I would like to separate the hardware issues and the never-used-computers novice issues from the Elder issues.
Home computers have existed since the mid-1980s. A person who is 75 now, and experiencing Elder issues (not all will at 75, but as an example age) was in their early 40s, in the middle of their wage-earning years when home computers became a thing. While it was not immediate, and never reached full penetration, the vast majority of workers of that era did have to learn to work with computers. I am not talking about Luddites who never learned.
What I want to focus on is stripped-down, direct entry, customizable desktop to solve the problem of Elder issues. There is a spectrum of Elder issues. There is eyesight for sure, maybe a little physical impairment running the mouse, but the big thing that closes down computers as an option for the elderly are cognitive issues. They experience anxiety because they cannot get into their email (they forgot an important step) and cannot communicate with distant friends. They errantly claim hardware is “broken” when an unfamiliar pop-up comes up. They no longer recognize the standard (complex) dialog windows to save files or skip or overwrite, etc. When asked what the window says, they start reading verbatim or describing geometric shapes in terms an alien would use – oh you mean the “OK” or “back” button, or you figure out they are looking at a logo that is not an icon or any functional part of the interface.
Large fonts is the tip of the iceberg. Old, limited hardware is a different issue. The trick is not to create Unity that is cryptically capable of anything – graphical icons are useless without words for the Elder to read. They will forget what the graphics mean. The key is adjustable simplicity right down to the point of having a completely blank screen with only one icon on the desktop. Think more like an interface for an embedded system, a bank machine or cash register.
Right now I use as blank of a desktop as can be created with only one HTML file that leads to a list of favorite activities for the elder. I author the HTML file with customizable links. This blank desktop could have a more complex interface behind it, brought to the front by a combination of keystrokes for configuring by a care giver. It has to reduce to the point where all usage starts with clicking one of a very small number of icons and choosing one of a small list of activities. There can be no decoration around the sides, icons or options they will find confusing.
First arrival pages for social contact (email, facebook) often present “Create Account or Sign in” type screens that can be confusing to Elders. At that moment they think the most confused things like they have to create another account, that they have lost everything. They will need assistive technologies like feeding credentials into sign in pages so that they go straight to content to minimize the number of screens and interactions between turning the device on and seeing content, be it email or facebook or what have you.
Further, the Elder desktop has to have desktop remoting built into it, so that trusted others can click for them to get them to a screen. “My email is broken” is solved remotely in a few seconds. Obviously there are issues of security and levels of trust – being able to click for them to get them from Facebook to Email, assistively is entirely different from accessing and configuring the underlying interface.
This may sound to the young computer aficionado like just a trivial matter of configuration of about a dozen different things to make them all sing and dance together. It is not as simple as that, and it cannot be that fiddly or fallible or it will fail in the hands of the Elder, and be useless. One needs the system to be foolproof, built from the bottom up. Power it on, and there is no login, not start menu to navigate (unless you hit a settup key) it goes silently into the one main screen that supplies the minimal interface customized to the Elder.
If one were designing a computer interface screen for 2 year olds, it would sound more like a design challenge because we all understand the process of learning and gaining new skills. People at the peak of their technical acumen can’t remember the last time they were confused, and are not so accustomed to forgetting and loosing skills. To those who do not yet understand Elder issues, first it will be their parents, then it will be their mentors, then their peers, then it will be them.
The challenge here is, Elders who used to be able to navigate general interface computers, and simply cannot anymore and need a simple interface to maintain social contacts and digital activities. This is only going to be more of a problem in the coming years as more people who learned to operate computers at a younger age, and used them more extensively over their lifetime, start encountering Elder problems.
I think Ubuntu is an excellent platform on which to build such a direct-entry, simplified pre-configured interface that could be tailored to individual Elders. Such an interface could as easily be adapted to young children too, with more options added as children grow.