My 75 year old mother needed a new cell phone – she travels quite a lot within the UK and lives alone and it was time. She’s been using an ancient Nokia for years – it’s at least ten years old at this point and doesn’t keep a charge and is getting harder and harder to use. So when she brought up the idea I was happy to help her – although at a distance. She had seen an ad for the Doro phone – which is aimed at old people.
The trouble is that it seemed astonishingly expensive for what it is and for what she needs – it lists at £230 ($350) for what appears to be a 2-3 year old android phone with a simplified UI. If you purchase it with a monthly plan, it’s still really pricy since my mum uses about £10 of call and SMS credit a YEAR, and the cheapest plans were more than that per month with a 2 year commitment. Even if she were to use 3G or 4G data for checking road conditions and her single email account, I imagine she’d struggle to use £15-20 a year.
So, thinking that we could configure any smartphone to more or less work like this, I decided on my disastrous plan B. I decided to recruit my 14 year old niece who lives near my Mum to help her learn how to use a smart phone and set it up simply in the first place. I sent my sister to carphone warehouse with a budget of £50 to get a PAYG phone. My recommendations were the following:
The first three are android, the last is Windows phone. My sister chose the last because my nieces have an earlier version of the same phone, so in theory can help her out.
I say in theory, because in practice it turned out to be a complete disaster – after fielding multiple phone calls with tears and stress and upset, I told her too return the smartphone for whatever candy bar feature phone she wants and use the difference for a nice bottle or wine or two.
Why was this process so traumatic?
- My mum, although intelligent and educated and comfortable using word on a laptop and webmail in a browser (on a public library computer) could not grasp the graphical paradigm of windows tiles. She wants, expects, and needs hard keys for on/off, home, etc. Even after reading the limited instructions and getting advice from my sister and two nieces, she just could not grasp the tile and sliding concepts. The harder she tried the more confused she became, the more frustrated she was, and ultimately rejected the whole thing.
- Touch screens require fine motor control. This may be adjustable in the windows UI, but she struggled with touching accurately and quickly enough (but not too long). She did not seem to have the same issue with an iPad – but even that UI was confusing and strange to her. She likes hierarchical menus and the graphical stuff is way too busy and odd. If you look at the image of the Nokia above – the ONLY tile she wants or needs is the phone. The rest is distracting garbage to her. My niece couldn’t conceive that she wouldn’t want Facebook and twitter on the home screen, because those are like oxygen to her. To my mum, they are nothing of interest.
- My mother’s eyesight is good, but the icons and colour palettes were strange and confusing to her. She still is annoyed that a magnifying glass “means” search. To her it means “zoom in” or “make larger”. I suspect you may be able to customize icons and colour palettes, but that would require a lot more time and effort on my part – for a phone that gets used for 10-15 minutes a month.
- Many people of her generation (especially in the UK) have great fear of breaking or damaging a compeer by “doing the wrong thing”. I’m not sure if this is due to scare stories in the news or just received wisdom, but I have seen this a lot. Devices don’t come with manuals any more – you are just expected to click around and work it out. But if you think that there’s a “wrong” thing you can do that will destroy the item, you will never explore and discover. At the other extreme is the young kid who will click on everything and work it out for themselves in minutes – with no fear (or concerns) at all.
The whole experience has been trying and frustrating for all involved and I’m disappointed we couldn’t find a phone that worked for my Mum – maybe we can try Android or iOS, but I suspect many of the same issues would arise no matter what the platform. It has really made me rethink UI development from the perspective of the older, unsure user. It also made me realize that the simplicity that Doro have engineered into their UI is worthwhile (still overpriced, though, IMHO).