How helping my father taught me an important UX design lesson

UX design for seniors and older users

One of my early encounters with the concept of user experience, was back in the mid 90s, long before I heard the term UX design. I was trying to convince my father, an architect in his 50s then, to buy himself a mac and get into digital blueprinting. Early digital transformation right there. His office smelled like a photocopy shop, a smell I admittedly miss now. I’d be spending hours waiting for his technical blueprints to be reproduced at the copy shop next door. Stacks of rolls from old projects were gathering dust in every corner.

If he’d get a mac, I’d get the chance to use it too, I selfishly thought. Only that my father was a self-confessed technophobe and the mac, very, very expensive and exclusive at that time in our island. That was the pre Steve Jobs era and Apple was at its lowest point. I convinced him that there is no point in buying a windows machine because “the mac interface was so easy and beautiful! You’ll learn much faster”. Microsoft’s windows was by far the most popular OS for PC in the 90’s obviously.

My father did listen to me and in 1995 he bought an 8100 mac tower with 8MB of ram and 700MB of hard disk. He spent a fortune. He then got a software for architects called Claris Cad and got into learning how to put his ideas on screen. The app was already old at that point, probably from the early 90s. It took three clicks to select a tool and you must read the manual to make two parallel lines for designing walls. I had to learn it first to be able to teach the basics to my father. It was hard work but exciting as always for me. I realised how hard pro software was, very user unfriendly and you’d need to dedicate yourself to learning. User experience? Oh dear. But, it could calculate fast the area of a building, if you’d figure out how to do it.

Given the steep learning curve, the benefits against the traditional drawing were not so visible but I was convinced that this is the inevitable future. My father, a generation older than me, did not feel the same way. But, to his credit, he tried. He tried really hard. He’d spent the most part of the year learning and overcoming his fear of the machine. Eventually, he managed to learn, to an acceptable degree, how to put an accurate architectural blueprint together with the computer.

I was coming and going to his office to help. That program was so old, much more archaic than the early Photoshop I loved messing about with. It was so frustrating that after a while, I could not understand how my father learned it in the first place.

Years passed and better programs for architecture came about. But my father would stick to what he knew. Even a decade later, when his Claris would not work on his newer 2003 iMac, he refused to learn something new, until he dropped out of doing digital architectural drawings. He did use the computer to replace his Remington typewriter however and other day to day tasks and calculations. He even got into blogging and he must have been one of the few 60 year old’s who constantly blogged in our country (Greece) in the late 2000’s. But pro CAD software was too much for him. Too many features and complexity, hard UX and learning. Even Google’s amazing Sketch Up did not convince him to get back to it.

My father’s most trusted companion in learning new software was his little dog.

My father’s most trusted companion in learning new software was his little dog.

Tech was getting more intuitive fast but for him it was all new learning. Even learning something easier involved a learning or unlearning. Too frustrating for someone older.

I have been his computer “mentor” for over 20 years and I witnessed how hard it is for him to adopt to software. He would get stuck in any usability test for reasons I could never predict. At the same time, he’d learn things that amazed me, he started a weekly blog and became an early adopter of social. Through him, and other older people I’ve tried to assist, I realised that if you manage to make something work for a group over 60 year olds, you have probably created an easy to use app. Facebook excelled at that, providing smooth user experience for the older and diverse groups around the world. That’s why grandmas can use it.

That experience taught me that it’s hard to make software that is easy-to-use for the older generations and different segments of the population. Different skills and experiences should define the user experience and UX designers are unlikely to be the end-users of the app they design. Sure, we can make assumptions, use analytics and be empathetic but nothing can replace observing how people use your product.

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