, that’s the million dollar question. In fact, it’s the most common question asked about the topics of this blog, my book, and my attempts to reveal why older technology adopters need better assistance and technology vendors need to re-think their product designs for technology newcomers. Oh, the question certainly comes in multiple forms. Some variants are more intelligently framed than others, but the general tone is one of disbelief, as if to say, “What’s so hard about learning to use a personal computer, a DVD recorder, a digital camera, etc.?”

I first respond to doubters by asking them to, as I so often do on this blog, put on the “I know nothing hat.” Often, these questioners initially find this hat is too small. In other words, they have a hard time getting it on either because they haven’t built their hat large enough (i.e.: they just need a little help figuring out how to imagine what it’s like to not know what they know) or their head is too inflated to fit into such a hat. Since I usually can’t help the latter much, I can try to help the former by asking them to observe a child. Children, from birth, truly know nothing. They have no past associations from which to compare new experiences. If you’re a parent, you know what it is like to watch your child mentally grow. Now, I’m not saying older folks are like infants. Not at all. If anything, they’re very experienced (which can also work against them, as some of my previous posts indicate) and generally very intelligent. But there is value in watching a child to remember what it’s like to have no associations — no familiarity.

If that doesn’t bridge the gap for my questioners, but they’re still interested in understanding, it’s time to go the next step: discussing learning and explanation by association. To put it verbosely, the difficulty older folks have with understanding new technology increases the more their point of reference is distanced from the new technology by evolutionary “steps” in the progress of the technology itself. Let’s translate that mouthful to a nice illustration, using personal computers as the technology, and I’ll explain:


The yellow stair-steps show the evolution of PC technology/capability over time. (Note that the concepts tend to change/evolve faster and faster as time approaches the present, resulting in more and more “steps.”) At the birth of PCs, concepts were drawn from and related to the non-PC past. But after some evolution, they transition to being built upon, and therefore referencing, previous PC concepts. That may be a bit abstract, so let’s put this progression in context using a fairly common, albeit fabricated, scenario.

Imagine an older customer walks into an electronics store and asks about buying a PC. The salesman begins talking through the benefits of several models, these two end up having the following exchange:

Salesman: “Plus, this model can burn to DVD-R and RW Dual Layer discs.”

Customer: “I’m sorry, what is that?”

Salesman: “They’re DVD-Rs and RWs that hold twice as much.”

Customer: “Ummmm…. what’s a DVD-R or RW?”

Salesman: “DVD-R is a recordable DVD while DVD-RW can be recorded but also re-written a number of times.”

Customer: “Oh. I guess I need to know what a DVD is.”

Salesman: “A DVD is like a CD; it just holds a lot more.”

Customer: “So, what’s a CD, then?”

“Salesman: A CD is a compact disc. It’s like a phonographic record, only it’s smaller and is “played” by a laser beam rather than a needle.”

Customer: “Ahhh. I think I understand now. So, if I follow all this correctly, a DVD-RW is like a smaller, really advanced phonograph that I can record on myself and erase when I need?”

Salesman: “Yes, and Dual Layer now gives you twice as much capacity as you could get before.”

The above customer is more self-aware and confident than most would be, and the salesperson was likely more patient and understanding than many salespersons would be. (How many people know what a phonograph is these days?) But take notice of how they worked back down the steps, back through the progression of the technology, until they found a common reference that made sense of the technology.

For each stage of a technology that a prospective user is not aware of or does not understand, it creates a gap between what the user knows and what the user needs to know. The more gaps, the further from understanding the user gets. One or two gaps might be surmountable, but the faster the evolution, it becomes harder for disadvantaged users to keep in step with the technology. Once there get to be enough stages missed, the gap becomes too large, too daunting, and seldom are there adequate explanations suitable to bridging that gap.

The DVD scenario is just one example. Think about other technologies or terminology that, having evolved considerably, might no longer make sense to a brand new user. What can you name that has evolved, potentially distancing those who weren’t on-board at the beginning? How much explanation would be needed to bring them up to speed? What past reference points would you find yourself traversing in the process?

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