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Senescent UI

I’m on a mailing list for former employees of a company, and we’ve been on a track for a day talking about what computer is best for aging parents or grandparents who want to do email and some basic Web browsing. This is from the point of view of the people who are going to be doing support and sysadmin for their relatives.

For years I’ve casually tried to get various folks interested in creating an OS shell or skin specifically designed for the elderly who are unfamiliar with computers. The existing OSes do things like put icons on desktops that are then covered by windows. Yes, the Mac’s Dock helps. And obviously the elderly can learn how to use computers, just as we all have. But the hurdle is unnecessarily high for people who have never held a mouse before.

So, my questions:

1. Is there such an operating system shell or skin?

2. Is there a wiki so we can at least share our experiences providing computers and support to our elderly relatives?

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10 Responses to “Senescent UI”

  1. For my mother-in-law (age about 87 when it was purchased and 400 miles away), we decided on a Windows XP laptop because support, as you mention is an issue. We (my wife and I) are only familiar with Windows, so felt unable to support a Mac. My mother-in-law does OK with e-mail, but if there is a problem my wife tries to fix it with a phone conversation. If she can’t, the family across the street comes over and fixes it. It is usually a “simple issue” for those of us used to these things.

    A simpler system would be great and there certainly is a need for it. Are the Linux netbooks better at this? My wife has one, but I have hardly used it.

    Also, lets start planning now for my needs in 25 years with the future communication systems!!

  2. you’d think there would be a bigger market for this. I bought a mac mini for my mom and the support effort has been large. Apple used to have an interactive How To guide for users, that they seemed to get rid of.

    Now my father-in-law and wife’s step dad have both purchased PC (windows laptops) for email, etc. I spent a few hours deleting all the useless bullshit that ships on them, cleaning the desktop of everything they don’t’ need, setting up gmail accounts as browser home pages.

    I also installed TeamViewer on all the machines (except the mac, which has some bizarre issue mounting disk images that I haven’t yet resolved) for remote management which seems to work well.

  3. Operating systems, and most desktop apps, push so much “system” into our faces–one has to learn not only the OS and application interface hierarchy in general, but also how to continuously shift attention between (and, simultaneously, selectively ignore) multiple levels of options and controls. What an arduous thing to have to learn all at once!

    It mightn’t be a bad option to get a browser in full screen / kiosk mode (completely hiding the OS), and just show people a home page with links to web apps for email, etc. Just completely blot out the OS from the user, rather than try to skin it. (There’s a business idea in there for someone!)

    Also, in terms of computer basics for seniors, there is a popular book about this: “Is this Thing On?” by Abby Stokes.

    The book helps with really basic things like “what is a mouse” and “what do scroll bars do,” and goes through a bunch of practical tutorials on email, the web, etc. The companion website / blog gives you a good feeling for the book, and has good info and tutorials too: .

    (Disclosure: my company designed and built that website for Abby.)

  4. Has anyone seen/used one of those UN $100 laptops for kids? I’m guessing they have a simple interface and address only the basic functions — which is all my elderly parents could handle anyway.

    There’s another challenge. My elderly father had been an avid emailer, until he became so overwhelmed by maneuvering through the spam and popups that he gave up. What do folks think of getting some equivalent to parental control — in reverse — not to restrict, but to protect them?

  5. I have one of those “UN $100 laptops” — I think you mean the XO from One Laptop Per Child — and don’t think it’s the ticket for American old folks. As hardware it is a brilliant design but the interface has glitches and it is not set up for the big-pipe applications that have become the norm. The idea of wireless nodes reinforcing each other, though, must be incredibly powerful for kids in a third world village. I think the XO’s wil get our attention as time goes by, especially since they seem to be indestructible.

  6. The XO has a tiny keyboard and a tiny screen.

    They software is designed to enable kids to delve as deeply as they want into the guts of the machine, taking it apart, building new stuff, etc. That’s more or less the opposite of what we (age-istly, admittedly) are assuming about our elderly relatives.

  7. For my inlaws, it was all about the incentive. They now use an iMac with an iSight, so that they could see their granddaughter without having to drive six hours. Of course they were using a Mac already, but they’ve been pretty successful.

    The one thing that has been absolutely essential is to have screensharing software, so that if something gets wedged we can just look at their screen to see what’s going on. That’s baked into iChat now, but we used to use Timbuktu, which is cross platform and excellent.

  8. Web applications are a good way to go if all you need is web browsing, email, and online media. There’s no installation or upkeep, and it’s usually easy to choose large fonts. Firefox and its addins give you a lot of extra control over formatting, menus, and kiosk-type operation, and they’re OS-agnostic.

    You could even set up a boot-from-CD linux kiosk, which has the advantage of being virus and spyware resistant. Otherwise it’s essential make sure their antivirus and antispyware update automatically.

    Of course, if you need video chat then you might need to use an OS that’s compatible with the rest of the family.

    For Windows users, there’s finally a good, free, and easy remote control and file sharing system that works even over home routers: Windows Live Mesh (

  9. Universal service obligations…

    Not every elderly person with a computer has a child able to do system support, and not everybody who could benefit from that support is an elderly person – digital exclusion is a much broader and more pervasive challenge than that….

  10. So, my father is likely to never use a keyboard, he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to use a computer, so I’m having to design for him an appliance! (which should be done in time for my next visit to him in October)


    It will boot into Linux, skip the Login manager, go directly to an X Session starting a custom UI, which currently has 4 big buttons in a grid:

    “German Radio”, “Call Family”
    “View Photos”, “Watch DVD”

    * “German Radio” will lead to a menu of a few pre-defined options (he’s German and likes German music) for webradio and I hope to use GStreamer or mplayer for this)

    * “Call Family” will have a list of family members he might want to video chat, and use Telepathy or parts ripped out of Empathy to call them. Most of his kids use Windows, so they’ll have to use Google Talk for this.

    * “View Photos” will let him browse photos on his computer that we drop there over the Internet. I might change this to browse photos from PicasaWeb instead, but again, a custom UI to minimise his having to understand it all.

    * “Watch DVD” will be like German Radio but with a DVD in it. This is because his DVD player recently died, and he never could get it to do what he wanted anyway.

    It’ll be maintained remotely via SSH and VNC, so we can add new options, radio stations, contacts (if his computer-literate friends start using Google Talk), “Listen to CD” if his stereo breaks, etc.

    It’s a very specific solution (no keyboard, no typing, no e-mail), but it should succeed in bringing access to the most important benefits of the Internet to him. If you want an update as to how this project works out in October, I’ll mark it on my calendar.

Web Joho only

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